US-Russia relations: The art of the deal,
by Emily Ferris.
Against a backdrop of difficult relations between the West and Russia, Trump’s oft-repeated comment “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?” drew much attention and a significant amount of criticism. A career businessman who capitalised on his position as a political outsider to win the presidency, Trump views Russia through that same transactional business lens: as a country that can be negotiated with, and that could have much in common with the US if treated as an equal partner.
Under President Barack Obama, Russia has increasingly been portrayed as a state that is dangerously out of control, with the nuclear potential to engage in direct warfare with NATO. The administration – in tandem with the EU - has pursued isolationist policies towards Russia. In many ways it has misunderstood and – perhaps more importantly – ignored Russia’s geopolitical intentions, creating entrenched divides. But as Trump begins his four-year term in January 2017, could a different approach to Russia mark the start of a political rapprochement between the two countries?
Business as usual?
When news of Trump’s election broke, Russia’s State Duma (lower house) erupted into applause. It was no secret that his rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton, had a difficult relationship with Russia from her days as Secretary of State. She was resoundingly portrayed in Russian media as a Russophobe determined to depict Russia as a geopolitical evil-doer. Yet the Duma’s public display of optimism is likely to have been tinged with a note of caution. While Clinton and President Vladimir Putin’s poor personal relationship and fundamental disagreements were highly publicised, she was a known and predictable political entity for Putin.
By contrast, Trump is a wildcard. Although Putin and Trump talk – one of the incoming president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy was to hold a telephone call with Putin to pledge to work together – his foreign policy stances are occasionally inconsistent or unclear, and he could be an unreliable strategic partner. After their initial phone call, Putin laid bare the boundaries of their relationship in his subsequent summary of the discussion, in which he maintained that he and Trump had agreed not to interfere in one another’s affairs.
Whether or not words precisely to this effect were said, it indicated Putin’s message for future bilateral co-ordination: don’t meddle in our affairs and we will get along. That said, projecting strength is an important component of Trump’s leadership too, and may prove disadvantageous to Russia. When politically challenged by Russia, Trump is likely to be a difficult political actor to engage with. This makes him a partner that Putin is likely to approach with considerable caution.
Making the first move
Trump was right when he noted that many of Russia’s actions can be explained as strategic moves to prioritise its national interests. With this in mind, there may be areas of agreement that the new administration could reach with Russia to break the political deadlock. A potential starting point would be a limited easing of US sanctions.
The US and EU introduced sanctions on Russia in July 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, and have gradually intensified them since. Both sanctions regimes are likely to have inflicted damage on the Russian economy, though the impact is hard to quantify given that they have coincided with plummeting oil prices – a major driver of Russia’s growth. Given the EU’s deep trading relationship with Russia, certain parts of the EU business community have engaged in vigorous lobbying for sanctions relief. Part of Russia’s optimism regarding the new president is likely to have been linked to public statements indicating a willingness to ease sanctions on Russia. Easing restrictions on the availability of debt-financing for Russian financial institutions and encouraging US investment would offer a boost to Russia’s ailing economy.
While his actions as president are likely to be much diluted from his statements on the campaign trail, Trump is likely to support a limited easing of some sanctions on Russia in 2017, with the primary aim of restoring business ties. Russia favours symmetry: NATO’s consolidation of weaponry and troops in Europe is matched by Russia’s build-up of troops along its border with Europe. The same principle applies to sanctions. If Trump makes the first move – and he might, using the claim that it would be 'good for business' and a slap in the face for the Obama administration – this would be interpreted in Russia as a significant win for Putin, further consolidating his public support ahead of his own presidential election in March 2018.
However, the president is not the sole decision-maker in the US administration and there are likely to be conditions attached. Even if Trump chooses to ease some of the sanctions under Executive Order without consulting his administration, it is likely that he would encounter resistance from the Senate. In particular, any easing of sanctions may depend to a great extent on Russia’s commitment to the Minsk peace process in eastern Ukraine. Russia has already demonstrated a willingness to engage with Ukraine in these negotiations in recent months, but foot-dragging from the Ukrainian authorities has contributed to stalled negotiations. In return, the US could offer to lift some sanctions as a carrot for Russia’s continuing engagement.
Equal partners in defence
Progress is likely on counter-terrorism in 2017. Perhaps the most significant area of agreement between Russia and the US is domestic and regional security. Tackling Islamic State (IS) is undoubtedly a shared concern and an area where the two could work together if Trump treats Russia as an equal partner in defence. Both countries face the threat of home-grown terrorism. The Russian authorities are concerned by radicalised citizens returning from training in Syria to the restive North Caucasus, and the potential for them to carry out attacks there and in major cities across Russia. Indeed, Putin maintains that targeting IS strongholds was the primary reason for beginning military airstrikes in Syria in September 2015, and Russia’s military campaign there has undoubtedly weakened IS’s hold on strategic territories.
Maintaining a dialogue between NATO and Russia on common regional security issues, including over unstable areas such as Afghanistan, would significantly aid the US-Russia bilateral relationship. Relations between NATO and Russia have deteriorated significantly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and previous military communication channels between them have been severed. IS could be far more effectively addressed if the two were to work together in Syria by improving intelligence sharing and carrying out co-ordinated airstrikes. These are areas where we expect to see movement in 2017.
Trump’s leadership is likely to herald a more pragmatic relationship between the US and Russia in 2017, at least in the short-term. His approach to Russia - as a business partner that can and must be engaged with - may initially be the right way forward, but in the longer term his transactional approach is unlikely to survive the reality of the diplomatic complexities and deep-rooted animosity in the US-Russia relationship.