10 November 2016

The Trump-Putin puzzle

America is entering an unpredictable and potentially volatile new era. After his inauguration as U.S. president on 20 January 2017, Donald Trump will face enormous domestic and foreign policy challenges following an election that has sharply divided the population and disturbed many of America’s allies.

The state that stands to gain the most from a Trump presidency is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But reality may not be all it appears, as political office does not always mirror election campaigns and actual policies may not reflect pledges trumpeted at rallies.

During the long election campaign, Trump periodically praised Putin as a great leader, described NATO as obsolete and complained about insufficient defense spending by allies. At the same time, some of his foreign policy advisors have maintained close business and personal links to the Kremlin or its surrogates. As a result of such factors, European allies may no longer be certain that the United States will remain committed to NATO and help defend their national security.

Trump’s comments about NATO’s redundancy generated nervous reverberations along the eastern front, from the Baltics to the Black Seas. Several allies now fear that Putin may be tempted to test Trump’s reaction through a rapid assault on a country such as Estonia—while claiming that it is a local dispute and not in America’s national interest to become involved. Putin may calculate that Trump would desist from engaging in a war that would be deeply unpopular at home and lead to a direct confrontation with Russia, which he will seek to avoid at all costs.

Moscow’s primary purpose in such a short and sharp military assault on a neighbor would not be to occupy territory or to replace the government, but simply to demonstrate NATO’s impotence under the new U.S. administration. If successful, such a signal would demoralize every state neighboring Russia and make it easier for the Kremlin to exert pressure and influence their foreign and security policies. The absence of American leadership will actually become the self-fulfilling prophecy that would make NATO obsolete.

In effect, growing disarray inside the European Union would be combined with U.S. disengagement to Moscow’s benefit. Russian officials view the Trump victory as an American version of Brexit, a move that further undermines European and transatlantic unity and enables the Kremlin to develop more advantageous bilateral ties.

Conversely, Trump’s triumph is raising fears in several Central and Eastern European capitals that Washington will sell them out to Moscow, or that confusion and inexperience in the Trump team may give Russia new openings for subversion and domination. Ukrainians in particular are concerned that Trump will make a deal with Putin that will involve lifting international sanctions on Moscow early in his presidency and recognizing the annexation of Crimea as legitimate.

The Kremlin’s broader strategy would be to lure Trump into a new division of Europe, in return for a grand sounding “anti-terrorism coalition” that will help Russia to portray itself as an indispensable global power. A new division of Europe is not that farfetched—especially as the president does not depend on Congress for foreign policy initiatives. Moreover, candidate Trump often spoke about a partnership with Russia to combat international terrorism, evidently unaware of how the Kremlin actually stimulates jihadism through its brutal internal and external policies.

Given the multiple dangers emanating from Russia, it is worthwhile to evaluate alternative possibilities during a Trump presidency. These revolve around two unknowns: the role of advisors and the consequence of his notoriously volatile temperament.

Trump hinted during the campaign that he would be willing to delegate foreign policy to a qualified Republican colleague while focusing his energy on domestic policies. Indeed, his vice president, Mike Pence, could be ideal for such a position. Pence is a stalwart Atlanticist and has been outspoken on the dangers stemming from a resurgent Russia. If indeed, Trump is not hiding any existing business ties with Moscow that have muted his criticisms of Putin, a Pence-directed foreign policy could prove more effective than Obama’s relatively tepid approach toward Russia’s aggression in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

A second unknown must also be considered: the danger that Russia may miscalculate and overreach in dealing with Washington. Trump may prove to be more strongly reactive to what he may interpret as an insult from Moscow, in which a bilateral deal has been broken or where Putin takes the White House for granted. Such unpredictability could potentially result in a sudden and much more dangerous international confrontation and even pull both countries into a regional war.

One additional factor should not be neglected in an increasingly unpredictable geopolitical environment. The widely perceived anti-establishment revolution that Trump represents may eventually have reverberations in Russia itself, where the economy is declining and living standards are nosediving amidst massive official corruption. Maybe Trump can serve as an example for ordinary Russians that it is time to “drain the swamp”—not only in Washington but also in Moscow.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS