The Implications of President Trump for US-Russia Relations

09.11.16 Publication:

President Vladimir Putin must be a happy man: in January he will have  America’s version of Silvio Berlusconi as his counterpart in the White House. He had better keep one thing in mind, however: Donald Trump is likely to be a lot less predictable than was il Cavaliere.

There is no doubt that strongmen such as Trump, Putin and Berlusconi like each other. They think they can talk directly with one another and do deals. Unlike Mr Berlusconi, however, President Trump will not have his own business deals in mind when he meets the Russian president. He will have American national interests in mind, and those interests are more difficult to reconcile with Russian interests than was the case between Vladimir and Silvio.

During the long electoral campaign, Mr Trump said many things about foreign policy, many of them contradictory, some of them quite complimentary about President Putin. But one thing he said that he is likely to have meant was that when doing deals it is best to be unpredictable.

One thing that is predictable, especially given that the Republican Party has held on to control of Congress, is that the party and those likeliest to be lined up for cabinet roles will press for a hard-line approach on defence and foreign policy: certainly on Iran, possibly on China, but definitely on America’s old Cold War foe, Russia.

Mr Trump has often hinted that some sort of deal could be done with Russia over Ukraine, flouting the current joint US-Europe position and blowing sanctions out of the water. But whether he and whatever foreign-policy team he appoints would carry through with that hint must be doubted.

In theory, some sort of trade-off between Russian desires in Ukraine and American ones in Syria could appeal to a deal-making president. But suspicion of Russia runs deep in people such as John Bolton, an arch-conservative and former US ambassador to the United Nations who is one man tipped for the National Security Advisor role.

To people such as Mr Bolton, a deal with Russia would not be like Richard Nixon, a previous Republican hard-liner, opening relations with Mao Xedong’s China. It would be like doing a deal with the devil.

Moreover, American objectives in Syria are complex. It is not comfortable for US hard-liners to see Russia having naval bases in the Mediterranean thanks to Syria, nor is it comfortable for them to see a man also supported by Iran, President Bashar Al-Assad, kept in power by Russia. So while suppression of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq could be a common interest, the situation in the Middle East is too complex to allow simple US-Russia dealmaking.

Had Hillary Clinton won, President Putin might have been tempted to unsettle the new administration by making his own deal with Japan during his visit there in December, over four islands that have been disputed between the two countries since 1945.

As a nationalist himself, President Putin would have found such a deal hard to do, but it could have been tempting to exploit the interregnum between US presidents and shake the western alliance. But with Donald Trump heading for the White House, such a tactic will have less appeal: President Putin will surely prefer to keep his options open.

Rather than getting closer to Japan, President Putin is now going to be more tempted to reinforce his relationship with China. He will do so firstly in order to show President Trump that Russia cannot be taken for granted, whatever compliments were handed out to him during the campaign.

But also the new era that has just begun is likely to be one in which frictions of all kinds – over trade, territory, climate change, security – are going to get worse. China will feel pressure from a more belligerent America too. So Russia will want to strengthen its hands in facing up to President Trump by hinting at a future Sino-Russia alliance, if America should push too hard.

Unpredictable is certainly the right word.