Donald Trump once again confounded his critics with an unexpected victory in the U.S. presidential election. Will he now seek to turn U.S.-Russian relations upside down?
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump poses with a ring given to him by a group of veterans during a campaign event on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: AP
Donald Trump completed one of the great upsets in American political history when he vaulted above the 270 Electoral College vote minimum needed to become president. His presidency, which begins Jan. 20, 2017, offers interesting possibilities for U.S.-Russian relations.
Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin has been well documented, and Putin’s sentiments about Trump are equally positive. On Nov. 9, Putin was among the first of the world’s leaders to offer his congratulations to Trump. But will a gesture of goodwill lead to substantive change in the U.S.-Russian partnership? Trump has intriguing possibilities to weigh.
Doing away with the sanctions President Barack Obama handed down in response to Russia’s involvement in 2014 in Ukraine is one. Last year, Russian officials estimated the sanctions cost the country more than $100 billion. It is safe to assume that figure has grown this year, and sagging oil prices have added a second significant strain to the Russian budget.
Demanding that NATO nations pay for more of the costs associated with the organization would be a second option Trump could employ. Within hours of Trump’s victory, NATO’s secretary general urged him to not forget the longstanding relationship between the U.S. and Western Europe in maintaining peace. Trump could add further stress to the relationship – to Russia’s advantage – if he limited the role of the U.S. military in the region.
Read the Q&A with Dmitri Trenin: "Trump's presidency and the future of US-Russia relations"
Staying out of the way as Russia continued its aerial assault on Syria’s rebels would be another way of demonstrating that a President Trump would deal with Russia in sharply different ways than Obama.
There is no way to know right now if Trump will follow through on any of these ideas once he assumes office.
He also has so-called soft power options at his disposal to change the way Russia views America. For example, he could urge the U.S. Congress to restore funding for Title VIII, a program that allows U.S. scholars to engage in research about Russia and gain Russian language proficiency. Funding levels were cut three years ago. Along the same lines, he could push for increased academic, athletic and cultural exchanges between the two nations.
President Obama’s famous “reset” button that Hillary Clinton carried to Moscow during her first visit as U.S. Secretary of State proved ineffective, and her critics jumped on it during the recent presidential campaign to show how incompetent she would be on the world stage. Trump is not likely to use any prop to show his intentions of improving Washington’s relationship with Moscow.
But the substantive options he does choose will determine just how much he intends to break with his soon-to-be predecessor’s plans. Western European leaders, perhaps more than any other, will be watching closely.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.