With the election of Russia’s preferred candidate — Republican President-elect Donald Trump — the future of Russia-US relations remains uncertain.
Throughout this election campaign Donald Trump has drawn quite a few raised eyebrows with his controversial remarks. Building a wall with Mexico, lifting a ban on torture of terrorism suspects, including waterboarding and reviewing of trade deals with Europe and NAFTA were just some of his propositions.
Yet, nothing has drawn as much attention from America’s allies and the media as his declaration that he will get along with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, try to establish working relations and find common ground on Syria and fighting ISIS. In response, Putin proclaimed Trump a flamboyant personality and a natural leader in the presidential race. Domestic and international observers quickly jumped on the possibility that a transatlantic authoritarian “bromance” was emerging and that Russia is trying to influence the US election by putting their preferred candidate in the Oval Office.
Trump and the Kremlin
Such remarks do have their precedent. Trump named Carter Page as one of his foreign policy advisors, a man who built his name in business dealings with Russia, who is an investor in Gazprom and publicly declared that his business has suffered as a result of US economic sanctions on Russia. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was previously a consultant to former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, currently in exile in Russia.
No proof exists, however, that Manafort has any ties with the Kremlin. During his time as consultant to Yanukovych he was persuading him to establish closer ties with the US and Europe rather than Russia. Trump’s personal business ties with Russia have also come under scrutiny after extracts of his business deals were published with listings of several potential projects in Russia. These, however, never became a reality and his only successful business endeavor became the hosting of the 2013 Miss Universe beauty pageant in Moscow.
Russia’s role in the 2016 election
Moreover, the US government has officially accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and stealing emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign which were later disclosed on WikiLeaks, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 websites, known for their anti-US government sentiment. It was proclaimed that the hacking methods were consistent with Russian cybercriminals Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, associated with an earlier intrusion of the Bundestag. Several US officials have ventured to suspect that the hack was a deliberate attempt to discredit the Democratic camp and Hillary Clinton in particular and swing the votes into Trump’s favor.
Disclosure of the DNC emails showed party officials conspiring against Senator Bernie Sanders and led to the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as chairwoman. Cybercrime is increasingly becoming the method used to phish for information in order to discredit foreign officials. Barack Obama and John McCain experienced similar hacking into their computer systems by the Chinese during their presidential campaigns. Large amounts of internal data, position papers and private emails were stolen, yet none of the officials or candidates publicly spoke of the possibility that the Chinese were trying to influence the US election.
Trump has indeed more than once expressed himself in favor of Putin as a powerful leader. He has hinted that he might look into identifying Crimea as legitimately Russian territory, has not criticized Russia’s support for the rebels in Eastern Ukraine and, most interestingly, refused to acknowledge that Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC.
Following the DNC scandal and words of mutual admiration, the idea of Trump acting as a Russian henchman reached a climax during the third presidential debate with Hillary Clinton accusing Trump of being a Russian “puppet”. Nevertheless, Russia’s preference for Trump and hacking into the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails looks more like an attempt to destabilize the American political system, making it less attractive to Russia’s near abroad and discrediting an unattractive presidential candidate.
Future relations with Russia
It is quite unusual for a US presidential candidate to say that he will try establish better relations with Russia and work together on combatting mutual threats. Previous candidates have built their campaigns portraying Russia as an aggressor who should be kept at bay. That is one of the reasons why Russian media and government officials have displayed their preference for Trump. Putin proclaimed that he would be willing to work with any president that the American people chose, yet he welcomes Trump’s calls for restoration of Russian-American relations.
Many of Trump’s propositions do indeed look favorable to Russia’s ambitions on the international stage. In a recent interview, Trump said the US would not provide support to NATO members unless they meet their financial obligations and put 2 percent of their GDP toward the alliance. Weakening of NATO and perhaps its future dismantlement falls squarely into Russia’s interests that has long considered the alliance to be expanding into its sphere of influence and directly threatening Russia.
Moreover, Trump has emphasized that he would be willing to find common ground on Syria and form an alliance to fight ISIS. With a favorable US president, Russia is hoping for a potential lifting of economic sanctions, recognition of Crimea and the possibility of extending its global influence unimpeded, particularly in its near abroad and in the Middle East.
Despite the fact that Donald Trump has now been elected as US President, the future of Russia-US relations remains uncertain. Taking into consideration the inexperience and unpredictability of the new President of the United States, it is difficult to foresee whether he will remain true to his election campaign declarations. These might surface to have simply been a way to criticize the incumbent government’s shortcomings and an opposition to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Countries do not change their foreign policy interests so radically with their leader and doubt remains whether he will be able to reverse the entrenched anti-Russian sentiment in the media, Washington and within the Republican party particularly. Some window of opportunity nevertheless remains as Trump is yet to select his Cabinet. He has previously promised to hire new voices, outside the current elite. Being an inexperienced politician, his choice will determine the vector of US foreign policy and its relations with Russia.