by Maia Otarashvili*
The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States has created significant uncertainty in the debates on the future of US-Russia relations. Earlier this year Russia became suspected of interference in the American electoral process by having ties with Mr. Trump’s campaign and engaging in cyber-attacks against the United States. The most recent infamous cases of the Democratic National Committee’s documents as well as Secretary Clinton’s emails being published by Wikileaks were directly traced back to Russia. This, and a recount of the wide array of the contentious issues between US and Russia tells us that the next administration needs to be tough on Russia. But Mr. Trump and his vice-president elect Mike Pence have sent mixed messages to the American voters on what the US Russia policy will look like under their leadership. The two seem to have differing attitudes.
Russian officials, including President Putin, have expressed both, cautious approval and full on endorsement of Mr. Trump at different times throughout the election campaign. There appears to be a willingness coming from Russia to work closely with Mr. Trump’s administration on resolving global issues in which both the US and Russia are involved. What will US-Russia relations look like under President Trump? This is very difficult to predict considering the overall ambiguity of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy plans, but as the evidence at hand shows, a thawing of the current sanctions-based freeze between the two countries should be expected.
MR. TRUMP’S STANCE ON RUSSIA
Donald Trump’s position on Russia appears to be one that calls for reconciliation of the currently tension-filled relationship because of two things Trump believes: one, Russia is a major nuclear power, and two, Russia is fighting ISIS in Syria. These two issues, alongside trade, seem to form Mr. Trump’s “pragmatic” approach to foreign policy.
In his second presidential debate with Secretary Clinton on October 9th Mr. Trump explained his thinking on Russia vis-à-vis Syria: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS, and Iran is killing ISIS, and those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy.” In the third presidential debate with Clinton on October 19th, when he was pushed further on what role Russia had in his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump responded: “I don’t know Putin, he said nice things about me, if we got along well that would be good, if Russia and the US got along well, and went after ISIS, that would be good.” Once again, Trump’s acute awareness of Russia as a possible nuclear threat was apparent in this debate, as he repeated that Russia has been a “growing” nuclear power unlike the United States, with its “1800 nuclear warheads.”
But the number of contentious issues between US and Russia is large, and goes well beyond fighting ISIS in Syria. Russia annexed Crimea, is involved in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is actively challenging NATO by opposing its eastward expansion and threatening conflict in the Baltic Sea region. These issues don’t seem to be on the list of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy agendaS, but are important to Mr. Putin. Thus one can expect that at least Eastern Europe, if not NATO, will be used as a bargaining chip in achieving a deal over Syria. What will a US-Russia deal over Syria look like? This is so far unclear, but Russia is likely to lead.
On the other hand Russia is an ally of Iran and China. These two countries do appear at the top of Mr. Trump’s agenda. In Mr. Trump’s seven point plan to rebuild the American economy China occupies three spots. Mr. Trump says he intends to have China labeled as a currency manipulator, “bring trade cases against China … [for] unfair subsidy behavior” and “use every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes if China does not stop its illegal activities, including its theft of American trade secrets.” Moreover, Mr. Trump has called the Iran deal the “worst deal ever made” and does not hide his distaste for Iran. In a recent interview when Mr. Trump was questioned on the nuclear threat emanating from North Korea, he responded that “China controls North Korea” and “the closest partner of North Korea is Iran.”
Thus in a world where most of Russia’s allies are bound to face difficulties with the United States, will Russia be able to successfully execute a reset of relations with the United States? This may not be impossible, considering Mr. Trump’s expression of admiration towards Mr. Putin. So far the existing evidence tells us that Russia may be able to forge a special relationship with Mr. Trump’s administration, and receive preferential treatment.
MIKE PENCE AND THE GOP CONTINUE TO BE HARD ON RUSSIA
The prospect of close engagement and compromise with Russia is sharply at odds with positions taken by many American foreign policy experts, and the Republican party’s foreign policy track record. Mr. Trump has already earned the skepticism of many GOP foreign policy experts. Moreover, Mr. Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence is very much a part of the mainstream GOP school of thought. During the vice-presidential debate, Mr. Pence took a tough stance on Russia, and even brought up the fact that Russia had engaged in a cyber-attack against the United States. Mr. Pence did not shy away from making bold statements about Russia: “there should be severe consequences to Russia or any sovereign nation that is compromising the privacy or the security of the United States of America.”
Have these differences been worked out within Mr. Trump’s team? This is so far unclear. But the Republican-led Congress is unlikely to support preferential treatment of Mr. Putin, and could keep Mr. Trump from becoming overly affectionate with Russia.
Russia has welcomed the election results. In his speech congratulating Mr. Trump on his victory Mr. Putin said that the road to reconciliation of relations between the two countries would be difficult taking into account the “current state of degradation of relations between the US and Russia,” and repeated that this was not Russia’s fault. Mr. Putin confirmed Russia’s willingness reengage with the US, and said that this would be important for the “general climate of the global affairs, and to the special responsibility of Russia and the US to sustain global security and stability.” This latter statement is important as it shows that Mr. Putin is going to demand to be taken seriously by the US as an equal and important partner, one who should be at the decision-making table when major superpowers discuss global affairs. This is an ambition that Kremlin has shown time and time again, and one that Mr. Putin believes has been undermined by Mr. Obama’s presidency.
While Mr. Putin has only cautiously welcomed Mr. Trump’s election as president of the United States, other Russian officials have not shied away from rejoicing. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “it is phenomenal how [Putin and Trump] got to be so close in their conceptual approaches to foreign policy” in their recent speeches. Peskov also suggested that Trump could go far to rebuild US-Russia relations by slowing or halting NATO expansion near Russia’s borders.
Since Trump’s win, Russian officials (including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov) have confirmed that Russian government experts had established contact with Trump’s team during the election campaign. But this past summer Mr. Peskov said “President Putin has never had any contact with Trump, never spoken to him, including by telephone. The same goes for all of his staff.”
It seems that Mr. Trump intends to be a pragmatic leader who will take a pragmatic approach to international relationships. In the short term, a Trump-led “reset” may help to ease some immediate tensions with Moscow, but this prediction does not apply to the long-term future of US-Russia relations. Should Mr. Trump carry out all of his foreign policy promises, the relations with Moscow will not be the only thing that will experience dramatic shift. 2017 is very likely usher in a whole different era of world order as Donald Trump takes office as the President of the United States of America.
*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.