National Press Club

Kalb Report: A bleak future for U.S.-Russian Relations

April 18, 2018 | By Gil Klein | Gilbert.klein@me.com

Try as he might, moderator Marvin Kalb could not get any one of his four guests on Monday’s “Kalb Report” to give an optimistic prediction on the future of U.S. relations with Russia.

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

In the early days of Putin’s presidency, the price of oil was skyrocketing, and he maintained power through the economic growth that brought to the country. But now the price of oil has collapsed and with it the Russian economy.

Putin is looking at a very bleak economic situation unless he undertakes reforms, said Leon Aron, a Russian scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But he can’t undertake those reforms to confront racketeering and corruption in the 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 requires constant conflict with the West where he can portray himself as a “war president” who is the “savior of the nation.”

Putin has maintained constant cyber warfare with the West in an attempt to undermine democracy and the confidence of the Western people in their governments, said Marine Gen. John Allen (Ret.), president of the Brookings Institution.

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

New York Times White House Bureau Chief Peter Baker said evidence suggests Putin started out wanting to disrupt the election. That morphed into the idea of revenge against Hillary Clinton, whom Putin blamed for fomenting street revolts in Russia after he came back to power. Then he saw the possibility that Trump could be elected, and openly supported him.

But Trump has become “a force of nature,” and trying to keep up with everything that has been happening in the administration and the investigations around it has been difficult, Baker said. The Times’ Washington bureau now has 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.”

One of the challenges in covering this administration is to know where to go to confirm a story, said Mary Louise Kelly, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In previous administrations, where policy was worked out in advance, it was possible to find someone to confirm a story.

Now, she said, who do go to seek that second source?

“You could get the president himself confirming your story,” she said, “and six hours later have the rug pulled out from under you.”

Finishing its 24rd season with this program, The Kalb Report is a joint project of National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the 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. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.