02.12.2016 Author: Phil Butler

Donald Trump and the “Russia Redux”

453423413132With the election of an outsider named Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, the world is once again at a perilous crossroads. A Hillary Clinton disaster averted by an upset silent majority vote is one positive signal. Russia’s view however, should be one of guarded optimism rather than naïve enthusiasm. A look at key Russian experts and decision makers can give the rest of us a better view.

Dmitry Suslov is a brilliant researcher, teacher, and especially where global policy and Russia-EU relations are concerned. The Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow is more often-than-not spot-on in his assessments, and Russian policy these last few years reflects this. It is Suslov’s brilliance, and that of colleagues such as; Sergey Lavrov, Fyodor Lukyanov , and a score of other Russian thinkers who stand behind Vladimir Putin that is cause for Russians to hope. This core group of policy idealists also gives us a current moment of pause. Russia should best pause with wide open eyes, before placing too much confidence in Washington again. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov commented recently that “the ball is in Donald Trump’s court when it comes to improving US-Russia ties”, and with this we have the facts of the matter so far. As for Mr. Suslov, I was reading Mr. Suslov’s statement via Sputnik Germany just now. Roughly translated the policy expert’s comments read:

“The foreign policy of Trump will differ from Obama’s. We think it will be a reboot of us-Russian relations. In the next few months, we will experience an intensification of relations, we will experience a relaxation of the Ukraine crisis. The Minsk agreements should be easier to implement because of the Failure of the Minsk was due to the agreements on a lack of implementation on the Ukrainian side.”

Reading between the lines it is clear Suslov expresses the same hopefulness most Russians have for a “reboot” of America-Russia relations. On the other side of the policy coin political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov shows guarded concern over what surprises the new U.S. president may have in store for Russia. While Lukyanov acknowledges that Donald Trump’s unique success will determine Russia-America détente to come, his outlook stops short of Suslov’s enthusiastic positivity. Within my own team and network there are those who are much less positive, even though they deplored the Obama White House. One expert, my colleague Holger Eekhof, had this to say about the potential Trump-Putin accord:

“While I would like nothing more than to be more positive about the coming Trump administration, the fact remains he has a weaker political power base than any previsous US leader. Given this, and his personal desire to be seen as a winner, he may well become more dangerous than his Nobel Peace Prize winning predecessor.”

So, Donald Trump does represent a paradigm, but the new president’s view of the world is also a shift that needs understanding. Barack Obama was a disaster for US foreign relations by and large, and this is echoed in Lukyanov’s words. Writing about the Obama-Trump view he frames Obama as misleading and Trump as isolationist:

“In effect, Obama started dismantling the United States’ global obligations, publicly stating the opposite. Trump openly declares things that Obama did not dare proclaim: The U.S. intends to focus on its own interests and no longer wants to carry the burden of the global boss.”

The highly publicized Obama-Merkel meeting in Berlin recently also clarifies the uncertainty the word is as to exactly what it is Trump stands for. The Obama administration’s years of disastrous foreign policy leave a landscape of potential political skeletons to-be. This is in Trump’s favor, and at the same time his albatross. The right moves in leveraging the power of a US presidency could reboot all of Europe. At the same time a weak stance within his own party in Washington could cripple the new US leader. In my view, this is why we see the sensationalism in the transition team headed by running mate Pence. Donald Trump has an imperative more important than a Russia-America re-do, he has to take advantage of a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. Perhaps this is one reason Lukyanov is more conservative in his assessments than some of his contemporaries. His characterizations of Trump are also spot on in my view as an American analyst. On the European panic over Trump the analyst writes:

“The threat of the biggest temptation comes from Europe, a perennial source of Russian inspiration and complexes. Trump has far less interest in the Old World than his predecessors. Furthermore, for a politician who is oriented towards force, the phenomenon of modern Europe, which at present is in a mush-like state, is simply incomprehensible.”

I tend to favor the enthusiasm of Dmitry Suslov to the pragmatism and tough love of Lukyanov, but there is no denying his points. Donald Trump has his own hills to climb back home in America, and even if his most fervent desire is to revamp US-Russia relations, there are still the “swamp things” he described in his campaign. At worst the distractions at home may allow Russia a chance to fit its massive self into a new world frame. Lukyanov envisions more options besides Russia as European and America’s co-partner, while I foresee a chance for Putin to grab hold of that “third way” I described previously here on NEO. Then again Trump may surprise us all by turning back the clock in order to revamp the relationship and the whole world. I am hoping Suslov is the conservative one here.

Phil Butler, is a policy investigator and analyst, a political scientist and expert on Eastern Europe, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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