Once the Trump administration shifts its attention from domestic policy to foreign policy, it will raise awkward questions about just how deeply the U.S. and Russia can really partner on complex geopolitical issues.
No matter what plans Trump has regarding Russia, his first presidential moves have already created a new political context for the Kremlin. And this context adds up to a bizarre mix of challenges and opportunities. Photo: Donald Trump's Official facebook page
The first steps of new U.S. President Donald Trump shocked many in the United States. The first two weeks were a decision-making marathon, filled with executive order after executive order. The world is closely watching the unfolding of events in Washington, with most foreign commentaries thus far overtly critical of Trump and his new administration. A new American isolationism doesn’t inspire even those who criticized the U.S. and accused it of being a global hegemon.
However, Russia is an exception: Moscow still has hopes for the Trump presidency and the first two weeks only strengthened this belief. A series of extravagant orders, which helped Trump to fulfill most of his campaign promises, don’t bring about concerns among Russians. Instead, they continue to harbor hopes for the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations under Trump.
At the same time, the beginning of Trump’s presidency clearly demonstrated that the Russian agenda (Russian hackers, Putin-Trump “bromance,” Russia’s threat to Eastern Europe) was overshadowed by the American domestic agenda, including the confrontation of pro-Trump forces and anti-Trump forces.
Trump himself made it clear that Russia and ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin are not among his top priorities, as indicated by the first executive orders of the new American president. Even the first Putin-Trump telephone conversation, which Russia had been looking forward to since the inauguration of the American president, was relegated to the secondary agenda of the American president and overshadowed by Trump’s meetings with other global leaders. It didn’t become a game-changer. In fact, it just turned into another exchange of mutual kudos between Trump and Putin.
Nevertheless, Russian pundits and media kept a close eye on the limited news updates from Russian and American presidential press services in an attempt to find some hints of a positive shift in U.S.-Russia relations. Specifically, the fact that two presidents talked about the necessity to restore trade and economic ties gave experts and journalists a reason to conclude that Trump is going to lift the sanctions imposed on Russia during Barack Obama’s presidency.
However, no matter what plans Trump has regarding Russia (and even though he might not have any specific plans), his first presidential moves have already created a new political context for the Kremlin. And this context adds up to a bizarre mix of challenges and opportunities, with nobody being able to predict if the latter outweigh the former or vice versa.
Oddly enough, the future of U.S.-Russia relations will depend not on Trump’s moves and decisions, but rather on Russia’s foreign policy strategy during the transition period. In fact, this period is also a momentous time for Putin as well, not only for his American counterpart. A lot will depend on the Kremlin’s priorities: What foreign policy challenges that will emerge during a Trump presidency will Moscow view as the most important and pivotal?
Will the Russian authorities see Trump’s extravagant initiatives as the U.S.’s own business within its domestic policy, while being satisfied with the fact that the U.S. — faced with its internal problems — will leave Russia alone? Or will the Kremlin come to the conclusion that Trump’s foreign policy might destabilize the entire system of international relations and pose a serious threat to Russia itself? It remains to be seen.
If Trump will persistently follow a neo-isolationism policy, the Kremlin might undertake new steps in an attempt to increase its control over what it sees as “a natural sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space. Putin is hardly likely to resist the temptation to muddy the water while Washington finds itself in a state of crisis and uncertainty.
Yet if Trump’s moves threaten international financial stability, dampen oil prices or exacerbate the conflict with China, the Kremlin will be cautious about acting forcefully and call for saving the current status quo instead. Despite Putin’s anti-American rhetoric, never did the Russian leader deny the fundamental role of the U.S. in the modern international system.
The ideal scenario for the Kremlin is if the U.S. is strong enough to maintain robust economic and political systems, but not strong enough to impose its will on Russia and be the global leader.
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That’s why Russia might take very cautious initiatives in foreign and domestic policy to test the waters and understand how the new presidential administration of the U.S. might respond. Specifically, how will Trump react and will he respond to the Kremlin’s moves at all?
The military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, which might have resulted from the simultaneous moves of both Moscow and Kiev, is one way that the Kremlin might try to test the White House. It looks as if Russia is trying to understand the patience threshold of the White House when it comes to the question of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s leadership seems to be raising the stakes to put Trump into a situation, where he has to respond to another flare-up of “Russian aggression.”
The same motivation might be behind the renewal of criminal charges against Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who last year announced his presidential bid for 2018. It appears that, in such an unsettled international environment, the Kremlin is eager for the opportunity to imprison Navalny or disqualify him from the presidential race without risking criticism from the U.S.
After all, the world is currently focusing on Washington. The Navalny case is a domestic problem of Russia and is hardly likely to attract global attention and create publicity at a time when much bigger changes appear to be happening.
Interestingly, even the prospect for cooperation in Syria hasn’t so far created opportunities for an expanded U.S.-Russia partnership, despite a much-touted belief within the expert community. At first glance, ostensibly, everything is fine, with the new American president repeating Putin’s mantra about creation of a joint powerful anti-terrorism coalition.
However, the problem is that to strengthen U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria, Putin has to move from words to deeds to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). And this requires a great deal of resources and might include a large-scale boots-on-the-ground operation, which is not interesting to Putin one year before the presidential election in Russia.
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However, Trump will wait for Russia’s active involvement in the fight against terrorism. He might seek to make a tradeoff with Russia: his respect for Moscow’s global ambitions in exchange for the participation of Russian soldiers in bringing peace to the Middle East. Bluntly speaking, Trump may believe that Russia has to pay with blood to earn its right to impose its will on its close neighbors without taking into account Washington.
Does Russia really need such a Trumpian deal? Putin will have to respond to this question in the near future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.