Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Dec 13, 2016
A major task ahead for Trump would be to negotiate with Russia on the future of US-Russia arms control.
Trump Presidency and the future of US-Russia relations Russia figured prominently in the United States' presidential campaign this year with Donald Trump's alleged links to Russia dominating the debate.  In July, accusations were also levelled against Russia for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails that purportedly revealed the committee's favouritism towards the eventual nominee, Hilary Clinton. As the election campaign progressed, the Russian "threat" became so prominent that the Atlantic even ran the heading: "Its official: Hillary Clinton is running against Vladimir Putin."  Now with Trump at the helm of affairs, a 'reset' between the US and Russia is expected. This situation has a sense of déjà vu to it. When Barack Obama began his first term in the oval office in 2009, the US-Russia relations had hit a historic low post the culmination of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Intended at reversing the "dangerous drift" in the bilateral relations between the two countries, a 'reset' with Russia was also one of the foreign policy priorities of Obama administration. However, the policy was unable to achieve its primary goal of building "a solid foundation for a stable relationship." By early 2014, it had fallen apart completely due to growing tension in Ukraine. Trump too is beginning as the 45th President of the US in January next year amidst a backdrop of heightened tension with Russia. Trump's headway in making a 'reset' would therefore depend on whether he is able to avoid the pitfalls that brought about past failures of several US attempts to engage with Russia. The major issues where the US and Russia would continue to interact include West Asia, Ukraine, arms control, and Afghanistan.

West Asia and Afghanistan

Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his long-running civil war has been in contrast to US preoccupation with ouster of the Syrian leader. The US seems irked particularly by Russia's military intervention to support the Syrian regime, which changed the balance of forces in Syria. Since Russia has re-emerged as a major player in what Russians call the "Near East," the "Middle East," as the Americans refer to the area, appears to be the area where the first steps for a "reset" are likely to be taken. Trump's campaign statements indicate that he sees the ISIS as the major threat in the Middle East and is ready to cooperate with the Russians to eliminate that threat. This view is also supported by the telephonic conversation, where both the leaders have identified international terrorism and extremism as the "common enemy" and shown inclination to resolve the crisis in Syria.  Turkey would also affect Trump's choices in the Middle East, given it "has pursued something of a détente with Russia" lately. In this context, America's partnership with the Kurds could see a downfall.  Trump would, however, have to reconcile obvious contradictions in his approach to the Middle East. While on the campaign trail, he was a consistent and harsh critic of the Iran Nuclear Deal, advocating either renegotiating the deal or scrapping it altogether. In addition, he will need to rally the Arab allies of the US to fight the ISIS. His Islamophobic campaign rhetoric may be an impediment. On the Afghan front, one of the most pertinent questions facing Trump is regarding the level of US involvement in Afghanistan. According to former US special envoy for Afghanistan, James Dobbins, the country is less likely to figure highly for Trump given the preoccupation with fight against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.  This implies that he may want to push for a complete withdrawal or at best continue with Obama's drawdown policy.


Russia's annexation of Crimea in early 2014 was catalytic in furthering the divide between the West and Russia. The US joined EU in imposing international sanctions to compel Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine. However, the Russians responded with counter sanctions. Cooperation in Syria could also open avenues for Putin to broker peace in East Europe. For now, both the US and EU have already extended the Ukraine related sanctions on Russia into 2017. Trump would most likely try to broker a deal with Russia based on the Minsk accord and move towards minimising sanctions or not having them extended.

Nuclear weapons

Despite a fragile economic environment triggered by low oil prices and Ukraine related sanctions, Russia has maintained its military spending. Similarly, irrespective of claims of arms control in Obama's term, the US has continued to update their nuclear weapons capabilities. In recent years, both sides have accused each other of violating the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), negotiated during Obama's first term in office expires in 2021. A major task ahead for Trump, therefore, would be to negotiate with Russia on the future of US-Russia arms control. Even though a positive turn of relationship between the US and Russia is expected, overemphasising the Russian angle would be premature. Trump's priority lies in the domestic sphere as evidenced by his rhetoric on "America first." His push for a domestic stimulus and preference for protectionist trade policies to bring back manufacturing jobs were instrumental in his win. Even if he disregards the ongoing tension with Russia, to assume that he would give in entirely to Moscow's demands would be oversimplification. As a 'dealmaker', he would want to make a deal with Putin. In this context, a lot would depend on what Russia offers in return. For instance, Trump could give Russia freer rein in Ukraine and Syria in exchange for restraint in Central Europe and the Baltics.  Irrespective of whether Trump translates his rhetoric into action, the situation is positive for Russia. For Putin, more than the direction of Trump's foreign policy is the sheer unsteadiness that now surrounds domestic politics in the US. Trump has already vowed to withdraw the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), terming it as a "potential disaster for our country."  Moreover, a Trump presidency is likely shake to its foundations a US commitment to European security that dates back to 1941, which again works in Russia's favour. For now, things seem bright as both leaders have expressed support for active joint efforts to normalise relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues. To conclude, as economist Anatole Kaletsky terms it, Trump's preference for "transactional realpolitik over Obama’s liberal interventionism"  should stabilise relations with Russia, at least in the short run. Easing of tension between the US and Russia is in the interest of India as it would to a certain degree reduce Russia's movement towards China. It may also help in restoring the trust factor between India and Russia, given the latter's suspicions regarding the growing India-US partnership. h
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Nachiket Udupa

Nachiket Udupa

Nachiket Udupa Member Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan India

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