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'Vladimir Putin, such a vastly overrated leader': 'We are one tweet away from bad relations'

It’s easy to see why Russia has been pro-Trump but that could quickly turn sour, writes Neil Robinson.

Neil Robinson

EVERY US PRESIDENT, since the collapse of the USSR, has come to office thinking that they will be able to improve relations and get the two powers to act in harmony. Donald Trump is the latest to believe he’s going to be the one to get Russia right.

At his shambolic press conference on Wednesday, Trump claimed that Russia will respect the USA because he is in charge, and that everything will get better. Trump might be right if we take Russian rhetoric about the US election at face value.

There has been a social media bromance between Putin and Trump. They both like palaces and a lot of gold décor. They both hate Obama, Clinton and ISIS. The official Russian media was critical of Clinton throughout the campaign and rejoiced in Trump’s victory. It is clear that state-sponsored Russian hackers, as even Trump admitted on Wednesday, attacked the Clinton campaign.

US-Russian relations should be good under Trump

It’s easy to see why Russia has been pro-Trump. Russia has welcomed the nomination of Rex Tillerson, formerly of oil giant Exxon, a good friend of Putin, and a critic of sanctions against Russia, as Secretary of State.

Trump has signalled his preference for radical changes in policy towards Ukraine and Syria. He says sanctions on Russia over Ukraine don’t make any sense. His attitude towards Russia’s annexation of Crimea seems to be “who cares?”

In Syria, ISIS needs to be destroyed and if that means bombing, Assad and human rights abuses, again, “who cares?” Trump has shown ambivalence toward NATO and US commitment to the idea of “collective security”. If Trump follows through on these ideas it would weaken NATO in Russia’s favour and be a major victory for Putin.

US-Russian relations should be good then, even if Putin doesn’t have a video of Trump and some hired help doing nasty things in a Moscow hotel room that he can use for blackmail. But there are some good reasons to think that relations won’t improve, or that if they do, it won’t be for long.

Relations could sour in the future

Trump Defense Secretary Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis. Source: J. Scott Applewhite

It’s not entirely clear that Trump will act on his campaign promises. Both Tillerson and Trump’s nominee for Secretary for Defence, James Mattis, made soothing noises about NATO and identified Russia as a threat at their first Senate confirmation hearings this week. There are good reasons for Trump to pull in his horns and keep some continuity in US foreign policy.

It will keep anti-Russian Senators happy and voting with Trump. He won’t get bogged down in disputes with the State Department, the intelligence community, and the Pentagon.

He won’t expand the number of foreign policy problems that he has beyond what already exist, and those that it might be impossible to avoid, such as worsened relations with Mexico and Latin America over walls and migrants. He can get on with demolishing Obamacare and spending the weekend playing golf in Florida.

Putin’s uses anti-Americanism to mobilise

This won’t make Russia happy and relations won’t improve. But Putin can live this this. He has used anti-Americanism over the last decade to mobilise his domestic support.

Putin will be able to shrug and say: “We had high hopes for Trump but in the end the corrupt American system was too strong for him to change it. As a result, the USA remains a danger to us. I am the only guarantor of Russia’s stability and survival.”

The alternative is that Trump ignores the complexity of current global politics (if he even recognises it) and makes simple choices. He recognises Russia’s annexation of Ukraine and ends sanctions. He lets Russia keep Assad in power as the price for defeating ISIS. He tears up Obama’s agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons development.

International relations

The problem is that these simple choices won’t produce solutions, they just make more problems. It’s not hard to predict that if Trump does half the things that he has promised the result will be chaos.

US relations with Saudi Arabia will deteriorate if he follows through on his promises about Syria. Relations with Europe will be thrown into crisis if Trump pursues a unilateral policy of appeasing Russia. Relations with China are already heading for a new low because of Trump’s sabre rattling over its ambitions in the South China sea.

Some of these problems would work to Putin’s advantage. But some of them would be bad for Putin. He does not want Trump to do all of the things that he’s promised he’ll do anyway. He doesn’t want Trump to tear up Obama’s deal with Iran, for example, since that will cost Russia economically.

Putin would be happy for Trump to give in on issues like sanctions, would like a symbolic victory in Syria, and for NATO and Europe to be a bit weaker.

Putin needs global stability too

But Putin has some investment in overall global stability too. Russia is too big a power not to be concerned about wider instability, which it has limited ability to deal with militarily and diplomatically. Moreover, Russia is too dependent on its energy sales not to be afraid of geopolitical chaos leading to economic crisis.

Global economic chaos that lowers oil prices would be very bad for Putin given their impact on an already very fragile Russian economy. Putin has his own election coming up in 2018 and does not want a repeat of the street protests that occurred during the last election in 2012.

If Trump opts to ignore the complexities of global politics, Russia is sooner or later going to be as concerned about putting Trump back in his box. At that point Putin will start to get in Trump’s way.

When that happens we are just a late night tweet – “Vladimir Putin, such a vastly overrated leader. No imagination. What a loser. So sad’”– from a return to the status quo of bad relations.

Neil Robinson is a professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick.

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Neil Robinson

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