As Donald Trump prepares to take office as the 45th US president on January 20, the euphoria of his election victory is yielding to some looming thorny realpolitik, especially regarding relations with President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
In his first press conference as president-elect on January 11, Trump said he would seek positive relations with the Russian leadership, but left open the possibility that he could fail. “I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I hope I do, but there’s a good chance that I won’t.”
In mutual lip service paid in the past two years, Putin has called Trump a “very outstanding person, talented”, while the Republican gushed about the Kremlin boss’s macho style and policies towards Syria.
It was long evident that the Kremlin wanted to see Trump and not Hillary Clinton in the White House, as the latter was set to take a hard line on Russia for its interventions in Ukraine since 2014. A Trump administration was also regarded as more likely to agree to anti-terrorist cooperation along lines acceptable to Moscow.
Property mogul Trump was always expected to pursue a less confrontational and more business-oriented stance towards Russia. In expectation of this, his November election win has so far brought an estimated $29bn gain in the wealth of Russian oligarchs whose companies will benefit from an improved political climate and likely slackening and then removal of sanctions imposed by the administration of President Barack Obama.
However, Trump said he is not attempting the same reset with Russia that was tried by Clinton in 2009 when she was US secretary of state. “There’s no reset button,” he said. “We’re either going to get along, or we’re not. I hope we get along, but if not, that’s possible too. Russia will respect us far more than past administrations.”
What’s to gain?
Areas where the governments are most likely to achieve tangible progress include combatting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and counter-terrorism. Trump wants to cooperate with Russia in degrading the Islamic State (IS). Also, he is not as invested in getting a good peace deal for the Syrian opposition or insistent on President Bashar al-Assad’s departure, having described the Syrian leader as possibly a lesser evil than the alternatives.
“That pleases Moscow,” says Simon Saradzhyan, director of the ‘Russia Matters’ project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “He also seems to be less inclined to weigh in on Russia’s human rights and democracy record, which would please Moscow too.”
Trump is also unlikely to commit to further increases to the US military presence in Europe beyond Obama’s plans for reinforcements, which began arriving in Poland via Germany in the second week of January, complicating a rapprochement with Moscow. He might also be less supportive of Ukraine in its stand-off with Russia.
Where’s the rub?
Probable stumbling blocks in the relationship include disagreements on whether the US should commit to binding guarantees on non-expansion of missile defence and enlarging Nato.
“Trump’s campaign rhetoric indicates that he is no fan of Nato expansion - he has criticised Nato as obsolete and attacked some of America’s European allies as freeriders, saying the US would defend them against aggression as required by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty only if they live up to their obligations and spend enough on defence,” notes Saradzhyan. “But nor can he sign a treaty with Russia on that, if only because it would require approval of the Senate. Congress would also block any such treaty on missile defence, which Trump, given his earlier vows to spend lavishly on defence programs, would not be interested in anyway.”
And in business, despite an anticipated thaw in relations, Russia and the US may struggle to carve out room for energy cooperation now that the latter is also a big oil and gas producer.
No easy ride for Russia
But while the new US leader can blow hot and cold on a wide range of issues, including Russia, it will fall to his nominee as secretary of state Rex Tillerman, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, to implement future policy towards the former Cold War adversary. Tillerson, who has extensive experience of working in Russia and knows Putin personally, has made it clear he will not be a pushover.
Paraphrased by one Senate staffer who spoke to the Washington Post after closed door meetings with Tillerson in early January, the nominated top diplomat said, “I understand Putin and Russia is a playground bully and they only respect strength and you need to come from a position of strength to them or you are going to have a lot of problems”.
During his confirmation hearings on January 11, Tillerson told the US Senate that he will support measures against the Russian government that will deter and prevent further military expansion into Ukraine.
“I’m advocating for responses that will deter and prevent further expansion of a bad actor’s behaviour,” he said. When asked whether Russia had a legal claim to Crimea, he said, “No sir. That was a taking of territory that was not theirs.” He further acknowledged Russia’s military incursions in Ukraine’s Donbas region as “illegal action”. However, Tillerson said he would not support the new round of sanctions against Russia that is currently being prepared by a bipartisan team of senators.
Obama’s parting salvo
Meanwhile, the departing Obama administration clouded Trump’s plans by slapping new sanctions on Russia in late December in retribution for the Kremlin’s alleged hacking into US political party computer networks in a bid to influence the outcome of November’s general election in Trump’s favour.
Obama also initiated the largest US military deployment in Europe since the Cold War, which is already raising hackles in Moscow.
“We interpret this as a threat to us and as actions that endanger our interests and our security,” Tass quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on January 12 about the deployment of almost 4,000 troops and hundreds of armoured vehicles, including more than 80 heavy tanks. “Especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. It’s not even a European state.”
The deployment was brought forward a few weeks in a possible bid by the outgoing administration to lock Trump into the strategy. However, no significant Russian military response is likely before it becomes clear if relations with the US will improve under its new leader.
However, signals from Trump’s nominated secretary of defense, retired Army general James Mattis, also cast doubt on there being any significant improvement. Under questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing on January 12, Mattis said he believes Putin is trying to “break” the Nato alliance that has anchored American and European security for more than half a century. Describing Russia as a “strategic adversary”, Mattis said that while the US should remain open to working with the country, the prospects for cooperation are narrowing.
Jury still out
For now though, Moscow seems to be giving Trump and his team some leeway and tempered public support. In a separate press briefing, Peskov echoed Trump’s rejection as “fake news” an unverified dossier in circulation that alleges Russian authorities have been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” him for years, and have compromising information about his engagement in perverse sexual acts during a visit to Moscow in 2013. “The Kremlin has no dirt on Trump. This information does not correspond to reality and appears to be nothing but totally invented,” Peskov said.
To counter claims that he might be susceptible to Russian manipulation, Trump stressed that “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I have nothing to do with Russia - no deals. No loans. No nothing!”
As he embarks on his presidency, Trump looks willing to set aside the Russian hacking issue, saying “everyone” is doing it to the US these days. “Trump remains inclined to mend fences with Russia in spite of the hacking scandal and so is the Kremlin,” says Saradzhyan. But he sees a lasting qualitative change in the bilateral relationship as unlikely in the face of so many obstacles.
“Also, the post-Cold War experience teaches us that good personal ties between US and Russian leaders are not enough to create a sturdy partnership,” he noted. “Such a relationship simply cannot be sustained in the presence of fundamental differences and the absence of a solid economic foundation. Russia is currently not even in Top 30 of America’s largest trading partners, while the US has trailed five other countries in the list of Russia’s biggest trading partners.”