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Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president will come at a pivotal moment for Russian foreign policy. Facing persistent economic stagnation and a presidential election next year, Russia has an interest in consolidating its recent gains abroad. At the same time, political uncertainty in the West is presenting new opportunities to Moscow.
The fall of Aleppo to Syrian government forces backed by Russian airpower, together with Russia's diplomatic outreach to Turkey and Iran, has created an opening for Russia to preserve its core interests in Syria and allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare victory there. And although the conflict in eastern Ukraine remains deadlocked, Russian observers believe that time is on Russia’s side, as the West’s appetite for upholding sanctions wanes and the standing of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko weakens amid corruption scandals and a sputtering economy. Eventually, Moscow hopes, Kiev will have to choose either a deal on Russia’s terms or an unaffordable military escalation that would further alienate its Western partners.
Because Trump has called for improved relations with Russia and has selected a number of appointees and advisers who have done the same, Russian officials believe that his presidency will provide an opportunity for their country to consolidate its gains in both Syria and Ukraine. More broadly, Moscow hopes to scale back tensions with the United States and secure Washington's assent for a new, multipolar world order based on the spheres of influence of the great powers rather than on the liberal norms and institutions that dominated the post-Cold War era.
Russia and the United States will confront each other in Europe whatever Trump desires.
Russian leaders know that previous attempts at improving U.S.-Russian ties have failed and that Trump is unpredictable, but they nevertheless believe that Trump’s election creates the opportunity for a détente with the United States. Putin’s recent comments and Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept, along with articles in the state-controlled press, all suggest that Moscow is seeking just such a reconciliation.
Whatever olive branch Moscow may be holding out to Trump, however, is rooted in a demand that the Kremlin has maintained for more than a decade: that the United States acknowledge Russia as a coequal power and defer to Moscow’s interests in regions it considers vitally important—above all, the former Soviet states and eastern Europe. “We are not and have never looked for enemies,” Putin said in his annual address to Russian lawmakers on December 1. “We need friends. But we will not allow the constraint or neglect of our interests . . . it is important to normalize and begin to develop bilateral relations [with the United States] on an equal and mutually beneficial basis.” The new Foreign Policy Concept, meanwhile, drops its predecessor’s reference to Russia as an “integral, organic part of European civilization” and devotes particular attention to Russian-sponsored integration projects in Eurasia—a sign that Russia considers that region a sphere of influence in which the United States should not interfere.
Russia is willing to collaborate with the United States and its allies if they accept this vision. But even if Trump does so, working with Moscow on the areas that appear primed for U.S.-Russian cooperation during the next administration—counterterrorism, and security in Europe and East Asia—would in fact be difficult and could create new risks, especially in Europe. A détente with Russia on the Kremlin's terms would be unlikely to hold.
Fighting terrorism, a signal theme of Trump’s campaign, seems like an obvious starting point for U.S.-Russian cooperation. Unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, Trump has not criticized Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Syria and appears willing to accept Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as allies in the fight against terrorism, especially against the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Indeed, Trump’s aggressive views on counterterrorism parallel the way Putin has called for dealing with terrorists in the past, notably in the North Caucasus.
Yet counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Russia has been difficult even when the relationship between the two countries has been good. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, for instance, disputes between the United States and Russia over missile defense, the invasion of Iraq, the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia (to which Moscow initially assented), and revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine eventually stymied the two countries' attempts to work together. For good reason, U.S. and Russian intelligence agencies mistrust each other. The two countries also have different concerns when it comes to terrorism. In Syria, for example, the Russian military has primarily targeted U.S.-backed rebel groups rather than ISIS, and in general, Moscow is more concerned with propping up the Syrian regime and keeping citizens of the former Soviet republics from waging jihad at home than with defeating ISIS in the Middle East. Having recently brokered an agreement with Turkey and Iran aimed at winding up the conflict in Syria, Moscow probably has little interest in launching a major new crusade against ISIS, as Trump has suggested it should, and will probably begin to focus its attention elsewhere.
As for Iran, which Trump has pledged to take a harder line against, it is allied with Russia in Syria, even though Tehran’s and Moscow’s objectives there often diverge. Russia played an important role in shepherding to completion the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers and views the deal as a platform for boosting Russia’s arms sales and strategic presence in the Middle East. It would probably be loath to see the pact undone, an outcome Trump has called for. Some Russian observers have suggested that Moscow would be willing to abandon Iran to clinch a new partnership with Washington. But that seems unlikely, since one of the pillars of Russia’s influence in the Middle East is its professed willingness to stick by its friends—in apparent contrast with the United States’ tendency to abandon its partners, such as the deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, when it finds doing so expedient.
MUCH TO VENTURE, LITTLE TO GAIN
The obstacles to good relations between Moscow and Washington are even bigger in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies have sought to bring the continent’s postcommunist states into the Euro-Atlantic community, using the lure of membership in or partnership with NATO and the European Union to encourage political and economic reforms. Russia has long opposed NATO expansion, and in recent years, it has also resisted the eastward extension of the EU’s influence, invading Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to block those states’ paths toward the Euro-Atlantic community. At the same time, Russia has sought to subvert NATO and the EU from within, supporting a range of illiberal politicians and groups in their member states—including, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, Trump himself.
Russia’s efforts to undo the post–Cold War order in Europe clash with the United States’ long-standing commitments to the principles of sovereignty, territorial inviolability, and democracy, enshrined in agreements such as the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, as well as to the security of its NATO allies and partners. Trump treated those commitments cavalierly during his campaign, but any effort to unwind them during his presidency—for example, by refusing to back a U.S. ally facing Russian economic, cyber, or military pressure—could set off enormous upheavals and encourage Russia to transgress long-standing redlines set by the United States.
So, too, could the perception that Trump might fail to honor the United States’ commitments to its European partners. A Russian attack on the Baltic states, for example, remains unlikely because of the potential for rapid and massive escalation, but plenty of Russian observers are nevertheless speculating as to whether Trump would order U.S. forces to defend those countries. That is cause for concern, since such ambiguity about states’ willingness to back up their allies—in the cases of the United States’ commitment to South Korea in 1950 and the United Kingdom’s commitments to France and Russia in 1914—has bred miscalculations and major wars in the past.
The perception that Trump doubts the value of NATO could also lead Russia to act more aggressively against states in its neighborhood pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration, such as Georgia, Moldova, and Montenegro, which is trying to finalize its membership in NATO and recently accused Russia of orchestrating a coup attempt against its government. Russia is especially likely to do so in Ukraine. Moscow believes that Poroshenko now has little choice but to implement the provisions of the Minsk II cease-fire, which calls for elections in the separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Those elections would help reintegrate Donetsk and Luhansk into the Ukrainian state, while keeping them under the control of Russian proxies who could use their new position on the national stage to prevent Kiev from deepening its ties with the EU and NATO. If Poroshenko or a successor refuses to hold elections in the Donbas because of Russia’s failure to uphold its own commitments under Minsk II, Moscow could decide to drop the cease-fire altogether. It would be more likely to do so if it concludes that Trump will not uphold Western sanctions against Russia or provide arms to the Ukrainian military.
Any agreement to preemptively roll back Western sanctions in exchange for returning Ukraine's separatist areas to Kiev's control would be problematic precisely for this reason. Moscow would get relief from the sanctions regardless of whether a deal is acceptable to Ukraine and its democratically elected government. The Kremlin, for its part, would maintain the ability to intervene in Ukraine in the future with the knowledge that the United States would struggle to rally support for renewed sanctions even if it wanted to.
In Asia, too, Russian observers believe that Trump’s election has the potential to reshape U.S.-Russian relations. Russians took note of the Trump campaign’s harsh rhetoric about China, such as Trump’s calls to impose tariffs on Chinese goods and his advisers’ proposals for what would amount to a containment strategy against Beijing. Despite the protestations in the West about the depth of Chinese-Russian ties, Moscow’s attempts to court China since 2014 have not lived up to expectations. Chinese as well as Russian observers have speculated that Trump could try peeling Moscow away from Beijing in an attempt to balance against China, turning the United States’ Cold War strategy on its head.
Moscow has already hinted that it would like to hedge its growing dependence on China by finding other partners in Asia. The new Foreign Policy Concept notes Moscow’s interest in developing a “privileged strategic partnership” with India, and Russia has shown a renewed willingness to discuss its long-standing territorial dispute with Japan. Although Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to resolve their countries’ disagreement over the control of the southern Kuril Islands when they met in mid-December, they agreed to joint economic development schemes for the disputed territories, and Putin also voiced his support for a treaty that would formally end World War II between Moscow and Tokyo.
Some Russian analysts see a Trump-led U.S.-Russian détente as the next step toward rebalancing Moscow’s ties with Beijing and Washington. Trump’s position on China could indeed offer an opportunity for Russia. By drawing the United States away from China, Russia could secure better relations with those two countries than either has with the other, offset its increasing economic dependence on Beijing, and obviate the pressure it now faces to endorse China's positions in territorial disputes.
Nevertheless, Moscow would probably not join any effort to contain its largest neighbor and trade partner, and the benefit of such a deal to the United States is unclear. Moreover, the focus of Russia’s foreign policy and U.S.-Russian relations remains in Europe: as long as Moscow continues pursuing its revisionist agenda on that continent, the United States will be hard-pressed to build durable partnerships with Russia elsewhere.
If anything, Trump’s election has emboldened Russia in Asia as well. Putin apparently took a harder line with Abe after the U.S. election, avoiding any substantive movement on the territorial issue, to Japan’s frustration. There is less value in peeling Tokyo away from the international consensus on sanctions with Trump about to enter the White House.
During previous periods of U.S.-Russian cooperation, Russia made an effort to participate in the U.S.-led international system. This time around, Russia wants improved ties to be based on the United States’ deferral to Russia’s interests in the areas the Kremlin considers priorities.Trump has already suggested that he could pursue that kind of rapprochement, even at the expense of U.S. allies and partners in Europe and Washington's current interests in Syria and Ukraine. But for such a detente to succeed, both sides would need to believe they would get something out of it. For Russia, the fruits of better ties with Trump's administration are clear: relief from sanctions; the maintenance of the status quo in Syria; a freer hand in Ukraine (and perhaps throughout Europe); a more balanced relationship with China; and the United States' acceptance of Russia's sphere of influence all may hang in the balance. Yet the benefits for the United States are questionable. Although a short-term reduction of tensions would benefit both states, neither counterterrorism nor containing China can be the basis for a more durable U.S.-Russian partnership, and the two countries will confront each other in Europe whatever Trump desires.