Russia happy but wary in anticipation of a ‘new reset’

Trump’s worldview is viewed as more likely to accommodate Russia’s ‘spheres of influence’ but his unpredictability is as much a worry for the Kremlin as it is for others.

This morning saw a sudden drop in oil prices, duly followed by the Russian rouble, but this had no impact on the mood in the Russian State Duma. Parliament’s lower house burst into applause when Trump’s victory was announced, and later celebrated with champagne courtesy of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and Vice-Chairman of the Duma.

The official reaction of the Kremlin was also welcoming, though more restrained. In his statement President Putin said he hoped to work together to lift Russian-US relations out of the current crisis, resolve issues on the international agenda and look for effective responses to global security challenges.

The word “reset” has been frequently heard in Moscow today. Many commentators expressed hope that President Trump will start with a new positive chapter with Russia, possibly cancelling sanctions or recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But more quietly, many also feared that the new reset might be as short-lived as Obama’s original.

In a way, Russia feels vindicated. As with many in Europe, Moscow views Trump’s win as an end of an era – and an inevitable one at that. Russians have long predicted the crumbling of the US-led liberal international order under the pressures of globalisation and US overreach. It has been suggested that the Clinton presidency, had it materialised, would simply have delayed and postponed the inevitable for a short while, but not prevented it. Trump’s victory, in contrast, would usher in a new era immediately.

Trump’s approach to foreign affairs is viewed as more in tune with classical realism, and therefore more likely to be accommodating of this worldview. But what exactly Trump’s approach will mean in practical terms is still unclear, and this is why Russia’s most thoughtful commentators are cautious in their predictions.

What Russia wants from America, is first and foremost a serious conversation about the international order: the rules of the game, the rights and mandate of different organisations’ and countries, and yes, also spheres of influence. Russia has tried with good and with bad; it can get tired and frustrated, but – as came very strongly across from the discussions at recent Valdai meeting – it is unlikely to give up.

While Hillary Clinton would probably have done her utmost to uphold the liberal international order and shunned any conversation of a paradigmatic change (while not excluding some de-escalation and pragmatic cooperation with Russia on limited issues,) then Trump could seemingly be better disposed towards striking a deal with Russia.

Trump has little interest in value-based foreign policy. From Russia’s perspective this means no more democracy-promotion in its neighbourhood, no more NATO-enlargement no more humanitarian interventions. On a personal level, Trump’s readiness to think in terms of “deals” suits Russia’s state-centric view of foreign policy that views deals among major powers as the way to manage the world order.

At the same time, Trump’s erratic behaviour and lack of predictability is bound to make Moscow wary of him. Some commentators have pointed out that while Moscow does think in terms of deals, the ‘art of the deal’ in foreign policy is very different from that in real estate: not everything can be bought and sold. And while a business deal gone bad would result in loss of interest or a hostile takeover, in foreign policy the first is not possible, and the second would mean war.

Moreover, Russians realise that even Trump would not necessarily give up on the conception of US global supremacy – though he might pursue it through different means. This leads more seasoned policy watchers to conclude that even under a Trump presidency, it may quickly become obvious that the problem’s systemic nature will render him incapable of improving relations with the Kremlin. In a worst case scenario, a clash between two “macho presidents” who both hate to be seen as weak, could lead to very serious consequences. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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