The Slatest

Does Putin Even Need Trump’s Help?

Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; PeterHermesFurian/iStock.

This is the seventh in a series of posts looking at how Donald Trump’s presidency could impact countries and regions around the world.

The FBI has now signed on to the CIA’s conclusion that Russia intervened in the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump win. At this point, it is unclear what the Obama administration is going to do about it; Obama certainly didn’t say much of consequence at an extended press conference Friday afternoon. But, while that vital question remains, it’s important to also ask another question: What will President Trump’s strategy toward Russia actually look like, and what will it mean for the U.S., Russia, and its neighbors?

As has been widely reported, the president-elect has very different views on Russia than both the current administration and most prominent Republicans have. He has stated on multiple occasions his personal admiration for Putin, his campaign gutted a section of the GOP platform condemning Russian actions in Ukraine, he has suggested an openness to working with the Russian military and its ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and he appointed a secretary of state with deep financial and personal ties to Russia. Still, while Putin may have gotten the outcome he wanted from this election, it might not benefit his country that dramatically. For one thing, it’s hard to say what Putin’s government will be able to do under a President Trump that it isn’t doing already.

Take Syria: With the city of Aleppo now almost entirely controlled by Russian-backed Syrian government forces, the rebel groups backed by the U.S. and its allies have almost no chance of forcing Assad from power. This could have some scary long-term consequences for Syria, but the main source of conflict between the U.S. and Russia in the conflict may well be moot before Trump even takes office. The limited communication already taking place to assure that U.S. and Russian planes don’t come into conflict over Syria may expand to more overt cooperation on anti-ISIS operations, and Putin may persuade Trump to actively shore up the Assad regime, but these are just changes in degree, not direction.

The other main area of conflict between the U.S. and Russia has been Ukraine, where the Obama administration has placed sanctions on a number of Russian politicians, business figures, and companies over the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russian support for separatist groups in the country’s east. “The Kremlin is focused like a laser on trying to get sanctions lifted in the next six months,” says Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and is now director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford. “They have a strategy for achieving that in Europe and now with this new opportunity with the United States. That’s what they’re going to lead with, for sure.” But the international resolve around the sanctions is probably coming apart anyway. France’s next presidential election is likely to be won by either the pro-Russian Francois Fillon or the even more pro-Russian Marine Le Pen. And in any case, while Russia would undoubtedly like to see these sanctions lifted, they haven’t been that much of a deterrent to its behavior abroad.

A more extreme development than lifting the sanctions would be for the U.S. to actually recognize Crimea as Russian territory. It Trump did that, he would effectively be endorsing the first forceful seizure of a country’s territory by another country in Europe since World War II. And, yes, that would be a big shift. Would it tempt Russia to try to annex more territory in Ukraine or at least increase aid to the separatist rebels? The possibility has caused anxiety in Kiev since the election. “The Ukrainians are dead frightened, and for good reason. They’re waiting to see how bad things will be,” says Anders Aslund, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and expert on Ukraine.

But Russia has probably already accomplished most of what it can in Ukraine. It can prop up the breakaway regions and cause headaches for the pro-Western government in Kiev, but the country as a whole is unlikely to fall back into Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin’s larger goal.

“The entire Ukrainian elite is very much anti-Russian and this will continue to be the case. To have Ukraine within a Russian-led integration project doesn’t give you anything. It’s a time bomb,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Will Russia, then, go after territory elsewhere? One scenario that hung over the U.S. presidential campaign was whether Russia might now put more pressure on, or even attack, the Baltic Countries. Like Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, are former Soviet states that many Russian nationalists consider historically Russian. But unlike Ukraine, they are members of NATO, and thus entitled to protection by the other NATO member states if attacked. Former NSC staffer Paul Miller recently sketched out a nightmare scenario in Foreign Policy, predicting that Russia would invade the Baltics next. This would present the U.S. with the alarming choice of either going to war with a nuclear superpower to uphold NATO, or effectively abandoning the alliance’s security guarantees, possibly foreshadowing a return to the territorial wars that tore Europe apart throughout the twentieth century.

It’s too scary a scenario not to take seriously, but at the moment, it doesn’t seem that likely. While Putin is certainly looking to assert Russian influence in the region he considers its sphere of influence, Aslund says that Putin’s government prefers “small victorious wars” where it can win with relatively little risk. The 2008 invasion of Georgia was one such war, as was the annexation of Crimea, and—from Russia’s point of view—the intervention in Syria. But NATO has been beefing up troop deployments in Poland and the Baltics to deter the doomsday scenario Miller sketched out. This would not be the type of easy, small war that Russia likes.

Of course, it’s possible Trump could dismantle NATO before Putin even has a chance to test it. Trump has questioned America’s commitment to defend NATO allies, saying these countries should count on U.S. support only if they have “fulfilled their obligations to us.” But McFaul suggests that NATO allies will likely make a token gesture to increase defense spending and contributions toward NATO, allowing Trump to declare victory. Plus, some of his more traditional senior appointments—Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis, for instance—aren’t likely to approve of abandoning the alliance. This doesn’t mean McFaul’s optimistic. Looking at the Euroskeptic political movements gaining influence throughout the continent, McFaul says that Russia’s “longer term agenda of weakening both NATO and the EU is a project that has a life of its own right now. He doesn’t need to do anything proactively to let that play out.”

Finally, it’s worth questioning whether Trump is actually going to get along all that well with Putin. He’s not the first president to come in promising a fresh start with the Kremlin. George W. Bush famously got along great with Putin in their first meeting after he “looked the man in the eye” to get a sense of his soul. Obama and Hillary Clinton promised a “reset” with Russia in 2009. Both ended their terms with hostility toward Moscow, clearly. Trump’s switch would be more dramatic, but it’s not hard to imagine the currently chummy relationship going south fast, and we already know a couple of the issues that might cause it.

“At a certain point, their declared foreign policy priorities will come in conflict with each other,” says McFaul. “When Trump says we’re going to tear up the Iran deal, one of the biggest opponents of such a move is Vladimir Putin.”

Trenin from the Carnegie Moscow Center also doesn’t anticipate the chummiest relationship ahead. Trump’s victory may have been met with cheers by some deputies in Russia’s legislature, but Trenin says senior Russian leaders probably have milder expectations. “I don’t believe anyone really thinks what the U.S. media is writing today that you have a pro-Russian president or secretary of state. This is seen as nonsense in Moscow,” he says. “I’m not looking for a love-fest between Russia and the United States. My hope is that we may transform the current confrontation, which is dangerous, into a sort of competition that will not be deadly.”

But even that will be Putin getting his way. “Trump always says, Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia, as though that’s the goal of his foreign policy,” says McFaul. “Putin is interested in that goal too, and he has a very clear strategy for achieving that goal. It is supporting what he’s doing in Syria, it is lifting sanctions, it is recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. If you do these things, he will give you good relations with Russia. He’ll throw a giant party for you at the Kremlin and call you his best friend. That shouldn’t be the goal of any foreign policy. The goal has to be something about America’s national interests.”

Trump’s views on Russia may be misguided and could even prove to be dangerous. For one thing, China—which is already showing signs that it will take a more confrontational approach to Washington under a Trump administration—could very well see a U.S.-Russia rapprochement as a threat. But Russia hasn’t needed a Russia-friendly U.S. administration to carry out its foreign-policy goals over the last few years. And we probably shouldn’t expect anything radically new with a friendlier one.

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