Prospect of US-Russia rapprochement throws EU off guard

Donald Trump’s shock victory major boost for Moscow but puts unprepared EU on edge

EU foreign ministers gather in Brussels on Sunday to discuss the fallout from the US election.

While ministers had been due to meet early next week, the convening of an extra meeting underscores the seriousness with which the EU foreign policy establishment is taking the Donald Trump victory as Europe anticipates a possible reset in American foreign policy.

More than 2,500km east in the Kremlin the perspective is very different. It is no surprise that Russian president Vladimir Putin was among the first to congratulate Trump.

The Republican candidate’s stunning victory is a major boost for Moscow. Russia’s surprise intervention in the Syrian conflict 14 months ago on the side of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad now appears to be well-judged.

To many, the move by Moscow was always about reinstating Russian prestige on the global stage – at relatively little financial cost, Russia has cast itself as a serious player in a region where it has always staked a claim.

Since the Trump victory, the possibility that a Trump-Putin alliance could be good for the region is being raised regularly in mainstream media as a way out of the Syrian conflict.

Russia's illegal incursion into Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, catastrophic bombardment of Syria and damning domestic political standards on press freedom and minority rights have conveniently been forgotten as analysts call for realpolitik.

Obama regime

Russia has successfully positioned itself as the solution to the problem. In a further twist, Putin can rightfully claim that it was the Obama regime’s lack of decisiveness in Syria, and the accompanying deadly intermingling of rebel and terrorist groups, which opened up the space for Russia’s intervention – something that is likely to chime well with Obama’s Republican successor.

The prospect that a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow will dictate the next phase in the international response towards Syria could also be detected in comments from senior European figures since Trump’s victory.

In interviews with CNN's Christiane Amanpour within minutes of each other on Wednesday evening, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg were keen to stress that Europe already co-operates with Russia in various ways despite the ongoing sanctions regime and conflict in Ukraine.

Though technically correct – the Italian commissioner has promoted the idea of “selective engagement” with Russia for months – their comments suggest that Europe is already trying to keep its options open on Russia as it positions itself ahead of a possible new dynamic between the cold war foes.

In the short term, the international community’s main focus will be on any commitments that might be made by the president-elect to Putin.

"One thing to watch for in particular is whether there might be either an explicit or implicit deal with Russia which effectively says – okay, you can have Assad and control of the country, but we really need to go after Islamic State in a bigger way," says Thomas Carother of Carnegie in Washington.

The possibility that Washington might support Assad remaining in power would mark a significant shift in policy.

Sanctions

In the medium term, the issue of sanctions on Russia over Ukraine looms large, with the EU due to consider whether to roll-over existing sanctions in December.

While the EU takes decisions on the sanctions every six months, drawing on political guidance from France and Germany, which are members of the "Normandy" group that oversees the Minsk process, in reality Washington has been a presence in the background, encouraging the EU to continue with sanctions as it maintains its own measures against Moscow.

The timing of the next discussion on Ukraine, which will take place before Trump moves to the White House, relieves some of the pressure, though the possibility of extending sanctions for three rather than six months may be considered.

Europe was already struggling to maintain a united front against Russia, with countries including Italy, Greece and Hungary questioning the need to maintain sanctions against Moscow. A more conciliatory attitude towards Russia from Washington may embolden those countries that favour closer engagement with their eastern neighbour.

But equally, Ukraine is likely to demand continued support from Brussels at a forthcoming EU-Ukraine summit, while Baltic and east European countries alarmed at possible Russian aggression will insist that Brussels stands up to Moscow.

Officials have said there will be no specific outcomes from Sunday’s meeting – not least because Trump has yet to indicate who will be appointed as defence secretary, secretary of state or national security adviser.

But in Brussels there is also a prevailing sense that Europe was caught unaware by the Trump victory.

“At an EU level, there was no preparation for this,” said one senior EU diplomat on Thursday. It’s a sentiment that is being echoed across the globe as the world comes to terms with a Trump presidency.