Why did Russia decide to support Trump?


Andreas Heinemann-Grüder

To person

PD Dr. Andreas Heinemann-Grüder is head of the Academy for Conflict Transformation in the ForumZFD and private lecturer at the University of Bonn. His research interests include: peace and conflict studies, the political system of Russia, comparative federalism, political regimes in Central Asia.

Relations between Russia and the USA are shaped by the legacy of the Cold War, which has never been completely overcome, the military competition for great powers, the competition for regional spheres of influence, contradicting political models and mutually reinforcing disregard for international law.

The flags of the USA and Russia lie on top of one another. (& copy picture alliance / dpa-Zentralbild)

More than a quarter of a century after the end of the East-West conflict, relations between Russia and the USA are characterized by ongoing great power competition. In particular, since the war in Georgia (2008), the war in Ukraine (from 2014), the Russian military intervention in Syria (from 2015) and meddling in the US presidential election (2016), relations have deteriorated to a level that some observers of the cold have seen War remembered. In the US National Security Strategy of 2017, Russia (alongside China) is described as a strategic rival, while the Russian Security Strategy of 2015 characterizes the US and its allies, NATO and the EU, as a threat to Russia for the first time.

Contrary interpretations

In the USA and Russia, interpretations of mutual relationship that come from the school of neo-realism dominate. According to the offensive reading of neo-realism, Russia is striving for the expansion of power, for the expansion of its spheres of influence, the restoration of past greatness; it follows an imperial self-image and is therefore looking to revise the post-Soviet loss of power. According to this view, Russia's politics are determined by its imperial history, geography (largest state in the world), its status as a nuclear power and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Due to its military power, its natural resources and its presence as the successor state of the Soviet Union, Russia occupies a dominant position in the post-Soviet space.

If one follows the offensive neo-realism, then the military behavior of Russia in Ukraine (since 2014) and in Syria (since 2015) is the culmination of a rivalry that results from the growing resistance against a US-dominated system, from the integration competition between the EU and Russia and from the end of arms control. The offensive interpretations agree that Russia is not a status quo power, but rather expansionist and not interested in possible gains from cooperation. The political regime in Russia is taking advantage of the lack of an effective EU foreign and security policy, the divisions between the EU and the USA and NATO's unwillingness to make security commitments beyond its own members. The regime under President Putin is pursuing imperial politics in order to rule the former Soviet Union politically, economically and militarily. Russia's foreign policy is therefore part of an expansive tsarist or Soviet tradition.

Defensive interpretation

If one follows the defensive interpretation, then Russia reacts to a previous expansion of the West, i.e. the expansion of NATO, the EU, the non-acceptance of Russian security interests and spheres of influence and the unwillingness of the EU to coordinate its policy of association with Russia. President Putin is only imitating the example of Western disregard for international law in the overthrow of unpleasant incumbents. The Ukraine conflict is therefore an expression of a geopolitical dispute that was initiated by the West and forced as a result of the "unipolar moment" after the end of the East-West confrontation. Putin would have had little choice but to respond to Western disregard. The fundamental mistake was made by the West because it viewed Russia only as an object of its "geopolitics".

From the defensive point of view, Russia's turn to aggressive external behavior could have been prevented. If the West had not expanded NATO, waged the wars in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, had not supported the opposition in Syria and instead respected Russia's "legitimate spheres of interest", the allegation, then the confrontation would have been avoidable. The West is to blame for Russia's abandonment of cooperation. The defensive view largely coincides with that of Russia's foreign policy elites. The USA, as the winner of the Cold War, overruled international law and the "checks and balances" of the international order; it would have intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria in order to achieve a change of military regime, but the result was the collapse of the state and get international terrorism. Contrary to Putin's early commitment to cooperation with the US - also against internal opponents - unilateral decisions by the US would have resulted in cumulative disappointment in Russia. From this point of view, a line runs from the termination of the ABM treaty (anti-ballistic missiles) by US President Bush (2001) via the Iraq war (2003) and the second round of NATO expansion (2004) to the non- Ratification of the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) up to the promotion of "colored revolutions" in the post-Soviet space (e.g. Orange Revolution 2004 in Ukraine, Tulip Revolution 2005 in Kyrgyzstan), the military regime change in Libya (2011) and the military support of the Opposition to President Assad in Syria (since 2015) and, most recently, the withdrawal from the INF Treaty by American President Donald Trump in early 2019.

Historical review

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union have been characterized by opposition since the October Revolution, as the United States participated in the Allied intervention against Bolshevik Russia from 1918 onwards. The opposition was only interrupted by the anti-Hitler coalition, which was replaced by the so-called Cold War just a few years after World War II.

The arms competition and the likelihood of a military clash between the USA and the Soviet Union were in the 1970s and 1980s through a series of arms control treaties (ABM = Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, START = Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, INF = Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and START = Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). On December 3, 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George Bush declared the Cold War over.

Under US President Clinton (1993-2001) and Russian President Yeltsin, relations grew closer and the US supported the transition to a market economy. However, relations soon suffered as a result of the preparation (from 1994) of the first NATO expansion, due to the war of the Russian government against the republic of Chechnya (1994-1996) and the Kosovo war of 1999, which the USA waged without a mandate from the UN Security Council. Relations between President Putin (from 2000) and US President George W. Bush (2000-2009) deteriorated noticeably because the Russian leadership was suspicious of a US policy in favor of regime change in the post-Soviet space (Rose Revolution 2003 in Georgia, Orange 2004 revolution in Ukraine, 2005 tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan). While President Putin promised the USA support in the fight against international terrorism after the attacks of September 11, 2001, relations deteriorated particularly as a result of the illegal war of the US-led coalition against Iraq (2003).

In 2002 the US announced plans to deploy missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. In 2008 it was decided to install an American anti-missile defense system in Poland. These plans were discarded. After the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, it was decided to install missile defense systems in Redzikowo, Poland (to be commissioned in 2020) and Deveselu in Romania (commissioned in 2016). Russia does not regard the stationing of missiles in Central and Eastern European countries as a defense against possible attacks from North Korea or Iran, but as a threat to its own second strike capacity, i.e. the ability to react to a nuclear attack with a second strike.

Upgrade and regional conflicts

A permanent conflict between Russia and the US developed against the backdrop of relations with Iran, as Russia promoted the development of nuclear power plants there, while the US and Israel feared the construction of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Against the background of Ukraine's possible NATO membership, the Russian President declared in 2008 that Russia could direct its missiles against Ukraine. The Russian President Medvedev (2008-2012) also announced in November 2008 that Iskander short-range missiles would be stationed in the Kaliningrad area, right on the Polish border.

After the Georgian war (August 2008) marked a low point, President Obama and President Medvedev declared a new beginning from 2009. Both sides appealed to Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. In April 2010, the US under President Obama and Russia under President Medvedev agreed to reduce their long-range nuclear missiles to 1,500 each. Against the background of the demonstrations and protests surrounding the 2011 Duma election and the 2012 presidential election, Prime Minister Putin, who ran again as a presidential candidate, accused the US of meddling.

Dramatic deterioration from 2012

From the re-election of President Putin for his third term (2012-2018), relations deteriorated noticeably, as Russia reserved the right to a first strike against missile sites in Central Eastern Europe and entered US airspace with strategic bombers, according to US allegations that the treaty was over Medium-range weapons injured in 1987 and ICBMs developed that could evade US missile defense. In 2013, Russia granted asylum to the US whistleblower Edward Snowden. The growing tensions in the Russian-American relationship culminated during the Ukraine conflict, when Russia annexed Crimea and the USA subsequently obtained Russia's exclusion from the G-8 forum and imposed sanctions on Russia. From September 2015, Russia also intervened in favor of Syrian President Assad and against rebel groups supported by the USA. Russia and the US began waging a kind of proxy war on Syrian territory. Russia violated international martial law with heavy air strikes on cities like Aleppo, which resulted in sharp criticism from the United States in the UN Security Council.

Media war and cyber attacks

During the US presidential election campaign in 2016, US security services accused the Russian government of using cyber attacks and targeted information breach to influence Donald Trump. Although Donald Trump denied improper contacts, US security agencies investigated the links between Trump's campaign team and Russian politicians. The CIA in particular considered it highly likely that Russia had interfered in the American election campaign. Russia responded to the expulsion of Russian diplomats during the outgoing Obama administration by expelling several hundred US diplomats. Mutual hopes that relations would normalize under President Trump soon gave way to disillusionment. In March 2017, the US imposed sanctions on Russian companies for allegedly promoting the dissemination of knowledge about building nuclear weapons.

Against the background of the US sanctions due to the Ukraine conflict and the direct opposition of the warring parties in Syria, relations reached a low point from 2017, which reminded of extremely tense times during the Cold War. In February 2018, the US launched an air raid on pro-government forces in eastern Syria, allegedly killing several dozen Russian citizens who worked for a Russian military company. In response to the March 2018 poison attack on former Russian agent Skripal in the UK, President Trump ordered the deportation of 60 Russian diplomats and consular officers in Seattle.

Both countries try to influence the public through state-sponsored media - Russia through stations like RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News, the USA through Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe. The image of the USA in Russia is predominantly negative.In January 2015, the independent opinion research institute Levada-Zentrum carried out a survey, according to which 81 percent of Russians had a negative image of the USA (for comparison: in 1990 only 7 percent of the Soviet citizens surveyed had one expressed negative attitudes towards the USA). In 2015, 49 percent of Americans surveyed also considered Russia a military threat. However, the mutual assessments are strongly influenced by current developments, because a survey from 2017 (Pew Research Center) showed that 41 percent of Russians had a positive image of the USA and 53 percent of Russians trust President Trump.

In summary, one can say that the relations between Russia and the USA are largely shaped by five determining factors: the legacy of the Cold War, which has never been completely overcome, the military great power competition, the competition for regional spheres of influence, contradicting political models (systemic competition) and a mutually reinforcing one Disregard of international law.


  • Robert H. Donaldson; Joseph L. Nogee; Vidya Nadkarni: The Foreign Policy of Russia. Changing Systems, Enduring Interests, Armonk, London 2014.
  • Jeffrey Mankoff: Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2011.