international analysis and commentary

Interest will trump friendship: another difficult “reset” in US-Russia relations

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Donald Trump’s election confirms that we are in the era of big-personality politics. Of the many questions about Trump’s plans for foreign policy, perhaps none is greater than how he will interact with another big political personality, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. During the campaign, Trump spoke flatteringly of Putin, saying “in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.” Their mutual fascination with one another, along with similar macho public personas, suggests scope for rapprochement and cooperation between the two nuclear-armed states, despite Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and sabre-rattling such as sending an aircraft carrier through the English Channel.

But friendly personal relationships do not always translate to geopolitical amicability. Lord Palmerston’s observation that “States do not have friends, only interests” has been oft-repeated by the likes of Charles de Gaulle and Henry Kissinger and is worth remembering in consideration of how the Trump-Putin personal dynamic will play out over the next four years.

Russian reactions to Trump’s election were primarily optimistic with the hope of improved relations. For example, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin noted, “There have been hopes in Russia that Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election could bring the two world powers closer together.” Russian state-sponsored Sputnik News anticipated renewed US-Russia military ties. And Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov praised Trump for reaching out to foreign leaders and “paying very serious attention to the sphere” of international politics. Trump’s popularity has even generated a petition in Ryazan to rename a street after him (the street is currently one of two “Godless Streets” in the town – an atheist Soviet legacy).

In addition to hopes for improved US-Russia bilateral relations, Russian sources also point to the implications for NATO – obviously from Moscow’s perspective – as a positive outcome of Trump’s election. Russia wants to see a weakened NATO, leaving it free to pursue its interests in its Eastern Europe “sphere of influence.” During the campaign, many of Trump’s statements undermined the US commitment to the Alliance and the security of the other 27 member states. Whether or not these play out in Trump’s policies, the statements themselves feed into the dominant Russian narrative that NATO is weakening and internally divided.

Trump’s policies towards Russia will not only be driven by his personal preferences, of course, but also by his broader foreign policy and team of advisors. One of his foreign policy advisors, Senator Jeffrey Sessions (R-AL), who has since been named as Trump’s Attorney General, has changed his own position on Russia: in March 2015 he criticized Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and said the United States and NATO needed to “unify” and “push back” more strongly; but in July 2016 he came out in support of Trump’s statements, saying, “We need to figure out a way to end this cycle of hostility that’s putting this country at risk, costing us billions of dollars in defense, and creating hostilities.” Yet another potential Trump senior advisor, former UN-ambassador John Bolton, in a July 2016 interview with Breitbart News Daily, was critical of Trump’s support for Putin, saying he was “encouraging Russian aggression” and should retract such statements and change his position.

It is too soon to have a clear picture of Trump’s policies and any projections should come with a word of caution: as Trump has proven repeatedly, expect the unexpected. But based on Russia’s willingness to partner with Trump, which seems likely to be reciprocated, there appears to be scope for another US-Russia “reset”. This would not be a new trend.

Indeed, both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations began with an offer of friendship and cooperation towards Moscow. For Bush, this took the form of cooperation on counter-terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, along with the Moscow Treaty. For Obama, this included the New START Treaty, among others. If history is any teacher, these past resets demonstrate that strong personal dynamics do not guarantee success on the geopolitical stage nor are they particularly long-lasting. In fact, it was Bush who looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul”, yet his presidency concluded with the Russian invasion of Georgia and a major downturn in US-Russia relations. And there are many reasons to suspect a Trump-Putin “reset” could be similarly short-lived.

In Europe, in particular, American and Russian interests seem juxtaposed and even if Trump were to cast a blind eye to further Russian aggression, conservative Republicans, in particular, are unlikely to do the same. Similarly, the fate of the Assad regime in Syria will be a topic of contention between American and Russian interests. Trump may find himself in the position of choosing between Putin and his Party.

Of course, Trump’s attitude towards loyalty remains mercurial. But even on a personal level, a Trump-Putin friendship seems doomed. Both leaders rely so heavily on the “strongman” persona, it is difficult to imagine them coexisting. In negotiations, both will have to feel he is the “winner” and sell any agreements or policies back to a domestic audience. Such a delicate balance may prove unsustainable. There can only be one top dog.