What does the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States mean for US-Russian relations?
As of November 2016, the best answer may be that it is too soon to tell. This is despite Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Ryabkov’s disclosure that there had been contact between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign prior to the election, seeming to confirm theories that the Trump phenomenon was masterminded from Moscow. After all, Trump’s ties to Russia were too blatant to ignore: there was the appearance on Russia Today, speculation as to the origin story of Carter Page, and even an amusingly hopeful tweet from 2013.
If the Trump-Putin bromance had been written by Hollywood, the big reveal would be that glamorous Melania was in fact a KGB sleeper cell, to be activated after The Donald takes the oath of office on January 20, 2017.
But as is the nature of this blog, rather than look deeply at Trump and the American election, we will try first to better understand the Kremlin’s approach to Trump from a Russian perspective.
To start, let us allow that the Kremlin certainly preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. Russian state-run media leading up to the election consistently lambasted Clinton, and were very overt in promulgating the leaked DNC emails posted on Wikileaks, which damaged the Clinton campaign. This is a clear choice – equally damning emails from the Trump campaign surely could be found by the Kremlin’s army of cyber soldiers.
So the question becomes “why” would the Kremlin prefer Trump?
First, the preference for Trump can be placed in the broader context of a wave of a electoral victories for candidates perceived to be close to the Kremlin. This is extremely topical, as just this week Bulgaria and Moldova saw victories of their own Russian-leaning politicians.
Second, to put a spin on this, we could posit that Russia’s electoral interference in general has one of two political objectives, either:
(1) To ensure the victory of a satrap who can be controlled by the Kremlin (the classic example of this is the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, but it could be extended to Moldova, Georgia, etc); OR
(2) To create conditions that ensure that an independent political actor is unable to pursue their own strategic objectives. This is called ‘destabilizatsiya‘ and could accurately describe the prevailing status quo in Ukraine and would certainly apply if Hillary Clinton had won – a divided electorate, burgeoning public dissent as a result of email leaks, and ongoing provocations threatening hapless allies.
As Russian government officials have walked back Ryabkov’s comments, it increasingly appears as though their expected outcome in the US election was (2) (however pursued).
But now that Trump won the election, it is unclear whether a Trump foreign policy would bring Russia any closer to achieving its main foreign policy objectives vis-a-vis the US. Those objectives remain as before:
- (1) Removal of economic sanctions
- (2) Recognition of the annexation of Crimea
- (3) Acquiescence to a cease-fire in Syria favoring Bashar al-Assad
There is a fourth objective often mentioned on Russia Today that Russia would like Julian Assange freed.
With a Trump Presidency, the vehicle to achieve these three has been dubbed “Yalta 2.0”, an unlikely
grand bargain in which hypothetically a Trump-led US chooses not to honor its Article V NATO commitments.
In spite Trump’s pronouncementd, his temperament suggests that he would only ever make concessions on any of the three points above if it were in the US’ national interest (or his own personal interest). It would be foreign policy an the mold of The Art of the Deal, but what is Russia offering other than US disentanglement from conflicts that the Obama administration has not exactly become ‘entangled’ in?
Overall, a Russian destabilizatsiya strategy has now created a brave new world for the Kremlin. There will likely continue to be an undercurrent of ongoing cyber attacks and other disruptions, up to and including more buzzing of NATO ships in the Baltic, but I think overall Trump’s impact on US-Russian relations remains in the unopened box of unknown unknowns