Less than one month since Donald Trump’s inauguration, Moscow has already become less delusional about the odds of improving relations with Washington. With Trump expecting Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, it’s now time to prepare for reality.
There is increasing skepticism in Russia about U.S. President Donald Trump’s capability to improve relations with the Kremlin. Photo: Donald Trump's official Facebook page
The political uncertainty in the United States surrounding the Trump presidency is now leading to alarmist commentary by some Russian experts and politicians. If U.S. President Donald Trump was able to split his country within the first weeks of his administration and put himself into direct opposition with the Washington establishment (and, probably, the entire democratic world), what will be his next steps?
Why Trump’s initiatives might hurt Russia
Russian media outlets are still keeping a close watch on Trump’s first presidential moves, with experts and society divided in their assessment of the U.S. president’s policy. Trump’s Russian supporters hail his first stances – the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the building of the Mexico wall and the “ban” on Muslims – as attempts to fulfill his pre-election promises. From this perspective, Trump’s goals are to create jobs in the U.S., stop illegal immigration from a southern neighbor and alleviate the terrorism threat. They see him as a pragmatic politician who wants to match his words with his deeds.
However, Trump’s opponents within the Russia media argue that, far from resolving any immigration problems, the Mexico wall will exacerbate the problem, destroy the achievements of globalization and send the wrong signal to the U.S.’s neighbor – Latin America. Likewise, Trump’s decision to withdraw from TPP was met with criticism by some pundits.
“TPP is a very important international project, which had been developed by the U.S. for a long period of time, and Washington abruptly withdrew from it,” Alexei Portansky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Russia Direct. “Such precedent has never occurred in the history of the United States. A respected state with a well-developed governance system doesn’t behave in this way. Today, Trump creates an illusion that it is easy to take a political decision for the sake of America’s prosperity. However, in the globalized and interconnected era, political decisions cannot be taken so easily by definition.”
Similarly, Russia should be concerned with Trump’s apparently unyielding campaign against the Muslim world and his controversial immigration ban. Even though the U.S. is ready to cooperate with Russia to fight international terrorism, the very fact that Trump sees Islam and the entire Islamic civilization as a threat should be seen as a warning signal, according to political expert Lilia Shevtsova. Taking into account that more than 16 million Muslims are Russian citizens (approximately 11 percent of the population), Trump’s campaign against Islam might turn out to be a headache for the Kremlin.
If Moscow won’t express a note of indignation about the controversial U.S. immigration ban on Muslims and similar stances, many Russian Muslims are hardly likely to approve such an approach. The Kremlin should take this seriously given the separatist sentiment that has historically existed within Russia’s Muslim community.
Likewise, Trump’s policy toward Iran and his threats to overhaul the Iranian nuclear deal might put Moscow in a vulnerable and awkward position. If the Trump administration indeed seeks to bring discord between Moscow and Tehran, Russia is hardly likely to meet the expectation of the U.S. in this regard.
The Kremlin is not interested in spoiling its relations with Iran, because Russia sees Tehran as a neighbor, a trade partner and a key stakeholder in the Middle East. Moreover, Russia is involved in numerous construction projects with Tehran, including the building of Russian nuclear facilities in Iran. Finally, Russia and Iran have found common ground in Syria and have been supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad since the beginning of the civil war in the country.
The Kremlin’s wishful thinking
There is also increasing skepticism in Russia about Trump’s capability to improve relations with the Kremlin. For now, there is no unanimity on this question.
“Trump oversimplifies a great deal,” Maksim Yusin, a foreign policy columnist for Kommersant daily, told Russia Direct. However, there is one advantage. "At least, we have a window for opportunity, which we would never have had if Hillary Clinton had won the election.”
Like many other of his Russian colleagues, Yusin describes Trump as “a pragmatist, not an ideologue.” That’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also seen as a pragmatic, might see eye-to-eye with Trump and successfully cooperate. However, in order to achieve this goal, the U.S. should respect Russia’s strategic interests in the post-Soviet space (including Ukraine), according to the expert.
Some Russian pundits are also paying a lot of attention to the Trump administration’s critical stances toward Russia. At times, it seems like members of Trump’s team have not settled on one unified Russia policy.
For example, during a session of the United Nations, new U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned the “aggressive actions of Russia” in Ukraine and denounced the Kremlin for the annexation of Crimea. Trump himself admits that he is no longer sure if he will be able to get along with the Kremlin, something that he has repeatedly told journalists. Moreover, he made it clear he expects Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Tuesday.
Despite the wishful forecasts that Trump would normalize relations with Russia, the current reality proves otherwise, according to Leonid Gusev, an expert at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University).
“His [Trump’s] appointees, which include the [new] representative at the UN Security Council and the [new] defense minister, talk in the same way as [Barack] Obama’s appointees.”
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Moreover, the divide within the American political elites aggravates the problem and hampers any attempts to improve relations with Russia. That’s probably why no signs about alleviating the sanctions on Russia have emerged since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. The topic of sanctions was not even included in the Putin-Trump telephone conversation on Jan. 30. Finally, Trump himself said that it is too early to talk about the cancelation of the sanctions.
“Trump is rather a standalone outlier and his relations with the leadership of the Republican Party are not in good shape,” said Nikolai Toporin, a professor of MGIMO University. “The most serious sanctions became law. This means that the president himself won’t be able to cancel them. He might abolish only those sanctions that were imposed in accordance with a presidential executive order. Basically, these sanctions add up to measures against legal entities and private individuals. However, [economic] sectorial sanctions cannot be abolished without the go-ahead from Congress.”
Why Russia should prepare for the worst-case scenario
In fact, Russia’s obsession with the Trump presidency reveals the inferiority complex of the Kremlin and society in general, according to Shevtsova. She describes the situation as both “humiliating and comic”: Russians keep a close watch on Trump and the U.S. in an attempt to forget about their own plight and disorientation.
In fact, pinning a great deal of hope on Trump’s presidency creates a dangerous situation. The more hopes and emotions Russians express toward Trump, the deeper their disappointment will be if the flamboyant U.S. president fails to justify their expectations. The problem might be aggravated by the Trump administration’s hostility toward Russia. And this is not an impossible scenario.
As Leon Aron, the director of Russian Studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, warns, the key danger is Trump’s penchant for self-persuasion and his willingness to ignore reality. He might persuade himself that he found common ground with Putin during a summit, but the reality might contradict his beliefs. And this is the chilling and “creeping” moment when the over-confident “Trump finds himself offended and defeated,” warns Aron.
“He doesn’t have the professional political ability to withstand a punch,” the expert added. “It is difficult to predict what he will undertake, but I think it will be a very dramatic response.;
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“Trump is likely to see Russia as an ally in his rebellion against the current world order,” said Shevtsova. “But America’s unpredictability will be a blow to Russia, because the Kremlin can afford unpredictable [foreign policy] somersaults only if it can predict the Western response. Yet if Trump might do anything, this will mean the end of the Russian game.”
One cannot rule out such a dramatic scenario. And, unfortunately, it is more realistic than the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations at a time when Washington is increasingly distrustful of Moscow. As a result, the Russian political elites should prepare for this scenario.