The Trump presidency: How will it affect ties to Putin's Russia?

US-Russian relations have been in decline, and Moscow was wary of a Clinton presidency. While Trump has spoken of improving ties, his lack of diplomatic experience may be an issue.

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Vladimir Zhirinovsky celebrates Donald Trump's election as president by drinking sparkling wine with other party members during a break in the session of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in Moscow, Nov. 9, 2016.

A normally sedate session of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, was interrupted Wednesday when a member rushed into the chamber to shout that Donald Trump had won the US election and that Hillary Clinton had phoned him to concede. The lawmakers spontaneously leaped to their feet and delivered a raucous standing ovation.

Such were the hopes aroused in Russia’s political establishment by the candidacy of Mr. Trump, who suggested during the presidential campaign that he regards NATO as obsolete, would seek a more friendly and cooperative relationship with Russia, might even recognize its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and didn't mind if the Kremlin settled Syria’s civil war in its own fashion.

The Duma members were probably applauding just as hard at the defeat of Mrs. Clinton who, despite having authored an optimistic 2009 “reset” of relations with Russia as secretary of State, had grown increasingly suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s intentions. She staunchly favored bolstering Europe’s defenses, wanted to roll back Russian intervention in Syria by imposing a “no fly zone,” and even accused Trump of being a Kremlin puppet and Mr. Putin of using cyber-hackers to skew the election Trump’s way. On Thursday a Russian diplomat reportedly said Moscow had been in touch with members of Trump’s team during the campaign.

With the election over, and passions abating at least somewhat, it’s worth asking: how bad things are between the US and Russia, and what might Trump realistically do to change the equation?

Q: How did relations get so bad?

Things began to go downhill after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, arguing that the US was trying to surround Russia with military bases and acquire “absolute invulnerability” for itself at the expense of Russia. The pot boiled over when a pro-Western street revolt in Kiev two years later overthrew Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president, and the Kremlin took advantage of the chaos to annex Ukraine’s largely Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula and back pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east.

The West, led by the US, piled on anti-Russia sanctions, and Moscow retaliated with sanctions of its own. Putin has also cracked down on Western-funded non-governmental groups, which he accuses of working to foment a Ukraine-style “revolution” in Russia.

Relations grew much more complicated when Russia intervened militarily in Syria last year aiming to prop up its traditional client, but framing the move as an opportunity for Moscow and the US to forge a grand anti-terrorist alliance to restore stability to the Middle East. Washington and its allies, who argue that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad must go, have so far snubbed that offer.

But recent allegations that Russia was interfering in the US elections, and backing pro-Russian forces of disunity all over Europe, have driven mutual suspicions to post-cold war lows.

Q: What does Trump say he will do differently?

Russian foreign policy experts say they are fascinated with Trump’s foreign policy views, which, while not very detailed, appear to add up to a repudiation of many key US policies of the post-cold war era, especially toward Moscow.

Trump would end US-led regime-change efforts, downgrade military alliances such as NATO, and seek concord with Russia. “I would love to have a good relationship [with Russia] where ... instead of fighting each other we got along,” he told The New York Times.

What Russia wants is more of a free hand in its own region, especially in places like Ukraine, and Trump seems to be signalling that would be possible under his administration. They are also tired of being lectured about their behavior at home and abroad by US leaders, whom they increasingly regard as hypocrites.

“Trump has said rather clearly that he’s very much against intervention, unless it’s in defense of important US interests. He’s also made it clear that he doesn’t favor ‘democracy promotion’ and pressuring others about human rights,” and he admits that the US has problems of its own at home to attend to, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “That’s something totally new to hear from a US president.”

Q: Can Trump realistically deliver change?

Russian analysts say they are amazed that Trump got elected, despite much of the US establishment practically labeling him a “Russian agent.” That bodes well, they say, for his ability to improve the dire state of Russo-US ties.

In his own remarks welcoming Trump’s victory, Putin was cautiously optimistic.

“We heard [Trump’s] campaign rhetoric while still a candidate for the US presidency, which was focused on restoring the relations between Russia and the United States,” he said. “We understand and are aware that it will be a difficult path in the light of the degradation in which, unfortunately, the relationship between Russia and the US are at the moment.”

But any efforts to improve relations will run up against a multitude of obstacles, including foreign policy establishments in the West that oppose any rapprochement with Russia that looks like appeasement, and Trump’s own lack of real diplomatic experience.

“He has a businessman’s mentality, and believes he can make better deals,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “But he's going to run up against the hard reality that not everything in geopolitics is negotiable, because sometimes interests are diametrically opposed and no deal is possible.

“If you can't make a deal in business, you can just go elsewhere,” he says. “But there’s only one Russia in the world. You are going to have to find a way to coexist with that one. Or not.”

Q: What about the rest of the former Soviet region?

There is audible dismay in Kiev, and in the capitals of the three former Soviet Baltic states, where it is feared that Trump’s priority on restoring good ties with Russia might come at their expense.

Trump has even suggested that he might find a way to recognize Crimea as Russian territory, which would pretty much overturn whatever is left of the post-cold war order in Europe. Already politicians who seek better relations with Moscow are gaining ground in countries like Bulgaria and Moldova, and any perceived US pullback from the region might turn that into a stampede.

“Our political leaders were totally behind Hillary Clinton, and actively expected her to win,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center for Political Studies. “Now they will have to find a way to love Trump, I guess.”

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