Finally, the most divisive and disruptive election in modern US history is over: Donald Trump will occupy the White House for at least the next four years, starting in late January. The question that many in Russia and those who have or are considering investing in Russia are asking is, what does a Trump president actually mean for Russia risk?
The perception widely held before the election is that Trump would have a friendlier disposition towards Russia and President Vladimir Putin personally and that he “could do business with him”. The extension of that being that Trump would be good for Russia and for investors in Russia. But, is that assumption overly naïve, ie. the default assumption in a bitterly contested election, or can both countries now enter a new friendlier phase?
There is no doubt that Russia, in particular the perception of Russia in the Western media, has suffered considerable collateral damage during the latter part of the US presidential election. The Kremlin was all but accused by US security agencies of hacking into the Democrats’ email system and that translated as an indisputable fact in the media. President Putin was vilified as deliberately interfering in the electoral process. The reality is that no matter what Trump may personally want, it will not be easy to simply suppress all that bad feeling and pretend it never happened. The relationship between Washington and Moscow is today as bad as it has ever been since the end of the Soviet Union. Many people believe that the two sides are close to entering a new Cold War, while others now accept that to be already the case.
So let’s assume that President Trump will, at least initially, be more open to rebuilding a better relationship with President Putin. What can he actually do to make that happen?
No quick end to sanctions
The first point to make is that while the office of the US president is very powerful, he will have to constantly negotiate with other legislative bodies, especially Congress, if he is to progress his core objectives. As we heard in the election campaign, these are almost entirely domestic. President Trump will have to engage in a lot of old-style political horse-trading with Congress and with government agencies to get support for his more important domestic policies, such as immigration control and trade protection. Geopolitical policies may have to be given up, diluted or changed to facilitate such deals.
One has only to recall that President Barack Obama was determined to close Guantanamo Bay detention center when he took office eight years ago, but had to give that up as he fought for his healthcare plan. It is likely to be the same for Trump. So any assumption for a quick dilution of sanctions or an early summit between Trump and Putin is unrealistic. The best one can say is that the rhetoric between the White House and the Kremlin may be softer and less confrontational. Alas, the same cannot be said much beyond the Oval Office.
Syria is still expected to be the most contentious and dangerous issue both sides will have to deal with earliest. A calming of events in the Levant in early 2017 seems like wishful thinking at this stage, so both sides will still be engaged in the conflict. President Trump cannot afford to be seen as weak, either in front of his military or internationally, in what is likely to be his first geopolitical test. The question is whether both countries will start to cooperate, or stay out of each other’s way or whether there may be an increasing risk of a conflict?
There is also a question mark over how much involvement the new administration will wish to have regarding Ukraine. There is no evidence that President Trump has any personal interest in events in Ukraine. Very likely he will be more inclined to make clear it is Europe’s problem to solve and let Germany and France take a lead in negotiations with Kyiv and Moscow.
The previous hope for even a first step reduction in financial sector sanctions by the EU in January now seems completely extinguished. The accusations over Syria and the demonizing of Russia in the US election have almost certainly put paid to that. The EU is expected to roll over sanctions for another six months and review again in June. Any adjustment, then, also seems like wishful thinking at this stage, but of course a lot can happen in a six-month period, not least of which will be the French presidential election and the UK either triggering the Brexit or also facing an early general election.
Whatever the actions of the EU and Trump’s less confrontational approach to Russia, realistically the earliest his administration would likely consider replicating any sanctions adjustment by the EU would likely be only after the presidential election in Russia in March 2018. The White House could not be seen to given even a small favour to Vladimir Putin after the events of the past year, as that would cause a rift with Congress and the Washington DC elites.
One potentially positive factor may be that the big US corporations who have important business in Russia may get better access to the new administration than they had with the Obama administration. Many businesses who have profitable operations in Russia or who rely on Russia as a source of critical materials are expected to try and press for at least a more pragmatic and less confrontational relationship for the next four years. After all, one of Trump’s consistent messages over the past two years is that he is pro-business.
The relationship between both sides may also depend on whether the escalating show of strength between Russia and Nato continues. Moscow very publicly sailed part of its northern fleet through the English Channel and is regularly accused of buzzing Nato airspace with military aircraft. Nato has been building forward bases in the Baltic countries and also deploying navy ships near Russia’s coasts. A step back by both sides would be a clear sign of the hoped for pragmatism, while an escalation, especially in the early days of the new US administration, would be taken as a very bad signal by investors and businesses.
Beyond any initial enthusiasm for a Trump victory by the political nationalists and media commentators in Moscow, the real concern may be that Trump is completely unknown and untested in geopolitics, a black box. It is unknown how he may engage with China over that country’s expansion in the South China Sea or indeed how he would have reacted to the events in Ukraine in March 2014. That will worry the Kremlin as much as leaders in other capital cities.
In reality, while geopolitical perception is very important, especially for big international businesses worried about reputation as much as financial risk, whether Russia becomes an attractive investment location again will be decided by the actions of the government in Moscow and not in Washington. The country has survived the last three years of sanctions and low oil revenues remarkably well. But resilience, a not inappropriately overused word to describe the economy, is not enough. To get back to the targeted 3.5-4.5% annual growth, the country needs to boost investment and restore both business and consumer confidence.
Making that happen is almost entirely in the hands of the Kremlin administration and the government. The list of what needs to be done is very clear. In that sense, the more important election will be that scheduled for March 2018, and the policies prioritized by the administration after that, and not the election just completed on the other side of the world.
Chris Weafer is a founding partner of Macro-Advisory, which helps investors cut though the noise & focus on underlying trends, real political risks, & opportunities in Russia/CIS, Eurasia Union, & Mongolia. Follow him on @ChrisWeafer.