Kalb Report: A Quartet of Experts Foresee a Bleak Future for U.S.-Russia Relations

Try as he might, moderator Marvin Kalb could not get any one of his four guests on the “Kalb Report” April 16 to give an optimistic prediction for the future of U.S. relations with Russia. Each said relations will get worse.

With President Trump in the crosshairs of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and with American and Russian interests increasingly at odds in wars hot and cold, Kalb’s panelists questioned whether the situation can turn around.

Russia’s declining fortunes, a political climate in which the distinction between truth and falsehood is increasingly blurred and the vagaries of the Trump White House are at the heart of the matter, panelists said.

In the early days of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, he easily maintained power through the economic growth that the then skyrocketing price of oil brought to Russia. But, by 2015, economic sanctions imposed by the West and declining oil prices had Russia’s economy in a tailspin. And even now, as the per-barrel price of oil is on the rise, the Russian economy is in shambles.

Putin’s dilemma is that his regime will continue to preside over a bleak economy unless he undertakes wide-ranging reforms, said Leon Aron, a Russia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But, Aron added, Putin can’t institute reforms to confront racketeering and corruption in the Russian bureaucracy without endangering his regime.

“He has shifted the basis of his regime’s legitimacy and his personal popularity from wealth management to defender of the country, the restorer of the glory of the Soviet Union,” Aron said. That strategy requires constant conflict with the West so that Putin can portray himself as a “war president,” and the “savior of the nation.”

To that end, Russia’s leader has maintained constant cyber warfare with the West in an attempt to undermine democracy by eroding the confidence Western citizens have in their government institutions, said retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, who is now president of the Brookings Institution.

“It’s difficult to defend against that,” he said. “It [cyber warfare] has compromised people’s ability to trust their government, trust truth and to trust their electoral processes.  That is a strategic outcome where he [Putin] didn’t have to fire a shot.”

Regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, New York Times White House Bureau Chief Peter Baker said the evidence suggests that Putin’s original goal was disrupting U.S. election processes. His aims morphed into exacting revenge against Hillary Clinton, whom Putin blamed for fomenting street revolts in Russia after he came back to power. At some point, seeing the possibility that Clinton’s opponent could be elected, Putin shifted his focus to openly supporting Trump, Baker said.

Describing the president as “a force of nature,” Baker said that trying to keep up with happenings in the administration—as well as ongoing investigations into the activities of Trump campaign staff, White House personnel, and Russia’s interference in election 2016—has required the Times’ Washington bureau to increase staff size to 107 people, up from 70 when Trump took office.

“I wake up now, I have no clue what I’m going to be writing about by the end of the day,” he said, “and it may be something I never would have imagined would be the subject of a story.”

Seconding Baker’s point about the “craziness” of the news cycle, Mary Louise Kelly, host of National Public Radio’s (NPR) “All Things Considered,” said that NPR used to scale down its staffing on the weekends. “That’s now changed when the president gets up and Tweets before his golf game and changes the world’s agenda for the day on a Saturday morning.”

Such capriciousness makes it particularly challenging to know where to seek that second source to get a story confirmed, Kelly added. “You could get the president himself confirming your story and six hours later have the rug pulled out from under you.”

View the program in its entirety on the National Press Club webpage.

About the Kalb Report
Completing its 24th season with this program, The Kalb Report is a joint project of the National Press Club Journalism Institute, University of Maryland University College, The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The Kalb Report is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.