Donald Trump has more than once expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin, and both men have expressed hopes of “restoring” US-Russian relations after their countries’ relations hit rock bottom in recent years. Those ties seriously deteriorated after Obama’s 2009 “reset” policy gradually fizzled out, and hit a serious low even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and semi-covert interference in Eastern Ukraine.
Trump will not be the first president to try and “restore” relations with Russia. But his inconsistencies and election campaign behaviour (even after November 8) have been a cause for concern about his actual foreign policy visions.
Trump’s critics are deeply worried that the US president-elect seems to believe the Russian government more than his country’s own intelligence agencies, dismissing the allegations in a US intelligence report that claimed “with high confidence” that Putin ordered targeted cyberattacks to influence the US presidential election in Trump’s favour.
Trump and his closest advisers have responded defensively, and without seriously diluting their views on the Kremlin. While Obama recently imposed sanctions on Russian entities in retaliation for Russian interference during the election, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway – slated to be a counselour to the president in the White House – implied that the sanctions might be reconsidered once Trump is in office, denouncing them as political.
Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, so far seems to be more or less toeing the new administration’s Russia line. Tillerson has excellent connections in Russia and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013 by Putin himself. At his Senate confirmation hearing on January 11, Tillerson voiced scepticism about ill-designed unilateral sanctions and stated that Russia was not unpredictable.
He was far from exuberantly warm about Russia, but he and Trump are running out of time. Come the inauguration, Trump’s vague election campaign promises to “restore relations with Russia” will meet the test of reality. And so far, the indications of what will happen are decidedly mixed.
Entering the fray
On Russia’s contentious relations with Europe, Trump’s election is a gift to the Kremlin. His criticism of NATO defence structures was music to the Russian government’s ears, and he also did not express much interest in the fate of Ukraine. And yet Tillerson, in his first confirmation hearing, asserted that “Russia has disregarded American interests” and that Russia has to know that “it will be held accountable”. He also described Article 5, the collective defence clause of the NATO Charter, as inviolable.
So Trump is unlikely to rescind NATO or fundamentally shift course in US security policies. Yet his statements have already made EU politicians return to the debate about EU defence capabilities. At a minimum, EU-US relations are expected to undergo shifts as US foreign policy towards Russia is set to depart from Obama’s policy of isolating Russia in international affairs over disagreements in the conflict in Ukraine.
In Syria, the US is now sidelined while Russia convenes trilateral talks with Iran and Turkey, effectively negotiating terms for an end to Syria’s armed conflict without US input. The preceding “recapture” of Aleppo in late December was deliberate timing, as Russia knew that the US was going to be paralysed by the political transition period in Washington and that Obama was unlikely to shift course in Syria policies in his last months.
That might dovetail with Trump’s ideas about withdrawing the US from foreign entanglements, but it also raises awkward questions about what long-term US foreign policy on Syria and the Middle East might look like.
The mantra of “democracy promotion”, often criticised as a pretext for ulterior US motives, may give way to a new isolationism that amounts to a rapprochement on Russia’s terms, one that drops references to liberal norms in foreign policy and instead accommodates itself with Russia’s vision of a “polycentric world” based on spheres of great power influence. At the same time, Tillerson indicated that the US has to “get re-engaged” on Syria.
A fragile deal
Iran is probably the best example of the gap between Trump’s talk and a more complex reality. His assessment of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran as “one of the worst deals” he has ever seen negotiated does not match Moscow’s view, since the agreement was negotiated in no small part thanks to Russia’s active contribution. Russia was one of the six countries negotiating with Iran over its nuclear programme, and sits on the joint commission set up to oversee the implementation of the agreement.
Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy agency, Rosatom, meanwhile, took on the task of aiding Iran in the conversion of its uranium enrichment facility at Fordow into a production centre for medical isotopes, and continues to supply the nuclear fuel for civilian nuclear energy usage.
Trump’s blithe talk of “renegotiating” the Iran deal obscures the complexity of a multilateral agreement that is endorsed by the UN Security Council. It will not be easy for the Trump administration to explain to the Russians why an agreement is “a complete catastrophe” when they have such a vested interest in it.
Every US president who took office since the end of the Cold War has tried to “restore”, “rebalance” or “reset” relations with Russia. Whether Trump can actually deliver this promise depends on whether both Washington and Moscow are willing to compromise in key areas and redefine what counts as a “strategic interest”. An “America First” approach to international affairs challenges many of the geopolitical orthodoxies that have survived the Cold War, but however thrilling it might be for Trump’s supporters, no US president has the power to unilaterally write a new global narrative.
Trump still faces plenty of obstacles in Congress, and even Putin himself reminded him that once in office, he will “quite quickly understand the different level of his responsibility”. But the inauguration is looming – and whatever the new president actually does, his impact on a fragmented world demands that those involved in managing international affairs rethink some once-secure assumptions about the international order.