It’s difficult to remember a U.S. presidential candidate that clearly demonstrated as much sympathy for the head of the Russian government during his election campaign as Donald Trump. Beside which, Trump expressed his feelings regardless of fierce criticism from the American political establishment, and unequivocal warnings from the press, which thought that paying respects to the Kremlin could cost the Republican his seat in the Oval office. There are three main reasons for the president-elect to extend a hand of friendship to Moscow.
The first is his pragmatism. Trump is not against sharing the burden of fighting terrorism in the Middle East with Russia. The second reason is his urge to be allied with Moscow against Beijing, at least, to not allow China and Russia to get too close. The third was Trump’s desire to underline Barack Obama’s weakness, contrasting him to the strong Russian leader, who, now that I mention it, has far more popular support than the current head of the White House. Vladimir Putin, in turn, responded to Trump with mutual compliments, calling him, in part “a colorful and talented politician,” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race.”
However, as Election Day drew closer, Trump toned down the pro-Kremlin rhetoric more and more. Already in June, he said the following about the Russian president: “I have no relationship with him. I mean, he was saying very good things about me. But I don’t have a relationship with him.” That same month, he promised to show “firmness” on relations with the Kremlin. And in September, he recognized that Russia is a “very different system,” which he personally does not like, but Putin, of course, as its leader “exerts strong control over his country.”
Finally, in October, Trump joined Russian critics on the situation in eastern Aleppo. Trump’s first statements after his election victory, nonetheless, have given cause for optimism about a thaw in Russian-American relations. During a telephone call between Putin and Trump, shortly after the latter’s victory, the Republican underlined that he is counting on long and lasting ties with Russia and the Russian people. However, on the road to good intentions of the U.S. president-elect, there are a minimum of five barriers.
The first is the anti-Russian mood of the American public, which, according to a Gallup poll, views Russia either as the main enemy, or at least, as a serious problem. The current level of negative views of Americans of our country is the highest since the end of the Cold War. In addition, 86 percent of respondents think that Russian military strength constitutes a threat to the U.S. Summarizing the results of the study, the Washington Post concluded, “Americans who voted for Trump did not vote for improved Russia-U. S. relations.”
The second barrier includes the residents of Capitol Hill, who want a hard line on dealing with Moscow and perceive any attempts to get closer to it as supporting tyranny. In this regard, there is a telling statement from Sen. Ben Cardin (one of the key members of the senate foreign relations committee), who called on the Trump administration “to see Russia for what it is — a global bully and adversary ” and “to understand who our real friends and true allies are, and that they count on us to provide leadership against Moscow’s aggression.”
Among these “friends and allies” (in NATO specifically) is the third barrier. The United States’ military and political partners were quite wary of Trump’s pro-Kremlin rhetoric, and his intention to make America’s participation in the North Atlantic alliance contingent on the financial contribution of other members of the bloc. [German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen] called on the Republican to “not forget our principles.” Because of this, it’s good to remember that in September, the EU and five other countries once again continued sanctions against Russia.
The fourth and fifth barriers on the road to any probable closeness of Russia and the U.S. under Trump are less obvious than the previous ones, but are no less important. It is well known that the court makes the king. At first, Trump looked at three members of his “court” for secretary of state, who will be, in large part, responsible for developing U.S. foreign policy; the relationship with Russia being among them. This includes the former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani; the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton; and Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House of Representatives during the Clinton administration. On Thursday, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama’s former presidential opponent, was added to that list. Alas, none of them support Trump’s intention to improve relations with Moscow.
So, Giuliani thinks that the United States must contain the Kremlin’s growing influence on the international arena, using threats to use military action against Russia. But he also doesn’t consider our country a serious military opponent and insists that its growing international influence was the result of Obama’s unwillingness to at least remind the Kremlin about the capabilities of the Pentagon. Bolton doesn’t lag far behind Giuliani. Agreeing with Trump in his evaluation of Russian-American relations as unsatisfactory, he underlines that this is caused by the “naive” and “incompetent” Obama administration, specifically its policy of resetting the relationship between Moscow and Washington. According to Bolton, this led to the U.S. making one concession after another to Russia without improving relations between the two countries. As a result, in the event of his appointment to the highest diplomatic position, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. intends to make Putin more agreeable by exerting more pressure on him. As far as Gingrich goes, he also called on the U.S. to be more aggressive in opposing the Kremlin. As for Romney, when he was still a presidential candidate, he called Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
Finally, the fifth barrier that Trump can stumble on is the lessons of history. American society and politicians remember well both the period of “strategic partnership” between Russia and the U.S. in the 1990s, and the “reset” at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. These periods are now in the past, and in their stead have come what is often called a new chapter in the Cold War, taking the ties between Moscow and Washington to the lowest point since the 1970s. Each side accuses the other of freezing out the opponent, but regardless of who is right and who is wrong, it would be naive to expect the U.S. to admit its own mistakes. That is why the American political establishment, which Trump will be forced to contend with constantly, will begin to exhibit extra wariness at any attempts to start any new closeness with Russia.
Trump’s explosive temperament, his unpredictable character and inadequate inner fortitude will also not be conducive to his desire to build a bridge between the U.S. and Russia. “I don’t believe Trump has a deeply felt ideology beyond advancing his own interest,” says Tony Schwartz, the co-author of Trump’s memoirs, “The Art of the Deal” almost 30 years ago. “He does not have values that he holds dear… and he does not have a deep understanding of the issues that he will have to deal with.”*
But, perhaps Trump’s pragmatism will become a real counterweight to the never-ending polarization and indoctrination of the bilateral relationship that often brings Moscow and Washington to the danger zone? However, it is not impossible that he could take on the Reagan doctrine of “peace through strength.” Giuliani remarked upon this kind of approach to creating ties with the Kremlin a few days ago, hastening to add that he supports this approach completely. “Gorbachev,” he remarked, “gave Donald Trump the answer to how to win. Gorbachev wrote in one of his memoirs—I think the principle one that he wrote—that, ‘Ronald Reagan spent us into oblivion.’” All that is left is to hope that Washington’s strategic approach will not be this version of pragmatism.
*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.
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