The direction of U.S.-Russian relations during the early part of the Trump administration will depend on how (and if) the new President is willing to moderate the positions he laid out during the campaign. If past is prelude, it is likely President Trump’s Russia policies will become somewhat more moderate (meaning less favorable to Russia) than his stump rhetoric. This is not unique to Donald Trump; most candidates are pushed (or are sometimes willing to move themselves) more towards the political center after inauguration. What wins elections is not always what makes for good policy, foreign or domestic, and Trump has already changed several key positions he espoused when he ran.
If we imagine a sliding scale where Trump’s campaign statements favorable to Russia are maxed out at a 10, and more hawkish, Russia-skeptical policies are a 1 or 0, how much will he moderate? Will he move from a 10 (very positive for Russia) to a 7 (slightly less positive to Russia)? Or to a 3? Or not at all? Recalling Trump’s campaign positions on Russia, and then imagining what a more moderate version of those positions would be, should provide at least left and right channel markers for a future Trump administration’s policy towards Russia.
Ukraine, Crimea, and Sanctions
During the campaign, Trump departed significantly from the West’s current policy on Russia and Ukraine. European and NATO capitals noted that for the first time since the end of World War II, a land border in Europe had been changed by force when Russia annexed Crimea. Further, the U.S. under President Obama and its allies condemned Russia for providing military and other support to separatists in eastern Ukraine—separatists who subsequently downed a civilian airliner using Russian-provided weapons. As a result, the United States and the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia. For his part, Candidate Trump stated the people of Crimea wanted to become part of Russia, and instead of condemning the annexation, said, “I’m going to look at it”. On eastern Ukraine, Trump initially and infamously said Russia was not there. He later backtracked, but seemingly pushed the issue into Europe’s lap. “You look at Germany, you look at other countries, and they don’t seem very much involved.” With regard to Russian sanctions, Trump stated he “would be looking” at the possibility of lifting them.
What will President Trump’s position be on these issues? The new White House may shift to a somewhat more critical position of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and in fact, Trump began to moderate in the later stages of the campaign. But it is unclear how far he will go. Trump’s vague, “I’m all for Ukraine” statement, coupled with his belief that Europe needs to be less reliant on the U.S. and assert itself more on Ukraine, seems to indicate that the new President might give only lip service to the idea that Russia needs to withdraw from eastern Ukraine (and perhaps Crimea), but that he would leave it to Europe to figure it all out. Looking at the body of Trump’s statements, one gets the impression that he would not allow Ukraine or Crimea to interfere with his stated desire of working more closely with Russia. Sanctions against Russia may also be at risk down the road, especially given the nomination of Rex Tillerman—an oil businessman with past Russian business deals amounting to billions of dollars—as Secretary of State. While the U.S. might not lead the charge to lift sanctions, President Trump might not stand in the way if key European allies decided Moscow had suffered enough for its incursions in Ukraine. Moderation factor: from a 10 to a 9.
Undermining the NATO alliance is a key element of Putin’s foreign and defense policy. Trump’s initial “10” (favorable to Russia) setting was clear when he noted that NATO might be obsolete, and that “It’s possible we might have to let NATO go.” He indicated that NATO partners who were not paying their share would have to begin to do so, or risk losing the protection NATO offered. Later, Trump noted he believed he could negotiate a better deal with NATO countries, perhaps implying he could find a way to do business with the alliance. However, he quickly followed with the statement that “you always have to be ready to walk” when discussing NATO negotiations.
President Trump will have to significantly moderate his NATO position. To begin with, his nominees for key foreign policy jobs in his administration (especially those with a military background) have seen the benefits of NATO, and will be moderating voices. In addition, a skeptical position on NATO would place Trump into conflict with traditional U.S. allies at the very outset of his presidency, which would give the appearance of his being unable to conduct effective diplomacy. This is a perception the new president will want to avoid, as there is nothing that upsets Trump more than appearing to be unsuccessful at anything. Trump views himself as a master negotiator, and if NATO’s integrity becomes an issue, Trump may find himself at a disadvantage at the beginning of almost any negotiation with Europe, security-related or otherwise. Moderation factor: from a 10 to a 5 (possibly lower).
Syria and Russia
Candidate Trump stated that he did not object to Russia’s military activity in Syria, as he believed Russia was “bombing the hell” out of ISIS there. Clearly he was linking to a neo-protectionist campaign theme of not bogging the U.S. down in foreign wars. Trump also noted that the U.S. should not be attempting to support anti-regime fighters in Syria when “we don’t know who they are”.
There may well be some moderation of this position, again due largely to the military officers Trump is bringing into key administration positions. Several have deep experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will probably argue for some sort of continued U.S. effort on Syria. But Trump clearly feels strongly about not making what he considers the mistakes we made in Iraq, so he could overrule his aides. Moderation factor: from a 10 to a 9.
Given Trump’s penchant for moderating or even reversing his campaign policies, it is difficult to predict precisely the direction he will take regarding Russia. It is also likely that the personal relationship between the two leaders will affect the new President’s decisions. But at least one thing is certain: Trump’s initial Russian policies will be far preferable to Moscow than those of the current administration, or those of Trump’s adversary during the election.