Russia hoping for warmer US relations under Trump
Policymakers are cautiously optimistic about what the new president will do to fix relations
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as Russian dolls: Reports that Trump picked Putin as the first foreign leader he wanted to meet after becoming president flatter the Kremlin. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images
A Russian company unveiled a gold and silver coin this week that, emblazoned with the face of Donald Trump, celebrates the inauguration of the new US president. Bearing the inscription, “In Trump We Trust,” the limited edition coins reflect hopes in Russia that the billionaire US businessman who became America’s 45th president on Friday will ditch the confrontational policies of the Obama years and steer relations with Moscow onto a more constructive course.
Trump, whose admiring remarks about Vladimir Putin’s strongman leadership have raised hackles even within his own Republican Party, is the only US presidential candidate in living memory to have adopted a pro-Russian stance.
It’s not yet clear whether Trump will go through with controversial proposals to upend US policy on Russia and accept the Kremlin’s land grab in Ukraine’s Crimea and military support for the murderous president Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
As Russian policymakers welcomed the end of the Obama era this week they were only cautiously optimistic about how far and how fast Trump would go to fix relations with Moscow.
“We know that the president-elect is famous as an altogether successful businessman. But when he appears at the White House, when he becomes president, then much will change,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, warned this week. “It’s worth waiting and watching what his tone will be,” he added.
Russian state media supported Trump during the election campaign and has toned down its fierce anti-American rhetoric since its favoured candidate won at the polls.
More than 70 per cent of Russians favour a rapprochement with the west – the highest level since 2000 when Putin first came to power, according to a recent survey by the Levada Centre, an independent polling agency.
Almost all Russian commentators agree that progress towards improved relations with the US will depend on how the personal relationship between Putin and Trump shapes up.
Trump may be constrained in policymaking by anti-Kremlin sentiment in the US Congress and in his own team where James Mattis, his secretary of defence nominee, says the US needs to “confront Russia” in a “growing number of areas”. Putin also needs to balance the interests of hawks wedded to Cold War thinking in his circle with more forward-looking officials and business men.
Nikolai Patrushev, a former secret services chief who now heads the Russian Security Council, said it was doubtful that Trump would be able to reverse the damage caused to relations by Obama and create a new world order allowing Russia to assume what it views as its rightful place in the world. “We don’t harbour any illusions about rapid (US) measures to ease the strategic containment of Russia,” he told Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Russian government’s daily newspaper, this week
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, struck a more optimistic tone, saying he was confident that Trump would move fast to re-establish a dialogue with Russia on strategic stability and nuclear weapons that had been “destroyed, along with everything else, by the Obama administration”.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Lavrov was positive about Rex Tillerson, the incoming US secretary of state, who worked closely with Russia while serving as an Exxon Mobil executive. “We are dealing with people who won’t get involved in moralising, but will try to understand their partner’s interests,” Lavrov said.
As a pragmatist and a former businessman Trump would likely aim to deepen US co-operation with Russia, but would take a transactional approach demanding a high price from the Kremlin for policy concessions, according to the authors of a new report . Donald Trump: A Professional Profile of the New US President, presented at the Valdai Club, a Russian discussion forum, this week.
Fighting Islamic State
Areas where Washington might compromise with Moscow include Ukraine, a country Trump has described as “more important for Europe than the US”, and Syria where he is interested in forming a coalition with Russia to fight Islamic State, the extremist Islamist group also known as Isis.
Trump may well be open to lifting US economic sanctions imposed in 2014 after Russia fomented separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine, although it’s not yet clear what he would demand of Putin in return. The two men would likely clash if Trump went through with his promise to contain the rise of Russia’s ally China as a world super power.
Changes to US policy on Iran, where Trump wants to dismantle a groundbreaking international nuclear agreement negotiated in the Obama era, would also risk alienating the Russian leadership.
Reports that Trump had picked Putin as the first foreign leader he wanted to meet after becoming president flatter the Kremlin and play to Russia’s craving for international acceptance on equal terms as a leading global power.
But Peskov was managing expectations about what the new era of co-operation might bring this week. “We are not striving for a situation when we have to agree about everything,” Putin’s spokesman said. “It’s not possible between the US and Russia. We are too great to agree with each other about everything.”