Donald Trump might be able to rebuild the U.S.-Russia relationship by focusing on shared national interests rather than shared national values.

Pictured (left-right): President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Photo: AP

Of all the countries in the world, Russia seems to be the most optimistic about Donald Trump, the President-elect of the United States. Trump’s support in Russia is mirrored both in polls and public discourse. In a global survey conducted in the run-up to the U.S. election, Russia supported Trump over Clinton.

Since Trump’s shocking electoral victory, reactions in Russia have ranged from outright joy to restrained optimism. Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky ordered a banquet in Trump’s honor, complete with 130 bottles of champagne. More serious political commentators in Russia have been reserved in their evaluations of the incoming president, though virtually everyone recognizes his role in ushering in a significant shift in rhetoric towards Russia, with the potential for positive change.

Misplaced optimism?

So why are so many Russians excited about Trump when much of the world expresses concern? Is this optimism misplaced?

The hope, of course, is that a Trump presidency may present an opportunity to revive the U.S.-Russia relationship. In the gloom of recent years, this may, in fact, be the one golden opportunity to turn things around.

By all accounts, the relationship over the past two years has been dreadful. The Ukraine crisis gave way to the worst period in U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, resulting in mutual sanctions, aggressive military exercises, bellicose rhetoric, the possibility of a military confrontation in Syria, and a total breakdown in communication and cooperation. Some called it a “New Cold War” or “Cold War 2.0.”

In this cloud of gloom, Trump’s pre-election position on Russia took everyone by surprise last July when he said: “Wouldn't it be a great thing if we could actually get along with Russia?”

At the time, it was taken as one of many outrageous statements from the Republican candidate. Now, with Trump’s presidency secured, it has a real chance to radically change U.S. foreign policy.

Apart from several other statements of goodwill towards Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s overarching world view, based on national interests, is seen, paradoxically, as being more predictable for Russia than the liberalism of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Whereas the latter emphasize value-based issues like the humanitarian imperative and the support of civil society and democratic movements, Trump appears to be a devoted realist, willing to cooperate on matters of mutual interest.

When looking at the history of the U.S.-Russia relationship, partnership based on mutual interests seems to be a lot more successful than partnership based on mutual values.

"It is phenomenal how close they are to one another when it comes to their conceptual approach to foreign policy” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, after Trump’s election. “And that is probably a good basis for our moderate optimism that they will at least be able to start a dialogue."

If it were only so simple…

Despite general optimism, many Russian commentators and academics are skeptical about the likelihood of an impending improvement in relations. Many remember the overtures of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama towards Russia in the early stages of their presidencies, both of which ended in failure and enmity.

Skeptics say that Trump’s more farfetched positions - such as his stance on Russia, may be moderated by his future advisors once he reaches the White House. The Secretary of State position is yet to be filled, and if hardliners like Rudy Giuliani or John Bolton are chosen, Trump’s pre-election rhetoric could dissolve into a load of hot air. As reiterated most recently by Obama, the U.S. President doesn’t single-handedly determine U.S. foreign policy; it is influenced by diplomats, intelligence officers, and military officials, which provides for a strategic continuity that goes beyond administrations.

The seriousness of the task of restoring relations was not lost on the Kremlin.

"An atmosphere of mutual trust takes years to achieve. It's not possible to just declare that there is an atmosphere of mutual trust, especially after such serious damage was done in the last few years to our relations" said Peskov.

What are the latest signs?

In the week since Trump’s election victory, he appears to have backtracked on a number of his campaign promises, including the total repeal of Obamacare and details about the wall with Mexico. One thing he appears to have stuck to is his foreign policy position towards Russia. A phone call between Trump and Putin on Nov. 14 seemed to confirm the possibility of a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations.

“During the conversation Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump not only agreed on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations but also expressed support for active joint efforts to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues,” an official Kremlin statement said.

The two leaders spoke about the need to “return to pragmatic, mutually beneficial cooperation in the interests of both countries, as well as global stability and security” and promised “to work together in the struggle against the number one common enemy – international terrorism and extremism.”

In a televised interview on CBS last week, Trump seemed to take a page out of the Kremlin foreign policy playbook when speaking about the Middle East. Apart from praising Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), he criticized the U.S. policy of supporting opposition rebel groups that try to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to Trump, “They’re probably worse than Assad.”

He went on to say that U.S. actions in Libya against its leader Muammar Gaddafi were a “total mistake” and that Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, sentenced to death by hanging, was “no good guy, but he killed terrorists. Now Iraq is the harbor of terrorists.”

Most recently, Trump’s appointment of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to the post of National Security Advisor has drawn the criticism of many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, in part due to his alleged willingness to build closer ties with Russia against the threat of radical Islamism.

Next steps

Make no mistake, rhetoric is critical in international relations. While skeptics claim that the journey to a strategic partnership will be difficult, taking into account obstacles like the status of Crimea, the role of NATO, and Russian resistance to U.S. power projection, the two countries obviously share a great number of mutual interests that could underpin a successful partnership.

The next steps will be to move from words to action in order to rebuild the climate of trust. Russia needs to take care to use this opportunity, and must refrain from provoking Trump’s hawkish Republican allies in theaters of military operation like Aleppo. Another brutal bombing campaign there could antagonize U.S. public and policymaker opinion resolutely away from cooperation.

Common interests must be determined, the most obvious of which is eradicating ISIS. Other avenues of cooperation include nuclear non-proliferation and a common position towards North Korea. More contentious issues that need to be addressed are NATO’s future role in Eastern Europe, and the Iranian nuclear deal, which Russia helped broker, but which Trump has spoken strongly against.

The path to normalization of the relationship will be difficult, and there is no determining which political crises may derail the process. However, this juncture in history presents the perfect opportunity for Russia and the U.S. to restart a potentially rewarding partnership. Isn’t that “change we can believe in”?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.