During the most recent election cycle in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support for then candidate Donald Trump, who went on to win the election.[i] Russian diplomats even reached out to Donald Trump’s campaign to discuss the war in Syria.[ii] Now that Donald Trump has won the presidency we need to take a serious look at his foreign policy positions, and of the most interesting to investigate are his plans for better relations with the Russian Federation.
Since the end of World War II, Washington and Moscow have not had the best relationship. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union fought several proxy conflicts and almost two major conflicts–in Germany in 1947 and in Cuba in 1962. From 1947 to 1991, the US and the USSR vigilantly formed their own spheres of influence that were in direct conflict to one another. Both the US and the USSR pursued strategies of containment to limit the influence of their adversary. One could argue that this antagonizing sentiment in American and Russian governments is long gone, however both world powers have spent years creating alliances among smaller, less powerful states that put American and Russian interests at odds.
Trump has assumed office during a very trying time for world politics. States today face the issues of war in the Middle East, waves of refugees leaving those areas affected by war, climate change, and a tense situation in Europe. The Kremlin has pursued policies during these times that are often in direct opposition to American interests. In the Ukraine, for example, Russia has armed rebels intent on destabilizing the state and they have even annexed a portion of the Ukraine.[iii] In Syria, Putin has stood by Bashar Al-Assad and conducted airstrikes against Syrian rebels–most of which are armed and trained by the United States and US civilian aid efforts.[iv]
The Kremlin has recently stated that it believes a Trump presidency will lead to a warming of US-Russian relations and Trump has expressed similar sentiment–but can they really reset their relationship? It’s hard to see how they could. Donald Trump has run on the promise that he will defeat ISIS and that he knows more about ISIS than the United States’ generals do.[v] Russia is also for destroying ISIS, however the Syrian conflict is a three-way war and the US and Russia have sides fighting ISIS and fighting each other. It would be impossible for a Trump administration to abandon their coalition in Iraq and Syria now and switch to a side that is pro-Russian, because that side is also pro-Assad, pro-Iranian, and anti-US ground soldiers. The side aligned with Russia is pro-Assad because Russia’s number one goal in Syria is to keep the Assad regime, a long time military and economic ally of Russia, afloat.[vi]
It is pro-Iranian for the same reason. Iran has been a strong ally of the Assad regime and they have even sent troops to help defend Assad.[vii] Republicans in Washington have long been against US-Iranian cooperation, it’s doubtful that American and Iranian forces would fight directly side by side under the guide of a full Republican government. Finally, to align with Russia in the fight against ISIS would require Donald Trump to end the aid of moderate opposition forces against Assad–forces that the US has fostered since 2011.
So, if Donald Trump just abandons our efforts on the ground in Syria then he could, in theory, side with Russia–and he may very well do that.[viii] However, we must not forget about the strongest US ally in the Middle East: Israel. Israel is not a friend of Assad and it’s highly unlikely that they will be in favor of the US aiding Assad in his fight alongside Russia, against ISIS. This goes back to my original claim that there are too many conflicting alliances with other countries for a unilateral reset with Russia. Just aiding Russia in this one conflict would be a dramatic change in US foreign policy and it would create cooperation with adversaries and conflict with allies.
This is not the end of the conflicting interests either. One more example is in Europe. Trump has come out in support of Putin’s territory grab in Crimea and has mentioned lowering US involvement in NATO. Could Donald Trump actually back the US out of NATO though? The situation in Europe is tense and Putin has not only threatened, but actually moved nuclear capable missiles close to NATO countries.[ix] Is this a stance that Donald Trump could take? Could he really abandon long US allies in Europe as tensions between European nations and Russia are at a longtime high? It’s hard to tell. Certainly Donald Trump could not singlehandedly shift US policy to a pro-Russia stance and if Washington and Moscow even were to warm relations, it would require a long and cooperative effort by many states.
To ease tensions, the US and Russia would have to seriously negotiate more than what has been mentioned in this article. Currently, Russia is under economic sanctions put in place by the United States and the United States is actively pursuing policies to damage the Russian economy. People do not have to look far to see these efforts either; just drive down to your local gas station and compare the current price to the prices of a few years ago. The US has increased its energy production and OPEC nations have kept production levels high, thus dropping world oil prices low in an effort to hurt the Russian export based economy.[x] Trump has campaigned on a message of bringing back American jobs too, so it’s unlikely that he’ll drop US oil production.
The next four years should be interesting as far as foreign policy goes. There will either be an international movement and several shifts in power or nothing will change.
Most likely nothing will change.