MOSCOW — There won't be any reset button for relations with Russia: We either get along or we don't. Moscow should not have "hacked" into U.S. servers, as Donald Trump has now acknowledged that pro-Kremlin hackers were most likely responsible for the cyber attacks. We can now analyze the "Russian components" of statements last week by both the president-elect and his nominee for secretary of state, the former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson responded to questions about Russia as if he were setting the stage for Donald Trump’s words on the subject, in his subsequent Jan. 11 press conference. Tillerson offered a harsh assessment of Moscow’s actions in Crimea, Syria and Ukraine. Russia poses a risk, he said. Still, the nominee to be America's top diplomat offered a leitmotif that is essentially the same as Trump’s: No matter how bad Russians may be, it is imperative that we talk to one another. Otherwise the situation just gets worse. Besides, it is very unclear how the relationship will evolve. It's also possible that it won't.
Moscow has reacted as it typically does, saying that this was all rhetoric intended for a domestic U.S. audience, and that Trump and Tillerson cannot underestimate the importance of timing, or the fact that the relationship with Russia is currently at a low point. They must conform, in other words, to the public mood. And no one was exactly expecting significant signs of improvement after the arrival of a new man in the White House. Things can't get any worse, according to the Moscow establishment. But they could, perhaps, get better. There may be room for hope.
But it is worth noting that Russia has become a main theme in the U.S. Even as Donald Trump tried to talk about social policy and the workplace, he still was forced to return to Putin and his relationship with him. This may, in part, be a sign of success of the Kremlin’s politics. It could also be argued, of course, that all this publicity is unnecessary, and after all these statements, it is hard to believe that Trump is in any hurry to revoke anti-Russian sanctions.
It is also more than likely that we should forget about Washington's recognition of Russian Crimea, even if Tillerson did agree that the sanctions against Moscow affected the interests of both the U.S. and Europe.
What Trump and Tillerson offer is precisely this same pragmatic approach Russians like to tout: Don’t try to save the world, like Obama; instead think about your own interests. It is possible that we will soon see a new series of bilateral negotiations that will take a different tone and be closer to a typical business relationship than to demagoguery. And in this case, Moscow will inevitably have to compromise if it wants to make it work.
Finally, it is possible that in such a context, the Kremlin could take some steps forward at home as well. Maybe somewhere, somehow, something will soften in the hope that Russia can avoid yet another international sanction.