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Unprecedented, unpredictable road ahead for US-Russia relations

Two recent developments suggest that a new era of U.S.-Russia relations is already underway: The first is the emergence of Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a frontrunner for secretary of state in Donald Trump’s administration. The second is the president-elect’s refusal to accept  U.S. intelligence assessments that conclude Russia interfered in the election on his behalf.

We asked Matthews Distinguished University Professor Harlow Robinson, an expert in Russian history and culture, to discuss the state of the two superpowers’ relationship and where it may be headed under a Trump administration. Here are four takeaways.

Americanism vs. nationalism

Robinson, who led a Dialogue of Civilizations program through the Baltic states and Russia this past summer, said there is a disconnect between the attitude of the Russian people and the Russian government.

“The really strange thing is when you go to Russia these days, you see Americanism everywhere—American fast food on every corner, American pop music wherever you go, and American movies and TV shows playing on everyone’s screens,” he said.

“There’s such a weird disconnect going on now because in many ways Russia is more open to western influence than it has been in its entire history,” Robinson said. “But the rhetoric of the Russian government is nationalistic and anti-American.”

If (Trump) does follow through, though, then we’re headed into a very strange era. This would be absolutely different from anything we’ve thought about before, and would be seemingly at odds with how Russia is behaving in the rest of the world.
—Matthews Distinguished University Professor Harlow Robinson

How this dichotomy may or may not change under a Trump administration is still anyone’s guess, Robinson said. “What’s going to happen under Trump is just a very open question at this point,” he said. “We just don’t know enough yet.”

Posturing or policy?

Trump spoke fondly about Putin throughout the election and many of the people who either worked on his campaign or are poised to join his administration have ties to Putin and Russian operatives. But whether this translates into Trump policies that are more favorable to Russia is hard to tell at this point, Robinson said.

“Trump is difficult to predict, and he can change. He was going to prosecute Hillary Clinton, and now he’s not. He’s made a lot of other promises while campaigning that he also hasn’t followed through with,” Robinson said. “So how much of this admiration of Putin is just posturing before he takes office we just don’t know.

“If he does follow through, though, then we’re headed into a very strange era,” he added. “This would be absolutely different from anything we’ve thought about before, and would be seemingly at odds with how Russia is behaving in the rest of the world.”


Last week it was revealed that American intelligence agencies determined with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly during the election process to damage Clinton’s campaign while promoting Trump’s.

But in the days since the announcement, Trump has questioned the legitimacy of the CIA’s findings—a stance that puts Trump and his team at odds with the national security establishment and even some fellow Republicans.

Robinson said he found the situation “troubling” and described the use of cyberattacks as unprecedented in the history of the two nations.

“I have no reason to doubt the CIA; I’ve been reading about these potential hacks for a long time,” he said. “I find it personally troubling that Trump’s people are undermining the CIA, and pushing this idea that it’s a conspiracy against Trump. It’s troubling when you have the president-elect questioning whether the CIA is providing facts.”

Although espionage is nothing new, he said, this particular kind of cyberwarfare has never been seen before.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything exactly like this; cyberwarfare is a whole new thing,” he said. “While there’s always been spying on both sides, it has historically been very focused at the highest levels. This is a new kind of spying, with tools that are much more sophisticated. Here you have the ability to affect thousands of people, to affect public opinion. Though they’ve certainly tried, before now the Soviets have not been able to affect public opinion.”

Rex Tillerson

Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO who has built a relationship with Putin, is considered the leading candidate for secretary of state in Trump’s administration,  an appointment that would likely please Russian oligarchs, Robinson said.

“For them, this is great news because here you have this guy who’s been working in Russia for years, and he clearly has an interest in having a good working relationship with Russia,” he said. “Those in economic power would be very happy about this.”

This appointment, too, lacks precedence in American politics, Robinson said. “You have a candidate for secretary of state who has deep commercial interests in Russia. These just aren’t things we’ve seen before,” he said.

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