Is a Trump Presidency Really a Big Win for Putin?
The Russian leader now has a sympathetic president in Washington, but he should be wary of the problems Donald Trump could bring to Moscow.
From the baroque halls of the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Donald Trump on his recent victory in the U.S. presidential election on Wednesday. Broadcast live on state television, Putin calmly read his remarks to a room full of ambassadors that the Russian president had just sworn in and outlined a plan for a political solution to Syria and announced that now that Trump will be in the White House, Russia is ready to restore its ties with Washington.
“We heard [Trump’s] campaign rhetoric while still a candidate for the U.S. presidency, which was focused on restoring relations between Russia and the United States,” Putin said. “It’s not our fault that Russian-American relations are in this poor state. But Russia is ready and wants to restore full-fledged relations with the United States.”
The televised address capped off what has been an unexpected victory for Putin. The Russian president and his country had played an outsized role in the U.S. election cycle, with Trump’s unwavering praise for Putin’s strong style of rule and the role of Russian hacker groups taking center stage. In Russia, the American vote had also become a centerpiece of broadcasts by state media, which often recited Trump talking points about the election outcome being rigged and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s intention to start a war with Moscow. The Kremlin appeared to shed its anxieties over a Clinton presidency as the Russian parliament burst into applause as news of Trump’s victory speech was relayed to lawmakers.
But for Putin, the outcome of the U.S. election is about more than executing Moscow’s strategy of breeding chaos during the presidential election and discrediting America’s political system. Russia’s intervention in Syria, coming on the heels of a deeper crisis triggered by the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, put U.S. cooperation with Moscow on the table for U.S. and European policymakers but had few takers in the West. Now after more than two years of biting economic sanctions and international isolation, Putin has a way to restore Russia’s global status and reopen ties with the West — and its name is Donald Trump.
Those in the Kremlin do not “want to own Syria or Ukraine. They want their interests to be taken into account,” Thomas Graham, a managing director at Kissinger Associates and the former senior director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, told Foreign Policy. “In a strange way, that entails working with the United States, albeit on terms more favorable to Russia.”
And Putin may be able to reach those terms with Trump after he assumes office on Jan. 20, 2017. Throughout the election cycle, Trump made improved cooperation with Moscow a tenet of his campaign and a consistent policy position. The Republican president-elect touted that he will “get along very well” with Putin and showered praise on the Russian leader, calling him a “better leader than Obama.” Other campaign comments indicate that his administration would be willing to roll back Washington’s current support for Ukraine, anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, and even NATO members — which Trump has criticized for failing to pay their fair share of the costs for their security in Europe. These changes, according to Trump, would be justified by the possibility of enlisting Moscow’s support in the wider fight against the Islamic State and radical Islamic terrorism around the world.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton and the prospect of her presidency has been a point of contention in Russia since her term as secretary of state that began 2009 and ended in 2013 with frayed ties between Moscow and Washington. On the campaign trail, the Democratic candidate branded Putin a bully on the international stage and Trump as his puppet. In response, Russia’s state news outlets routinely portrayed Clinton as old, corrupt, and a danger to Moscow and the world. In the lead-up to the U.S. general election, relations between Russia and the United States have hit an all-time low in the 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union with the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, Putin has flexed Russia’s power in new and often unpredictable ways: tearing up nuclear agreements, deploying new nuclear-capable missiles to the exclave of Kaliningrad, and buzzing NATO planes and ships with Russian aircraft.
And although the Kremlin is certainly encouraged by the prospect of a grand bargain between the United States and Russia, Moscow is still apprehensive about the real estate mogul taking the helm. Because though extending the olive branch to a Trump White House might improve relations with Washington, the Kremlin is aware of the growing anti-Russian sentiment among U.S. policymakers. “They may like his rhetoric, but he is volatile, unpredictable, and the Kremlin does not know who his advisors are or will be,” Graham said.
It is hardly clear exactly how Trump will make it easier for Putin to advance his goals abroad, but Moscow is certain to capitalize on the turmoil that the unconventional Republican’s victory will sow in world capitals. “It’s better for Russia if the USA is in domestic political crisis, and a Trump victory would underscore exactly such a crisis,” Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told FP.
In a search for cracks in the Western facade to exploit, Moscow is likely to try to use confusion over Trump’s victory to breed disunity on U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia. Both Brussels and Washington have renewed sanctions into 2017, but fatigue in Brussels is growing, and it is not assured that the European Union will maintain the economic measures without pressure from Washington. Should the EU sanctions fail to be renewed in January, it would be a massive victory for Putin — ending Russia’s isolation with the West and earning international recognition that the Kremlin has restored Moscow’s global influence lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The end of sanctions would also be a victory at home for Putin. The Russian leader has eliminated his political rivals and maintains a firm 80 percent popularity rating, but long-term economic stagnation is perhaps the greatest risk to Putin’s rule. Since 2014, collapsing oil prices, fleeing capital, and an economic recession have had Russians tightening their belts. Moscow has so far managed to navigate its financial woes with some success, but Putin, who came to power following the economic crises of the 1990s, knows that growing debt and budget cuts are not sustainable. The Kremlin, however, bet that it would be able to shift the geopolitical agenda to its terms, and Trump’s election is the seismic event Moscow had hoped for.
In the meantime, Putin may wait as the dust settles on Washington’s new reality, says John Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. According to Herbst, the degree to which Moscow scales back its rhetoric toward the United States and actions in Syria and Ukraine in the coming days and weeks will indicate the Kremlin’s true interest level in wanting to “do business” with a future Trump administration.
In considering how to rebuild ties with a Trump administration and still balance its strategic interests in the Middle East and Europe, Herbst believes that the Russian president should be wary of “giving the president-elect reason to reconsider the views that he has expressed on NATO and Ukraine.” Moscow still controls the levers to ramp up the bombardment of Aleppo or spark new fighting in eastern Ukraine that could create a headache for President Barack Obama during his final weeks in office. Even now that Trump is slated to transition to the White House, the Kremlin still needs to be prudent about provoking Washington too far.
In other words, Herbst said, “it would be smart for Putin to be cautious in the post-election period.”
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