The Trump Phenomenon and the Russian Factor
The unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections raised the possibility that new administration was not to pursue more flexible policies towards Russia.Trump did not hide the fact that he was looking to make peace with Putin and was prepared to offer concessions to achieve his aims.The question was whether they would be cosmetic only or would they seriously make Putin reevaluate his foreign policy goals and bring about a new “thaw” in relations.Trump was willing to embark on a new course and was not inhibited by the fear of appearing “soft” on Russia at a time where every other republican was competing to be as tough as possible towards Putin and Russia.Trump as the ultimate outsider was not swayed by Republican dogma and presented a fresh perspective.He was sceptical towards the argument that Russia was “threatening the international order” by its actions and found it manifestly absurd that Putin’s limited, largely defensive intervention in Crimea was a prelude to some wider Kremlin plot to subvert Europe and smuggle in ” green men” to topple Governments allied to the USA.This widespread view that Russia was behind everything bad that was happening to the USA was the outcome of an American elite that had sacrificed its national interests to obsessively pursue a Globalization agenda that in Trump’s opinion served only to give other nations an “easy, free ride” at the expense of ordinary Americans whose “generosity” was being taken advantage of.Trump represented a common viewpoint among conservative Republicans who felt that current republican establishment had led America into pointless and unnecessary wars.They had justified these policies in the cause of “advancing” American “values” and “freedoms” in other countries whether they wanted it or not.Trump like one of his mentors Pat Buchanan believes that America should stop demonizing Putin and Russia and find a way to arrive at a modus vivendi.Buchanan accused Trump’s opponents of being “Russophobes” and “immature”.They should stop pretending Putin is uniquely evil and admit that poorly conceived, disastrous US policies had contributed to the current dangerous impasse.”He is not mucking around in our front yard;We are in his”.There is nothing in Russia’s behaviour that is abnormal in any way and certainly nothing that justifies this level of anti-Russian hysteria.Trump and Buchanan do not automatically classify Russia as an enemy.Putin has not crossed any “red lines” crucial to US core interests and the neo con elites have failed to establish a convincing case as to why Russia presents a mortal threat and why a “normalization” of relations should not occur.Putin does not seek to destroy or conquer us or Europe.He wants Russia and her interests and her rights as a great power to be respected”.
The idea that Putin should be punished for “looking out for the interests of his lost countrymen” in Crimea struck Buchanan as an indirect attack by the Washington elites on anybody who puts nation above the Globalist future.The new Trump team sees the Putin bashing as just an oblique way of continuing the onslaught on Trump and the America he represents by his domestic enemies through other means.Trump is prepared to invest a lot in overcoming “this small cold war” and putting Russo-American relations back on a “normal” level.But the sense that a new era of cooperation between Russia and USA may be at hand may still be premature.Trump may have recognized that Russia deserves a “special” role and its interests deserve to be respected he still expected the US to retain its global leadership and every other country to accept that continuing reality.His unequivocal stance that America should only act in its own best interests and not take on itself the right to be a ” Global policeman” could be interpreted as a sign that the US no longer views foreign policy through the prism of moral imperative.There was no such thing as allies that could automatically count on US favour out of habit.They had to justify their worth and fight for his time and attention.For Trump the world was not fixed and immutable.No country could automatically be a perpetual ally.The nature of the world was such that it was inevitable that one country declines in importance while another one rises.Loyal allies like Germany were not going to be treated any differently from difficult rivals like Russia.If acting in concert with Russia was able to realize Trump’s foreign policy goals better than with Germany then he would do it.He would not risk sacrificing a potentially strong alliance however unpopular but one that might bring dramatic dividends for one that was predictably feel good but ineffective.Past behaviour would not influence his future strategy.Success as applied to furthering American interest was the only rule ” Trump will not allow the past to interfere in collaboration with Russia”.
There was a growing convergence between the two sides in many ways.A peaceful resolution of thorny issues like Crimea and Ukraine and fruitful collaboration between the two rivals was no longer excluded.Trump was not committed to isolating Russia and making it a permanent enemy of America.The likelihood however was that any Russo-American agreement would be painstakingly slow and full of pitfalls.It was where Donald Trump’s unique brand of anti-politics would receive a reality check.His inexperience would be exposed,and after an initial bout of energetic activity and a strong desire to make an impact his bumbling amateurism would soon surface and all the establishment and its cool professionalism would soon reassert its authority.To prevent this eventuality Steve Bannon wanted to exploit establishment shock and disarray and the limited window of opportunity it offered to bury once and for all the dying washington order.He referred to himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “blow up the system”.It was clear to him that Washington could no longer be reformed through consensus and agreed norms.The political class could not be trusted to make anything other than cosmetic changes and pay lip service to championing America first while secretly pursuing their own globalist agenda.The politicians were in the pockets of lobbyists and global oligarchs and had no interest in the welfare and well being of ordinary Americans.Only a second American revolution would do.Less bloody perhaps,but equally dramatic and far reaching.Trump’s message during the election had been schizophrenic.On the one hand he promised to “make America great again” but on the other he lamented that “we don’t win any more”.He exposed America’s dark underbelly.The millions in middle America who were victims of Globalization and before Trump had had no voice for their many grievances.Washington had forgotten that they ever existed.Now this new force had catapulted Trump into office and Bannon recognized the importance of turning this alienated mass into a grass roots movement that could “march” on Washington at a moment’s notice.Particularly if as expected the political class did not get the message and tried to neuter Trump and resume with business as normal.They expected their champion to get rough and take on the vested interests with uncompromising ferocity.”If the media and political establishment see Trump’s first couple of weeks in office as a whirlwind of chaos and incompetence,his supporters see an outsider taking on a sclerotic system that needs to be dismantled”The revolutionary fire needs to be kept simmering just enough to dissuade the defeated losers from using their institutional power to organize a coup from within and thereby practically annulling their election loss for fear of a popular backlash.
The speculation surrounding Trump as unreliable, an accident waiting to happen encourages his opponents to believe he is a flash in the pan.Threats of impeachment,the drip drip nature of more damaging revelations revealing his supposed ties to Moscow and the possibility of him being blackmailed by the Kremlin adds to the atmosphere of paranoia and crisis in the white house.The deliberate manufacturing of an alternative narrative whereby Trump is smeared in the eyes of the public as a Russian “agent” is designed by his enemies to make it impossible for him to pursue an agreement with Putin without it becoming a political and personal liability.Who could know for sure if any deal was genuine or was a result of Trump being a willing accomplice of the Kremlin? The irony was that the left was now monopolizing cold war rhetoric and reviving the kind of anti- Russian hysteria that used to be the preserve of implacable cold warriors.They accused Trump of being a “Manchurian candidate” ready to “sell out” the west to Russia.Suddenly NATO having previously been seen as something as an unnecessary relic of the cold war was rehabilitated as the last defender of freedom and “progressive values” against a perfidious Russian reactionary takeover spearheaded by Putin’s supposed stooge Trump and the tame conservative coalition he headed or inspired.The EU was also no longer considered a bloated white elephant inflicting austerity on the poor and weak but a model of idealistic purity standing up for justice and equality against the racism and xenophobia of its right wing detractors “President Trump animated by private motives as yet undisclosed wants to bring about a Russian-American axis that would enfeeble NATO destroy the EU and dominate a continent reduced to politically dysfunctional national fragments”.
The European nightmare is to find themselves powerless spectators while Russia and the US forge a new partnership which ignores European concerns.
THE PROSPECTS OF A GRAND BARGAIN BETWEEN RUSSIA AND USA UNDER TRUMP AND PUTIN
PUTIN AS TRUMP’S BOGEYMAN
The surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections brought Russo-American relations into sharp focus.Trump had diverged from the Washington consensus on Russia.He had found himself agreeing with Putin that Globalization had undermined national interests and it was time for nations to reassert their sovereignty and return more power back to the national level.The nation state would regain its primacy reversing decades of decline and a slide to irrelevance as the steady rise of global institutions hamstrung the ability of nation states to act autonomously.Trump in the eyes of the liberal elite had committed heresy by making nationalism fashionable again and resurrecting some of its central tenets such as strong borders,unashamed economic protectionism and a strict interpretation of what constitutes national interests.The dramatic rise of this parallel America which the liberal elites pretended not to notice confronted them with the shock realization that the USA was not such a paragon of the global order as it seemed.In fact it seemed to them that Trump’s America was closer to Russia than they had thought possible.It was even starting to resemble it in many ways.To many who viewed Russia as a pariah who had broken international norms and had to be made an example of it was alarming to see their new Government taking up similar views that had made the Russian regime reviled.It was almost as if in liberal eyes the two countries were merging in many ways.”Vladimir Putin’s macho authoritarianism,disdain for the press, and mockery for the truth has installed itself on the Potomac”,The anti Trump opposition had already made up their minds that Trump is a de facto partner of Putin.
PUTIN BALANCING BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
The fear that America is somehow under Trump is morphing into a kind of grotesque parody of Putin’s Russia where arbitrary rule is in danger of subverting the constitutional order has made it more urgent for the growing anti-Trump movement to uncover any potential connection between Putin and his supposed protege in the white house.Many liberals feel fundamentally that behind all the impulsive,seemingly off the cuff and spontaneous policy decisions Trump is taking is a strategy concocted by the Kremlin.There is a widespread suspicion that Trump is somehow colluding with Putin.Suddenly Putin’s warning about the direction the world was heading at the Munich security conference in 2007 seemed remarkably prescient.He firmly opposed American interventionism and regime change.He rejected its noble principles as a deceit to advance American power.It would inevitably lead to there being “one master”in the world “however it was dressed up”.But it would not turn out happily for America in the end as ” it would result in American society being undermined from within”.Despite these dramatic developments in Putin’s favour Russia did not welcome a complete US withdrawal from world affairs..There was no guarantee that an absent America would benefit Russia’s position fundamentally.It could instead embolden China to create its own alternative Global order which would have no place for Russia.Russia’s importance to China would diminish in a post America world system.Equally a more self absorbed America might spur Europe to add a strong military dimension which would more truly reflect its undoubted economic might.Therefore a weakened and largely disinterested but still actively engaged America might suit Putin more than potentially volatile and unpredictable new rivals giving him a large incentive to come to a deal with Washington.
RUSSIAN RESERVATIONS ABOUT A BARGAIN WITH THE USA
While many Russian commentators took Trump at his word and looked forward to the prospect of joining him in “blowing up” the international order which had become “set in concrete” others were more cautious about getting caught up in the euphoria.They had experienced the intense disappointment of failed past attempts at a Russian “reset” and wanted to prepare Russian public opinion for the worst.The sceptics pointed out that Trump was such a political neophyte that the Russian government had no more special insight into Trump’s true beliefs and the permanence of his convictions than anybody else.Even his own inner circle were often in the dark.Instead of relying on high profile,one off deals which might or might not work out Russia would do better concentrating on improving its underlying Geopolitical position and investing more in producing a broader,more sophisticated foreign policy “we have no adequate geopolitical strategy..Russian policy in helping other countries inspires the fear that it is outdated and ineffectual”.The conservative approach rejects grand bargains and headline grabbing “event” diplomacy for sound and consistent policy with careful groundwork.For identifying strong partnerships and sticking with them.
TRUMP’S OPTIONS IN SECURING A DEAL
At first glance therefore it might appear that the resignation of Michael Flynn Trump’s pro-Russian national security adviser is a body blow to chances of a grand bargain.But it might not be as disruptive to Trump’s core strategy as it might appear.It might instead allow Trump to consolidate power around himself more effectively than if such a controversial figure had remained in charge.His successor General H R McMaster was a more orthodox figure who increased the chances of persuading congress not to interfere with Trump’s foreign policy goals.Above all his appointment maintained the continuity of choosing military advisers instead of conventional diplomats.The reason for this is that “Trump especially does not want to turn to cadres from the diplomatic corps the overwhelming majority of whom are orientated to .For Russia it would be extremely dangerous to commit itself in the form of a strategic alliance with Iran in order to oppose a wide ranging anti Iranian campaign”.Trump could decide that if he achieved a mini grand bargain with Putin over Iran would be enough to convince his detractors in Washington that he is a serious player and give him legitimacy in their eyes..And reduce the accusations that he is giving too much away for very little.It could also buy him time to craft a credible China policy while building on his collaboration with Putin still further.
Marko Krunic is Partner, EM Strategy & Research