Trump: Russia’s Chance for Friendship?

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Why are Russians so optimistic about Trump?

Of all the countries in the world, Russia seems to be the most optimistic about the incoming President of the United States Donald Trump. Trump’s support in Russia is mirrored both in polls and public discourse. In a global survey conducted in the run-up to the US election, Russia was the only nation found to support Trump over Clinton.

Since Trump’s shocking electoral victory, reactions in Russia have verged from outright joy to restrained optimism. Russian MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky ordered a banquet in Trump’s honor, complete with 130 bottles of champagne. More serious political commentators in Russia have been reserved in their evaluations of the incoming president, though virtually everyone recognizes his role in ushering a significant shift in rhetoric towards Russia, with the potential for positive change.

Misplaced optimism?

So why are so many Russians excited about Trump when much of the world expresses concern? Is this optimism misplaced?

The hope, of course, is that a Trump presidency may present an opportunity to revive the US-Russia relationship. In the gloom of recent years, this may in fact be the one golden opportunity to turn things around.

By all accounts, the relationship in the past two years has been dreadful. Obama’s brief “reset” in 2009 gave way to the worst period in US-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War, resulting in mutual sanctions, aggressive military exercises, bellicose rhetoric, the possibility of a military confrontation in Syria, and a total breakdown in communication and cooperation. Some called it a “New Cold War” or “Cold War 2.0.”

In this cloud of gloom, Trump’s pre-election position on Russia took everyone by surprise last July when he said: “Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could actually get along with Russia?”

At the time, it was taken as one of many outrageous statements from the Republican candidate. Now, with Trump’s presidency secured, it has a real chance to radically change US foreign policy.

Apart from several other statements of good-will towards Russia and Vladimir Putin, Trump’s overarching world-view, based on national interests, is seen, paradoxically, as being more predictable for Russia than the liberalism of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Whereas the latter emphasize value-based issues like the humanitarian imperative and the support of civil society and democratic movements, Trump appears to be a devoted realist, willing to cooperate on matters of mutual interest. When looking at the history of the US-Russia relationship, it becomes obvious that partnership based on mutual interests will be a lot more successful than partnership based on mutual values.

“It is phenomenal how close they are to one another when it comes to their conceptual approach to foreign policy” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, after Trump’s election.“And that is probably a good basis for our moderate optimism that they will at least be able to start a dialogue to start to clear out the Augean stables in our bilateral relations.”

If it was only so simple…

Despite general optimism, many Russian commentators and academics are skeptical about the likelihood of an impending improvement in relations. Many remember the overtures of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama towards Russia in the early stages of their presidencies, both of which ended in failure and enmity.

Skeptics say that Trump’s more far-fetched positions, such as his stance on Russia, may be moderated by his future advisors once he reaches the White House. The Secretary of State position is yet to be filled, and if hardliners like Rudy Giuliani or John Bolton are chosen, Trump’s pre-election rhetoric could dissolve into a load of hot air. As reiterated most recently by President Obama, the POTUS doesn’t single-handedly determine US foreign policy; it is influenced by diplomats, intelligence officers, and militaries, which provides for a strategic continuity that goes beyond administrations.

The seriousness of the task of restoring relations was not lost on the Kremlin.

“An atmosphere of mutual trust takes years to achieve. It’s not possible to just declare that there is an atmosphere of mutual trust, especially after such serious damage was done in the last few years to our relations” said Mr. Peskov.

What are the latest signs?

In the week since Mr. Trump’s election victory, the president-elect appears to have backtracked on a number of his campaign promises, including the total repeal of Obamacare and details about the wall with Mexico.

One thing he appears to have stuck to is his foreign policy position towards Russia. A phone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on Monday seemed to confirm the possibility of a thaw in US-Russia relations.

“During the conversation Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump not only agreed on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations but also expressed support for active joint efforts to normalise relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues,” an official Kremlin statement [8]said.

The two leaders spoke about the need to “return to pragmatic, mutually beneficial cooperation in the interests of both countries, as well as global stability and security” and promised “to work together in the struggle against the number one common enemy – international terrorism and extremism.”

In a televised interview on CBS last week, Trump seemed to take a leaf out of the Kremlin foreign policy mantra when speaking about the Middle East. Apart from praising Russian airstrikes against ISIS, he criticized the US policy of supporting anti-Assad rebel groups, saying “they’re probably worse than Assad,” and questioned the desire to depose the Assad regime. He went on to say that US actions in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi were a “total mistake” and that Saddam Hussein was “no good guy, but he killed terrorists. Now Iraq is the harbor of terrorists.”

Most recently, Trump’s appointment of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to the post of National Security Advisor has drawn the criticism of many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, in part due to his alleged willingness to build closer ties with Russia against the threat of radical Islamism.

Next Steps

Make no mistake, rhetoric is critical in international relations. While skeptics claim that the journey to a strategic partnership will be difficult, taking into account obstacles like the status of Crimea, the role of NATO, and Russian resistance to US power projection, the two countries obviously share a great number of mutual interests that could underpin a successful partnership.

The next steps will be to move from words to action in order to rebuild the climate of trust. Russia needs to take care to use this opportunity, and must refrain from provoking Trump’s hawkish Republican allies in theatres like Aleppo. Another brutal bombing campaign there could antagonize US public and policymaker opinion resolutely away from cooperation. Common interests must be determined, the most obvious of which is eradicating ISIS. Other avenues of cooperation include nuclear non-proliferation and a common position towards North Korea. More contentious issues that need to be addressed are NATO’s future role in Eastern Europe, and the Iranian nuclear deal, which Russia helped usher, but which Trump has spoken strongly against.

The path to normalization of the relationship will be difficult, and there is no determining what political crises may derail the process. However, this juncture in history presents the perfect opportunity for Russia and the US to restart a potentially rewarding partnership. Isn’t that “change we can believe in”?

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