Even though the Kremlin appears outwardly hopeful about a Trump presidency, there are reasons for concern, including the unpredictability of Trump’s future foreign policy moves.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., May 5, 2016. Photo: AP
After two Republican contenders for the U.S. Presidency – Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich – exited the presidential race, the only remaining candidate from the Republican Party is now flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump. This has led to debates within Russia about the potential benefits of a Trump presidency for the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
Trump was and remains the most intriguing participant in the current American presidential race. The high interest in him is based on the fact that he seems to be favorably disposed toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. Likewise, the Russian leader recently called Trump "a bright person, talented without a doubt." The billionaire responded to Putin with another compliment: “I like him because he called me a genius. He said Trump is the real leader."
This strange exchange of mutual compliments might indicate that there will be personal chemistry between Trump and Putin. If so, this could raise U.S.-Russia relations to a new level.
Indeed, at first glance, Trump is a good option for Russia. In his recent address in Washington, the billionaire businessman expressed hope about the possibility of strengthening U.S-Russian ties.
"I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia, from a position of strength only, is possible," Trump said, though he added that the United States should be willing to avoid negotiations if Russia is too demanding.
Although Trump said he is going to negotiate with Russia “from a position of strength,” the Kremlin interpreted this statement as an expression of goodwill in comparison with the tough statements about Russia from Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.
According to Center for Current Policy director Sergey Mikheev, Clinton is very tough, intransigent and firmly biased about Russia. If elected president, she might try to outpace her predecessors in taking anti-Russian initiatives, the expert said.
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“Regarding Trump, he is unpredictable to a great extent, but he gives a chance to Russia. There are no such chances with Clinton,” Mikheev said.
Likewise, many deputies of Russia’s parliament State Duma agree with him. Despite the fact that Republican presidents have historically been less favorable toward Russia, Trump – given his independent position – seems to be much more beneficial for the Kremlin because he is pragmatic, according to the deputy head of the State Duma’s Committee on International Relations, Leonid Kalashnikov.
“Regarding Clinton, she has already introduced herself as the candidate expressing a destructive anti-Russian position on many issues,” he said.
However, some pundits are less optimistic in their assessment of the future American president. They argue that no matter who will become the resident of the White House, the U.S. policy toward Russia won’t change. There is no reason to expect Trump, if elected president, to become a trusted friend in Washington, according to political expert Mikhail Neyzhmakov.
“Any head of the White House is restricted by the system of checks and balances, which is common for American politics,” he said. “At the same time, Clinton can find support in her experienced political team, while Trump will have to hire personnel from outside. However, there won’t be differences between these candidates in regard to Russia.”
Neither friend, nor enemy, but something in between
With the U.S. primaries coming to an end, Russian pundits have started reassessing the benefits of a potential Trump presidency for Russia. The wake-up call came with a recent statement from Trump. In his interview with Indiana Radio, he said that it might be necessary to shoot down Russian jets if they get too close to American ones. This move came shortly after the incident over the Baltic Sea, with a Russian jet having maneuvered dangerously close to an American one.
The problem is that Trump, when faced with Putin, might try to do his best to prove that he is more masculine than Putin, which could lead to a severe machismo rivalry, as the Gazeta.ru media outlet pointed out. Given the fact that Trump appears non-committal on certain issues and has even changed his positions on certain issues several times, his tenure might be unpredictable and even dangerous for Russia.
It becomes even more evident in the context of his foreign policy experience, which is actually close to zero. No wonder former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul scoffed at the Republican contender’s statement that he knew Russia well because he had organized the Miss Universe Pageant there.
"This is crazy,” wrote McFaul in his Facebook account. “Who knew one could become an expert on Russia by sponsoring a beauty pageant! All those wasted years of studying Russian, living in Russia, writing about Russia.”
Nevertheless, despite Trump’s obvious neophyte status in foreign policy, the Kremlin still seems to be more favorable toward him than Clinton. This reflects an important aspect of Russia’s current foreign policy: It has been wooing political fringe players and populists not only in the U.S. but also in Europe ever since the Ukrainian crisis. The Kremlin’s subtle support of Trump seems to stem from attempts to irritate Obama or even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also known for her criticism and intransigence with regard to Russia, as some media have pointed out.
However, such a policy might backfire: Trump might be a friend for the Kremlin, but this “friend” could be even worse than the Kremlin’s main opponent, Clinton. Given Trump’s political platform and his mantra “Make America Great Again!” his presidency might create an even bigger headache for Putin, who would like Russia to be recognized as an equal partner.