As the political theater surrounding the United States and Russia builds once again, now is as good a time as any to step back from the daily drama and make sense of the dynamics and characters at play. Though Russia is exceptionally good at crafting its foreign policy and positioning itself in multiple conflicts to better bargain with the United States, its efforts have yet to produce any tangible results. In fact, Russia's active reinforcement of the perception that the United States is weak and distracted has only spurred a natural rebalancing of power between the executive and legislative branches, just as the framers of the U.S. Constitution intended.
Syria: The Land of Opportunity and Constraint
The most recent act of the unfolding drama began about a month ago on the crowded Syrian battlefield. Loyalists were busy trying to blaze a path from their western strongholds to the Iraqi border in the east, an endeavor Iran supported in hopes of realizing its own strategic goal of creating a land bridge between Tehran and the Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile, the United States was attempting to forge ahead with its fight against the Islamic State in Raqqa, as Russia searched for an opportunity to use its central role on the Syrian stage to bring about a crisis in order to re-engage Washington in negotiation. The scene was set for a head-on collision.
And it came on June 18 when the United States, already irritated by loyalist attacks against its rebel allies near the strategic town of Tabqa, shot down its first Syrian Su-22 warplane targeting rebels in the area. The bold move sent a clear message: Washington would not tolerate any attempt to interfere with the Raqqa offensive. Russia quickly seized on the opportunity, condemning the shootdown the following day, suspending deconfliction channels with the United States and threatening to strike U.S. coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates River. (Moscow had sung a similar tune in early April on the heels of a showy U.S. strike on a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack by the loyalists.)
Washington scrambled to insulate its forces in Syria as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson led the charge to mend ties with Russia. But the White House's need to show its European partners that it did not intend to take a softer stance on Ukraine complicated matters. At the time, U.S. President Donald Trump was hosting his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Washington before making a special trip to Poland to reassure Eastern Europe that he would not strike a grand bargain with Moscow.
Nevertheless, the United States and Russia found room to cooperate. At Trump's first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two leaders not only agreed to implement a cease-fire in southwestern Syria but also proposed broader opportunities for collaboration, including the formation of a joint cybersecurity unit.
Of course, plenty of problems came with this new show of friendship between the United States and Russia. Even if Moscow proved capable of holding back its Iranian and Syrian partners in the race to the Iraqi border — which repeated cease-fire violations and Iran's rejection of the deal certainly call into question — it wasn't clear whether the Kremlin actually could be trusted to uphold its end of the bargain. Moreover, the irony of the Trump administration working with Moscow in cybersecurity amid allegations of Russian interference in last year's U.S. election was not lost on the American public, and the president eventually retracted the idea in a tweet. (If anything, Russia will rely more heavily on cyberwarfare and the ambiguity it affords to compete with its adversaries as its own structural weaknesses worsen in the coming years.)
Still, from Russia's point of view, it had given the United States a carrot — the offer of cooperation in Syria — and it expected something in return, and fast. So the Kremlin began lambasting the White House for failing to deliver a particularly low-hanging fruit: the return of Russian diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland that the U.S. government had seized during the final weeks of President Barack Obama's administration in response to Russian election meddling. (Moscow is suspected of using the compounds to collect intelligence against sensitive U.S. targets.)
Amid Russia's vocal demands that the United States return the compounds or face retaliation in kind, the news cycle continued to center on a bizarre cast of characters, from Donald Trump Jr. to a former Soviet counterintelligence officer who attended a meeting in Trump Tower during the presidential campaign to discuss the potential transfer of damaging information about Hillary Clinton "as part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." The optics did not look good for the White House, to say the least. The administration had made another attempt to heal relations with Russia, had struck a flimsy Syrian cease-fire already fraught with violations, had become mired in another scandal tracing back to Russian election meddling, and had to deal with a pushy Putin demanding concessions with little regard for the blowback building against the U.S. president.
Building Up Russia's Foreign Policy Reserve
From Putin's perspective, however, this was a White House too politically befuddled and strategically hamstrung to make worthwhile concessions, such as lifting the most damaging sanctions against Russia or pulling back NATO's presence on its doorstep. So, for the time being, he might as well add to the turmoil consuming Washington by reinforcing the perception that the White House was being led by a weak and impressionable president, all while positioning Russia in other arenas in which the United States faced budding crises. Moscow followed a similar strategy when it reinforced its relationship with Tehran during Iran's standoff with the United States over its nuclear program and when it entrenched itself in the Syrian civil war as Washington focused on combating the Islamic State. By presenting itself as part of the solution to the United States' thorniest foreign policy problems, Russia hoped to use its position to steer Washington toward meaningful concessions.
In the months ahead, North Korea and Venezuela will bear watching for signs of Russia's strategy at work once more. As it did during the Cold War, and as China is still doing today, Russia is trying to use North Korea as a buffer between itself and U.S.-backed South Korea. Pyongyang looks to Moscow for food imports, fuel and coal exports, employment for migrant workers, and critical infrastructure development. Though Russia boasts far less economic influence over North Korea than China does, it is gathering just enough leverage there to ensure that the United States must factor in Moscow's cooperation — or obstruction — while shaping its policies toward Pyongyang. Washington will thus have to face off against both Beijing and Moscow as it works to exhaust its economic and diplomatic options against Pyongyang in the U.N. Security Council, all while carefully studying the consequences of taking military action against North Korea without the buy-in of the region's biggest players.
Meanwhile, in the United States' own backyard, Russia has placed itself at the center of a raucous power struggle in Venezuela. In part, Moscow hopes to protect its energy investments in the country while using the political crisis to obtain additional mineral concessions. But by quietly negotiating an asylum deal for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, staying close to Cuba and forging strong ties with key figures like Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Russia is also ensuring that any emergency exit from the crisis is buoyed by a Russian-made life jacket. And given Venezuela's location particularly close to home, the United States has little choice but to consider Russia's role in any solution it formulates to contain the fallout from Caracas' troubles in Washington's Caribbean sphere of influence.
Congress, the President and U.S. Foreign Policy
In many ways, Moscow stands to benefit from Washington's distractions and from its own involvement in global conflicts. But those gains won't come without a price. Though the White House maintains its desire for a friendly relationship with the Kremlin — in spite of a scandal-ridden campaign trail and little Russian will to make the kinds of strategic concessions needed to justify warmer relations — an emboldened U.S. Congress is working to insulate the country's democratic institutions, protect its foreign alliances and keep Russian ambitions in check.
The centerpiece of lawmakers' efforts is a piece of Senate legislation, currently mired in the House of Representatives, that could greatly reduce the president's authority in direct dealings with Russia. As drafted, the bill requires the White House to notify Congress of any intent to ease sanctions against Russia and sets forth a timeline for lawmakers to approve or reject such action. It also codifies into law five of Obama's executive orders levying sanctions against Russia for its activities in Ukraine and the U.S. election, thereby preventing Trump from lifting them through his own executive order. The scope of the sanctions, moreover, is expanded to include the rail and mining sectors while threatening to slap punitive measures against any firm participating in energy projects involving Russia. (The last point, likely to be amended, has already caused an uproar among U.S. energy companies and European leaders who don't want sanctions to interfere with large projects already underway, leaving room for foreign competitors to swoop in.) By draining the ink from the executive's pen, the bill — if passed and upheld against a potential presidential veto with a two-thirds majority — would mean that even soothing "irritants" in the U.S.-Russia relationship, such as the diplomatic compounds issue, would be subject to legislative review.
The ebb and flow of the intragovernmental tussle over U.S. foreign policy is shaped in large part by the makeup of the government and the geopolitical climate of the day. The Founding Fathers designed the U.S. Constitution to give the president ample foreign policy power as commander-in-chief, along with the ability to negotiate treaties and appoint diplomats. At the same time, Congress holds the power of the purse, as well as the authority to declare war, approve treaties and presidential appointments, and maintain oversight of the administration. U.S. history is replete with examples of Congress inserting itself into foreign affairs, from the Senate's infamous rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the passage of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, requiring the president to consult with lawmakers before sending troops to war and end military action if Congress refuses to declare war or authorize the use of force.
The flexible definition of these powers creates a healthy tension between the legislative and executive branches. For example, the president can avoid formal treaties — and by extension, the need for the Senate's approval — by signing international agreements through executive order instead. For instance, both the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran's nuclear program were executive agreements, not formal treaties. Worried that the Obama administration would yield too much ground in its talks with Iran, Congress took steps to codify into law sanctions implemented by executive action, erecting more legal barriers to lifting them. For this reason, Obama was unable to repeal sanctions against Iran when the JCPOA was signed in 2015; rather, he signed an executive order supported by the president's national security waiver to simply stop enforcing existing legislative measures against Iran. As a result, the deal was struck, and the potential for a military confrontation with Tehran was dramatically reduced. The tradeoff, however, was that the use of executive action made the deal more vulnerable to the actions of future presidents, who have the power to decide whether to keep the agreement in place.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican who played a role in expanding congressional oversight over Washington's Iran policies, has said point-blank that "it's been my goal as a chairman just to bring back [Congress'] equivalent status to the executive branch." He has cited the Senate bill on Russia as yet another way of doing that. Unsurprisingly, Corker's sentiment has deepened the sense of unease in the White House, which prefers to retain its executive privilege in shaping the United States' relationship with Russia. With Moscow embedded in several conflict zones central to Washington's interests, the administration argues, the White House needs the flexibility to negotiate with the Kremlin without Congress' interference.
Of course, this is an argument to be expected of any U.S. presidency. Bold foreign policy moves, after all, are often essential to protecting the nation's interests, and being hampered by a large, unwieldy legislature answerable to local constituencies doesn't necessarily allow for that kind of agile policymaking abroad during periods of such geopolitical complexity. But the Trump administration's unique and multifarious relationship with Russia is diluting this executive appeal. And regardless of the president's policy preference, many of Moscow's demands are fundamentally at odds with Washington's imperative to keep Russian ambitions in check and to maintain the alliance structure that emerged from World War II. The Kremlin can do much to disrupt the seat of U.S. power in Washington. But it cannot break the system of checks and balances so cleverly institutionalized by America's founding fathers.