Lost in the media coverage of the elections is that the Trump administration presents an opportunity for strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Russia that would not had been available if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Despite this opening, the challenges confronting such cooperation are many and formidable.
Trump fits the alpha male Russian stereotype: he is a strong leader, brash, displays some recklessness, has a beautiful trophy foreign wife, is a multi-billionaire with a gold-plated apartment, is a relentless self-promoter with a big ego, and is a BS artist but has been successful (so far). Those traits alone will make it much easier to broker deals. In contrast, President Obama was all the opposite. He displayed an innate weakness and was fearful of confrontations. Often unmentioned is the fact that there remains a bias against people of color in Russia and especially in the hierarchy. Thus, the personal attributes of the incoming American administration provide for an opportunity to recast U.S.-Russian relations.
One thing that confounds Americans is that NATO is portrayed by the Kremlin as an aggressor and a major threat to Russia. The Kremlin views America as the only world power that could possibly topple the Kremlin. Of course, Westerners know that the Kremlin is doing exactly what they are accusing the West of doing: using fear to control the population and to keep the Kremlin leadership in power. Everyday Russians are not concerned about NATO but at the same time are consumed by the 24/7 state controlled news from the Kremlin related to the threat from America. To understand this, it must be understood that the Kremlin regime views NATO as a political threat and not a military threat. The Kremlin would re-take ex-satellites if they could pull it off. The whole idea behind NATO is for Russia to be restrained from military expansion. There is simply too much opposition from Eastern Europe who are both EU and NATO members for any forced reincorporation to occur. Americans see the fears from Russians about NATO or America as some kind of military threat as disconnected from reality. Of course, if Russia were to attack the Baltic States, then military confrontation would be automatic, but absent such a Russia attack, the likelihood of NATO military attack on Russia is farcical. But it is the political side that explains why the Russians fear NATO expansion. Countries that “go NATO” are more than likely to also become democratic governments.
There are significant barriers to improved U.S.-Russian ties. Recent history has taught the Russians not to trust the American position, and the Russian leadership has a memory. For example, when Putin was first elected, NATO decided they could prove that NATO was not a threat to Russia by agreeing to allowing the Russians to have some standing at NATO meetings. When Putin attended a NATO conference shortly thereafter, a senior U.S. official publically and openly blasted him for all his sins and predecessors. That was followed closely thereafter by American intervention in Serbia, whom Russia supported against a Muslim population. This intervention was especially damaging for U.S.-Russian relations, not just because Russia has seen Serbia as a historic ally but also because it came after when President Clinton gave Russia assurances that such intervention would not be done. This was viewed in Russia as a reach out to the West with good faith, and the response was seen as minimization and humiliation. After that botched opening, Russia has withdrawn from the West and taken a hardline that continues to the present.
Another angle that is unknown in the U.S. is that the Hillary Clinton-led State Department invested time, resources, and money attempting to defeat Putin in 2011-2012. It remains unreported in the media, but in 2012 the U.S. Department of State held a large teleconference comprised of U.S. Department of State employees in Washington DC. The topic was how to support dissent in Russia. Also during this time, the Clinton Department of State sponsored personal, one-on-one visits with naive State department staffers who met with the most visible dissidents in several major Russian cities to encourage them and provide support. These State Department supported dissidents opposed Putin’s re-election and supported regime change. After this interference and post-election, Putin barred all NGOs receiving Western funds and even shut down apolitical humanitarian Western NGOs working in Russia that were helping a lot of people (such as the Red Cross). The scope of this Sec. Clinton blunder has been major but has remained largely unreported. The takeaway from all of this is that the American side has earned the distrust of Russia.
Despite this recent history, there are several world challenges where the U.S. and Russia agree. Both the U.S. and Russia are confronting the common enemy of Islamic expansion. Both Trump and Putin show outward signs that they understand this common interest and that both countries should be on the same page with them in that fight. Unfortunately, the Western elites are trapped in a cold war mentality and have trouble breaking out of that box. Trump’s “drain the swamp” mind set may result in a more realistic view of what is going on in Russia and the world. The so-called Arab Spring, which has turned into a bonanza for Islamic radicals, is viewed by the Kremlin as a direct political threat. The Kremlin is concerned that could create a “Red Square Spring”. NATO expansion also means EU expansion. With the suicidal immigration policies of the EU and especially their old enemy Germany, EU expansion brings Arab Spring movements closer to the Kremlin. This factor adds fuel to the continual anti-NATO propaganda campaign.
The economic factor is also important. During the last five years, Russian has dropped from the 4th largest economy to 14th. The economic situation in Russia is dire. They need the sanctions removed and realize oil is not going back to the halcyon days. This suggests that America needs to focus more on Russia’s domestic problems and work to strengthen U.S.-Russia relations, which means the potential of economic relief in Russia. Trump will have problems with the EU, if he tries to normalize relations with Russia by reducing or removing sanctions. Russian policy will be an early test of Trump’s international acumen. On the other side, Putin has a difficult position keeping competing oligarches pacified inside the Kremlin while holding together the huge Russian geographical area with hundreds of ethic groups.