The current “bromance” between Trump and Putin and early signs that the two leaders will find common ground are no assurance of good and sustainable relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Pictured: New American President Donald Trump during one of his pre-election campaign events. Photo: AP
“Shocking” is an often overused word to describe political events, but for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it is appropriate. Conventional wisdom in the media, among the punditry and in the case of the pollsters, proved wrong, and now billionaire and Republican Donald Trump is officially the new American President.
Conventional wisdom now suggests that Russia is one of the great beneficiaries of this outcome. If there are indeed celebrations in the Kremlin, such assumptions may well prove to be mistaken or at least premature. Prudence, realistic expectations, and nuanced assessments would be wise guidelines in both capitals in preparing for Trump's tenure. The supposed “bromance” between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin may in fact prove to be ephemeral or, at minimum, volatile.
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To be sure, there is a need for and there are new possibilities for improving relations between Russia and the U.S., relations that have sunk to new lows. There are multiple areas where much can be done realistically.
Potential areas for cooperation
The two countries can and should cooperate in defeating and destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). The West under Trump’s leadership may slow the possible future expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), thereby reassuring Russia. NATO may offer more cooperative arrangements to Russia, including various confidence-building measures that would ease Moscow’s concerns about encirclement. A Trump administration likely would also place less emphasis on criticizing Russian domestic policies in contrast to Barack Obama’s leadership, which has characterized Putin’s government as dangerously repressive.
Further, President Trump is likely to tone down, in general, the criticism of Russia and his administration may encourage Eastern European Alliance members to smooth their own relations with Moscow. Lastly, the Kremlin may itself make positive gestures towards a Trump administration by diminishing or eliminating provocative actions by Russian air and naval forces that, particularly in the past year, have alarmed Alliance members.
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None of the above steps, which would seem both reasonable and achievable, however, change certain crucial realities in the relationship between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Warm congratulations from the Russian leader and words of praise from Trump do not alter the asymmetrical nature of the relationship that, in turn, is bound to deeply affect the policies of the two states.
Expectations, particularly in Moscow, consequently need to be congruent with the reality that regardless of who the president is in Washington, and Moscow’s international aspirations aside, the United States is the only true global superpower and its economy is roughly eight times that of Russia. Moreover, a desire for good relations in the case of both parties will not eliminate the insistence of each government to protect their own particular and divergent national interests.
Consequently, if Russia expects that under a Trump presidency there will be a rollback of the NATO enlargement that has already taken place, Moscow is highly likely to be disappointed. The Kremlin is also likely to find that a Trump government will not legitimize Russia’s annexation of Crimea or any attempts by Moscow to pursue its interest in Eastern Ukraine through the use of hybrid warfare because this would significantly derogate from American national interests and international prestige and credibility. It is difficult to see then how the United States would agree to lift sanctions unless Moscow made some very substantive concessions in Ukraine.
Reasons why Trump will not back down
There are multiple reasons, in fact, why an America under Trump would not simply take a U-turn in policies toward Russia, despite the possibility of him pursing a kind of neo-isolationist foreign policy.
First, Trump is not a traditional isolationist. That is, what Trump promises is a United States that is less extended in military engagements and commitments internationally, but not one that somehow conjoins isolationism and demilitarization. Specifically, he wants a United States that is the most powerful military entity in the world, with the strongest and most dynamic economy working together with reliable allies who pay what would be, in his view, their fair share for defense. As he does not tire of telling the American people, Trump insists on being a “winner” and promises to make the United States a “winner.”
Far from disarming, the new President promises to greatly rebuild the American military. During the election campaign, it is noteworthy that he continually used Russia’s military buildup to justify his call for a rapid rebuilding of the American armed forces. Russia has indeed invested heavily in its military, raising defense expenditures from $30 billion in 2000 to over $90 billion by 2014, with a new generation of tanks, strike aircraft, cruise missiles and the development of a new heavy thermonuclear ICBM (designated by NATO as “Satan 2”).
Trump especially contrasted the massive modernization of Russia’s nuclear forces with the stagnation of American forces and promised an urgent U.S. reversal. Coupled with what America and its allies view as provocative actions, including Russia's installation of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, alleged Russian incursions into Estonian airspace in October, claims of Russian cyber attacks and accusations of Russian hybrid warfare, could mean that, combined with a large American rearmament program under Trump, one might see a dangerous arms race that Russia could ill afford.
Second, Trump’s demands that NATO allies pay their fair share by boosting their military expenditures may in the longer term actually strengthen the alliance’s capabilities rather than lead to its dissolution. Such growth in capacity, combined with greatly enhanced American military capabilities, would hardly be in Russia’s interests. A Hillary Clinton administration might have used inflammatory rhetoric but America’s military capabilities likely would have followed the downward curve instituted by the Obama administration.
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Third, Trump’s commitment to abandoning or sharply changing the Iran nuclear deal could also be a blow to Russia. Moscow’s very large military and economic relationship with Tehran could come under new scrutiny and criticism because Trump, despite his pledge to improve relations with the Kremlin, has committed himself to confronting Iran’s massive support for terrorism, blocking Tehran’s ambitions for regional dominance and punishing the Iranian theocracy’s attempts to humiliate America.
Finally, Trump’s intention to make the United States into an energy superpower, with large energy exports, could also complicate matters for Russia. These added energy exports would drive down world prices, thereby damaging the Russian economy that is both stagnant and heavily dependent on such exports.
In sum, the current “bromance” and soothing words from Trump are no assurance of good and sustainable relations. “Applied history” will only go so far in predicting new policies, and the asymmetry in Russian and American power and Trump’s ambitions to make America great and a “winner” are also seminal determinants in the future relationship.
Add to that Trump’s desire for a “winning” legacy, and the unpredictable temperament of a man who’s alive to all insults, real or imagined, and the asymmetrical “bromance” could prove to be truly ephemeral. It would be wise then, it seems, for Putin and members of his circle to greatly lower expectations and tread very carefully internationally, and particularly with the incoming administration in Washington.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
The article was initially published in Russia Direct Report "The New Face of America." This report also brings together the analysis from Victoria I. Zhuravleva of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Nicolai Petro from the University of Rhode Island, and Christopher Hartwell, president of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. In addition, it features the interview with Evgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.