In the wake of Donald Trump’s election a new era in US-Russia relations seems to be in the offing. Throughout the electoral campaign Trump lavished praise on Vladimir Putin, claiming he’d be much more deft than Obama in pandering to Moscow and that he’d be bent on brokering a wide ranging deal with the Kremlin. According to the media, thanks to Trump’s crowning Russia and the United States would finally become trustful partners, cooperating on many fronts while burying the long wielded hatchet. Many went even as far as envisaging Washington and Moscow joining forces against China, with “Trump going to Russia” in a reverse Nixonesque moment.
But even when it comes to foreign policy, the White House operates under many domestic and international constraints impinging on a president’s real power. Despite the propaganda, the US president is just one of many institutions comprising the executive power, unable to unilaterally forge America’s strategy. Hence, what Trump might be willing to concede and what Russia might actually get will end up being very different.
In the next few years we will most certainly witness several handshakes between the two leaders, maybe long strolls together along the Moskva, but the delivery such a bromance would ensue will fall short of expectations. The (former) rivals might jointly fight the Islamic State and sanctions against Russia might be temporarily eased in Europe and in the United States.
But Moscow and Washington won’t solve all their problems, let alone become allies. Strategic daylight will surely persist, regardless of any presidential agreement. The US is a power on the offensive, Russia remains on the defensive. Washington seeks to prevent any nation to rise to hegemony in any region of the world; which in Europe entails hindering Germany and Russia from merging or overcoming one another. As Germany’s technology and social discipline combined with Russia’s hydrocarbons and manpower would threaten America’s world primacy.
On the other hand, Russia needs to move westward to push its first line of defense further away from its capitals, either by controlling those countries lying at its borders or by forcing them to neutrality.
More importantly, Putin can’t count on the US to fix the structural deficiencies gnawing away at Russia’s geopolitical and economical foundations. Since US – Russia rivalry also depends on other countries (i.e. Germany), bilateral animosity might pause but not cease. And “time” would turn out to be the only commodity Trump might actually offer Putin.
In a nutshell: Russia can’t live with Ukraine firmly in the Western camp and with oil prices staying low for too long (meaning below 80 dollar a barrel). From a Russian standpoint, those are the most strategic issues of all. Ukraine provides Russia’s heartland with defensive depth, what allowed Moscow to fend off numerous invasions throughout history. If Ukraine were to be militarily controlled by a Western government, Russia might literally not survive in its sovereign form. Foreign troops would then be stationed few hundred kilometers from Moscow with no orographic obstacles in sight. Today no power sports the will or ability to invade Russia, but in geopolitics things move fast and decisions tend to impose themselves even upon the most pacifist or unaware leader. Russia simply can’t take the chance.
Conversely, Russia’s petrodollar-subsidized living standards are plunging due to oil prices not recovering and federal budget being slashed. As of March 2016, 19.2 million Russians (roughly 14% of the population) were living on less than 9,452 roubles ($139) a month, meaning below the poverty threshold, a 20% increase year-on-year. Like any geopolitical entity, even autocratic Russia cannot afford widespread popular malaise to turn into outright unrest. As such a development would potentially undermine Putin’s hold on power.
Hence, Russia badly needs Europe to lift its sanctions and - even more so - oil prices to go substantially up in order to defuse domestic turmoil and support the upgrading of the Armed Forces.
Trump promises to offer the Kremlin a wide berth in both Syria and Ukraine. In 2015 Russia intervened in Syria for no strategic reason, other than gaining credit to be spent on the European front by touting himself as the ultimate warrior against Islamic terrorism. As solely defending Tartus naval base wouldn’t prompt Putin to enter the fray, being aware as he is that in the Middle East a stalemate is the best outcome a non-resident power can hope for.
In Syria Russia’s military performance has been mixed. Russian Armed Forces have shown dramatic improvements from the 2008 war in Georgia, but only 20% of all the weapons used in Syria have been precision-guided munitions and the decaying Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier has proved to be a liability more than an asset. The more Russia lingers on, the more it risks getting bogged down, demonstrating the limits of its military capabilities. A supposed show of force has already turned into a partial fiasco in the eyes of many American military specialists, even though they try to exploit Russia’s foray into the Syrian swamp to sway Congress and have the Pentagon budget increased.
Thus, when in the next months Trump makes the US support for the Syrian regime official, already deemed to be the lesser evil by the Obama administration, Putin will try to use such a cosmetic turning point to run for the exit, while Syria’s civil war drags on.
At the same time, the Kremlin might be enrolled by the Americans in the “crusade” against the Islamic State. Trump seems obsessed by Islamic terrorism and Putin’s much hyped Christian faith would come in handy to keep in the low digits American troops sent out to fight in the desert, especially if the US president’s domestic approval rate were to move dangerously south.
On the European front, if what he said during the electoral campaign is to be believed, Trump won’t encroach in Russia’s sphere of influence, while letting Eastern European countries do the heavy lifting when it comes to containing Moscow.
In Ukraine the White House will (informally) accept a frozen conflict that has been raging for almost three years and Crimea will stay in Russia’s hands. Such a compromise would apparently satisfy both Washington and Moscow, given that neither has the intention nor the military might to seize and hold Ukraine.
Europe might be coaxed into suspending sanctions against Russia and American sanctions might be put on hold as well. Putin could breathe a sigh of relief.
But the US president doesn’t harness enough power to set America’s strategy, especially on such key issues. The US Congress, more powerful than the White House, will continue allocating the funds to build the missile shield devised for Eastern Europe, while Department of State and Pentagon will continue building up pressure on Russia’s near abroad. Federal agencies won’t let go, no matter what Trump says.
Case in point: few days ago the Pentagon announced it will speed up the deployment of an armored brigade combat team to Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, signaling of continuing US support for Eastern European countries.
While in the past weeks the Cia leaked to the media that it has enough evidence to conclude that Russian hackers tampered with the US elections in order to help Trump become president, by breaching Democratic Party officials’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers’ emails. Congress has now signaled it would hold hearings on the topic. Hard to establish whether those charges against Moscow are true, but at this juncture levelling them surely bodes ill for any US-Russia détente.
Moreover, should Germany try to use Trump’s opening to Putin so as to cozy up to Russia once again, Washington would resort to the usual hostility toward both Berlin and Moscow, as separating the two countries remains at the core of US strategy. While Germany would be compelled to determine where to stand, Russia would have to resist another American offensive amidst its unrelenting economic decline.
Trump’s reset would then prove as ill-fated as Obama’s. While oil prices will likely stay low for the foreseeable future, regardless of any Opec plan to cut production, as demand around the world won’t pick up. Moscow might also be forced by Washington’s (partial) withdrawal to own the situation it created (alongside the US) in the Middle East. Wanting to scale down its commitment but feeling trapped by the need to polish its international reputation and by Trump publicly asking for Putin’s help in Syria and around the region.
What Russia can actually obtain from the incoming US administration is the chance of postponing the inevitable. Trump’s inward-looking approach to international relations and his bizarre focus on Islamic terrorism will provide Moscow with much needed room for maneuver, especially on its Western border. While apparently being engaged on equal terms by his American counterpart, Putin might feed his pride and reinforce his popularity at home.
But Trump’s willingness to tone down the bilateral hostility in order to focus on US domestic affairs won’t last long (two-three years max.) and won’t make up for Russia’s structural shortcomings. As few years of lull might prove vital to an ailing Russia, such a brief timespan won’t turn Moscow and Washington into allies. Nor will it guarantee Russia’s survival in the long run.