In Moscow, Cautious Optimism for US-Russia Relations Under Trump

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

Moscow: A normally sedate session of the state Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, was interrupted last Wednesday when one of the members rushed into the chamber to shout that Donald Trump had won the US presidential election and that Hillary Clinton had phoned him to concede. The Russian lawmakers spontaneously leaped to their feet and delivered a raucous standing ovation at the news.

Such were the hopes aroused in Russia’s political establishment by the candidacy of Trump – who suggested during the campaign that he regards NATO as an obsolete organisation, would seek a more friendly and cooperative relationship with Russia, might even recognise Russia’s 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 Clinton who, despite having authored an optimistic 2009 “reset” of relations with Russia as US Secretary of State, had grown increasingly suspicious of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, staunchly favoured bolstering Europe’s defenses, wanted to roll back Russian intervention in Syria by imposing a “no fly zone,” and even accused Trump of being the Kremlin’s puppet and Putin of using cyber-hackers to skew the election in Trump’s favour.

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

As bad, if not worse than the Cold War

Ties between the US and Russia currently seem as bad as they were in the depths of the Cold War. Some analysts say they are much more dangerous, since the safety checks and backchannels painstakingly developed by the two superpowers to prevent miscalculations were discarded long ago.

Things began to go downhill after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, arguing publicly 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 then the Kremlin took advantage of the chaos to annex Ukraine’s largely Russian-populated Crimean peninsula as well as to back pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east. The West, led by the US, piled on sanctions against Russia 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 Ukraine-style “coloured revolution” in Russia.

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

The first major military buildup in Europe since the Cold War, with multiple incidents of Russian and NATO ships and aircraft rehearsing real conflict, has made the danger of war seem all too real.

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.

“Everyone seems to be playing the Russian card these days, trying to boost their own internal unity by focusing blame on Russia,” says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. “They believe that we are causing problems for them, and there’s no way we can disprove that we are doing it. These accusations have a life of their own, they drive tensions up and trust down, and it just gets worse and worse.”

Trump’s approach to Russia

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump argued – not in a very coherent way – that US foreign policy was a failure and that he would change it in fundamental ways.

Russian foreign policy experts say they are fascinated with Trump’s views, laid out in two extensive interviews with the New York Times. Though his points are not very detailed and offer little more than a sense of his personal instincts, they appear to add up to a repudiation of many key US policies of the post-cold war era, especially toward Moscow, say the Russian experts.

Trump would end US-led efforts to change regimes, 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. Russians are also tired of being lectured about their behaviour 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 favour ‘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.”

Now that Trump has won, it remains to be seen how much of his rhetoric was based on conviction and how he will resolve the many apparent contradictions among his campaign pledges.

Russian analysts say they are amazed that Trump got elected, despite much of the US establishment practically labeling him a ‘Russian agent’. At the very least, the allegations of near-treasonous contacts with the Kremlin do not appear to have hurt him at all; it may even be that millions of Americans would prefer better relations with Russia. That might bode well for Trump’s chances of success if he does reach out to Putin in the coming months.

Trump has even suggested that he might visit Moscow to hold talks with Russian leaders before his inauguration on January 20, 2017.

Moscow’s expectations

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 who oppose any rapprochement with Russia that smells like appeasement and Trump’s own lack of experience in the real world of diplomacy.

“He has a businessman’s mentality, and believes he can make better deals,” says 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. 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.”

But any basic change in the equation between Moscow and Washington would have much wider repercussions. It could derail the tentative detente between Russia and China, which has been growing rapidly amid the Kremlin’s tensions with the West over the past three years. Trump has made no secret of his hostility toward China and, during his election campaign, he told a TV interviewer that the US-led isolation of Russia was a strategic blunder: “Anyone knows you should never drive Russia and China together, but Obama has done that,” he said.

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 recognise 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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