The vaudeville and at times burlesque spectacle that has dominated U.S. politics for over two years now reached a pivotal climax last week, when special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on alleged collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia to the Justice Department. The culmination of an investigation that dates back to the early months of Trump’s presidency, Mueller’s report—according to the summary of it released by Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, Robert Barr—failed to establish evidence of coordination on Russia’s efforts to influence the election. Mueller also refrained from reaching a conclusion on whether or not evidence that Trump sought to obstruct his investigation supported an indictment. 

Predictably, Trump’s supporters claimed the Mueller report totally vindicated the president and confirmed his characterizations of the collusion charges as a hoax and the special counsel’s investigation as a witch hunt. The narrative of a great victory for Trump and a turning point in his presidency has gathered momentum and seems to be establishing itself as the conventional wisdom among a chastened national media.
The fact that no one commenting on the report has actually seen it, however, has not been lost on Trump’s critics or other reasonably skeptical observers familiar with Washington spin. In fact, a close parsing of Barr’s letter to Congress supports the notion that the findings on collusion were narrowly limited and that the evidence of obstruction of justice referenced by the report could be quite damaging, even if Mueller himself left the decision of whether or not to indict the president—ultimately a political rather than a prosecutorial judgment—to others.
After two years of a media feeding frenzy and popular fixation bordering on delusion on both sides of the debate, the Trump-Russia collusion story has taken on a life of its own, in many ways becoming a political Rorschach test of a singular moment in America’s history. But it’s important to remember that at its origin, the account of Russia’s interference with the 2016 election was based on events that have been factually established, and that those events, as well as intervening ones, have irrevocably altered the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations.
Maximalist expectations—of smoking gun contacts with known Russian agents and incriminating conversations with Kremlin stooges—were almost certain to be disappointed, if only because a real Russian influence campaign would never resemble the Hollywood blockbuster version the most avid conspiracy theorists hoped Mueller would document. Rather it would look more like what actually happened: contacts between Trump campaign officials and individual Russians, some linked to intelligence services but never officially; and targeted Russian cyberoperations meant to alter the election outcome.

It’s hard to imagine that the clownish social media campaigns organized in 2016 by Kremlin-backed troll armies had a major impact on U.S. public opinion. By contrast, the hacking of Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign emails clearly did. It is impossible to know with any degree of accuracy, let alone certainty, how big that impact was, and whether it determined the outcome of the election. But if Russia saw an opportunity to meddle, it was due to pre-existing and home-grown problems within the American electorate that made the 2016 election—but also those that preceded and followed it—so divisive.

It was always wishful thinking to expect the Mueller investigation to settle a question that was both a symptom and a cause of what has so passionately divided Americans for the past two years and beyond. That remains true, even as we continue to wait to find out what the report actually reveals or debunks.

It was wishful thinking to expect the Mueller investigation to settle a question that has so passionately divided Americans for more than two years.It seems more reasonable to expect that more than two years after the 2016 election, the U.S. would have taken more steps to impose some cost on Russia for its interference, as well as to find some new framework for relations with Moscow moving forward. Instead, the politicization of U.S.-Russia relations due to the investigation into Trump has paralyzed partisans of both confrontation and engagement, even as the need for a coherent and balanced approach to Russia has become more urgent.
Calibrating such a balanced approach since the end of the Cold War has historically been a challenge, and doing so became even tougher as Russia emerged from its post-Soviet malaise under President Vladimir Putin with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove. But the argument for engagement was stronger when the U.S. was conducting large-scale combat operations in Afghanistan, negotiating meaningful restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and actively pursuing a nuclear arms control treaty—in other words, when Russia had something to offer in return for engagement. 

Now the most meaningful contribution Russia can make to U.S. national security interests is to rein in its own destabilizing behavior in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and end its support for unsavory and bloody dictators in Syria, Venezuela, Sudan and elsewhere. It is unlikely to do so, however, as Russia’s global brand has increasingly become that of the anti-U.S., aligning its interests with anything and anyone that hampers or weakens American power and influence. 

At the same time, just how the U.S. might confront Russia is also problematic. The most recent U.S. Defense Department strategy documents have identified Russia, along with China, as a strategic competitor. This is true regarding Moscow’s goals. But Russia is more nuisance than threat, capable of flouting the U.S. and undermining the international order, but of replacing neither. This is why Moscow resorts to asymmetric tactics of the sort it deployed in the 2016 election. It also explains Moscow’s economical use of political and military support in contexts—like Syria—where a little intervention goes a long way.

This is not to say that the damage Russia can cause to U.S. interests is insignificant, but only that determining how to counter and respond to it is a thorny tactical and strategic challenge for the U.S. The Pentagon seems to think that boosting the U.S. military’s conventional war-fighting capabilities will somehow deter Russian adventurism. But Moscow’s track record so far indicates it is perfectly capable of playing to America’s asymmetrical weaknesses while avoiding its conventional strengths. Congress believes that more sanctions will do the trick, although Neil Bhatiya explained why that might be wishful thinking in his WPR guest column yesterday.
Where does that leave us? Given the low bar of the Trump era, “Do no harm” seems like a good place to start. Yet keeping the president from further damaging the NATO alliance and trans-Atlantic relations, seemingly low-hanging fruit, might be a tall order should Trump feel unchained by the anti-climactic conclusion—so far—of the Mueller investigation. The same applies to avoiding any repeat performances of the disastrous Helsinki summit, where Trump seemed more like a spokesman for Putin than for the U.S.

It remains to be seen how the dénouement of the Mueller investigation will affect Trump’s and America’s approach to Russia. In that, the report and its reception seem like a fitting metaphor for U.S.-Russia relations more generally: inconclusive, adrift and subject to revision.