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Putin and Trump: Where From Here?

They might outwardly seem willing to wheel and deal. But it’s increasingly difficult to see how any agreement might actually look.

by Peter Rutland 20 December 2016

It is just 25 years this month since the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.” Liberal democracy and market capitalism were the only game in town, and politics would gradually fade away, to be replaced by the management of social and economic problems by an expert, transnational, technocratic elite. This became the dominant narrative of Western diplomacy for the past 25 years.


Now, we are entering new and uncharted territory. In the course of his campaign Donald Trump overturned decades of convention in how one treats one’s opponents and deals with the issues facing America. Things have gotten worse since the election, with President Trump set to disrupt key planks in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, and undermine the very institutions of government. Far from being a shining beacon on a hill, America is becoming a laughing stock.


Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has torn up the international rule book by occupying territory of Georgia and Ukraine, and intervening to prop up a brutal dictator in Syria who has presided over the slaughter of 400,000 of his own citizens. The West accepted Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia in 2008 as a fait accompli, and only responded to the annexation of Crimea with strong economic sanctions after the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 in July 2014. (Washington introduced economic sanctions before the shootdown, but could not initially persuade the European Union to join the U.S.).


Experts disagree over whether the sanctions have had any impact in deterring Putin from further aggression in Ukraine. At a seminar in Chatham House in London on 13 December, former Russian official Sergei Aleksashenko argued that the effect of the sanctions has been dwarfed by the impact on Russian GDP of the halving of the global oil price. In any event, Putin refrained from trying to seize more real estate in Ukraine because he had already achieved his goal of destabilizing the government in Kyiv, and because there was scant support for Russian liberation among the Russian-speaking inhabitants of neighboring Ukrainian regions such as Kharkov, Dnipropetrovsk, and Mariupol.


What happens next? President-elect Trump has signaled that he likes Putin, does not like sanctions, and is willing to do a deal. The problem is, it is hard to see what such a deal would look like. Trump is willing to lift the sanctions on Russia and presumably accept the status quo in Syria and Ukraine (effectively giving up on the Minsk agreement that is supposed to bring about the demilitarization of Donbass). But what will Putin give him in return? Any substantial concession, such as allowing the Ukrainian government to re-establish border controls around Donbass, would be seen as a huge retreat by Putin, and would embolden his nationalist critics and their supporters in the Russian armed forces. He can hardly promise not to conduct cyberwarfare against the U.S. – since he is denying that they are responsible in the first place.


The nomination of Exxon head Rex Tillerson as U.S. secretary of state muddies the waters still further. Tillerson is the proud recipient of an Order of Friendship from Putin, and his deep involvement with Russia means that any economic concessions will be seen more as a favor for Exxon than a benefit to U.S. national interests.


Meanwhile, many U.S. congressmen on both sides of the isle are incensed by the thought of a Trump-brokered reconciliation with Russia, and his unwillingness to accept the conclusion of both the CIA and FBI that senior officials in the Russian government deliberately intervened in the U.S. presidential election so as to weaken Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory. It looks likely that Congress will try to introduce new sanctions to penalize Russia for the hacking of the emails of the Democratic National Committee and other leading officials. Investigations into Russian cyberwarfare could dog the Trump administration for months if not years, in the manner of the Watergate investigation back in 1973 (that eventually led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon).


Many commentators have put Trump and Putin into the same category of populist/nationalist leaders. But apart from that (and not liking Hillary Clinton), they are really quite different characters, and have little in common. That, and the diverging national interests of the two countries, means that conflicts are bound to emerge. Rather than entering a new era of reconciliation and understanding, it is more likely that U.S.-Russia relations will be in for a rough ride.

Peter Rutland
 is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and visiting Leverhulme professor at the University of Manchester. 


Ivory Tower is a new TOL column that will focus on insights into the region’s politics from academic events and publications. 

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