Russia has yet to decide what it wants from Donald Trump – or how to get it

Celebrate good times, come on. EPA/Sergei Karpukhin

The dossier reportedly drawn up by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele has everyone pondering Russia’s potential ability to manipulate Donald Trump once he’s in office.

In reality, most of the dossier’s claims aren’t very clear, and as yet are not backed up by evidence that could sway the public. The only sure thing the allegations do is add to the mounting pile of criticism that Trump’s approach towards Russia has received in the last months. They also reinforce the views of those who dislike Trump, or who consider Putin the ultimate modern-day global villain.

In the firestorm that ensued after its release, Kremlin spokespeople publicly denounced the dossier as a fabricated attempt to derail the potential rapprochement in bilateral relations that Trump’s presidency promises. Lumping it together with the claims regarding Russian interference in the US presidential elections, they (like Trump himself) derided the dossier as a trivial fake, and dismissed it as part of a deluge of fake news currently sweeping the media.

But for all the Kremlin rails against the US government’s claims that it hacked the US elections or the dossier’s allegations about Trump, Russian leaders are also revelling in the global attention their country is getting.

Big league

Around the world, Russia is now being portrayed as a strong player in world politics, not only able to shape events in Ukraine or Syria but also also disrupt elections in the most powerful country on the globe and corrupt its president-elect. As far as international relations go, Putin is now undoubtedly at the zenith of his power and influence.

Both he and the Russian public understand from the continuous trail of allegations about Moscow’s interference that the American foreign policy establishment is in disarray. Surely, Russia will be emboldened in the near future to try and extract more concessions from the West, especially in its ventures abroad.

Russia against the world. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

Russia might put even more pressure on the government in Kiev to implement the terms of the Minsk agreements and federalise Ukraine and give additional power to pro-Russian rebels in the eastern Donbas region. In Syria, it will strive to keep Bashar al-Assad in power as part of any future political settlement. The hope is that Trump’s presidency will more or less willingly give in to Russia’s demands either as a sign of goodwill or in order to avoid conflict with Moscow.

The recent change in the way Russia’s power is perceived globally is also bound to strengthen Putin at home. Since his third presidential term started in 2012 Putin has sought to maintain a strong grip on society, arguing that he’s the only leader capable of defending the country against Western threats.

In the minds of many Russians, the emergence of the dossier on Trump further confirms the fact that Russia is besieged by the West, but also legitimises Putin’s ability to expand Moscow’s power and influence in international relations. So allegations of Russia meddling in the West will probably have a positive effect on Putin’s domestic approval levels.

The wildcard

The allegations also play in Russia’s favour as they further discredit Trump’s judgement in foreign policy and hamper his relationship with the US intelligence community – but this tactic has a downside too.

At first glance, a strong and assertive Trump ready to ride roughshod over the US’s core foreign policy conventions might seem like just what Russia wants, but it’s rather more complicated than that. Trump is also highly unpredictable and to some, irrational; while some of the Kremlin establishment openly rejoiced in his victory, many will surely be rather uneasy at the prospect of a US government whose actions can’t be anticipated and countered.

Contrary to the narrative that’s built up around the election-hacking saga, the Russians might well have preferred to deal with Hillary Clinton, by comparison a known quantity. Her forthright hawkishness would have helped the Kremlin maintain the sense that the West is out to get Russia. Even before Trump won, there were reports that Moscow’s interventions to help Trump might in fact have been a bet that the impression of Russian support for him would scare or disgust the American people into voting for a more orthodox president.

For many years, the Russian government has been quite adept at using fake news not just abroad, but at home. The aim is to instil doubt about reality itself; Putin has managed to control Russian society by creating a surreal sense, as the journalist Peter Pomenatsev puts it, that “nothing is true and everything is possible”. Russia might be now using similar tactics by creating uncertainty regarding its own ties with Trump and not just the extent of its involvement in US politics, but what that involvement is in fact meant to achieve.

So what now? On a basic level, the Kremlin will probably try to see how far it can push the Trump administration towards meaningful foreign policy concessions. If it doesn’t work, Putin will surely argue that even though Trump himself had friendly intentions, they were killed in the cradle by an extremely anti-Russian US establishment. But with Trump and his cabinet nominees already apparently diverging on fundamental Russia policy issues, there’s no predicting what game the Kremlin will actually have to play.