When news of Donald Trump’s election reached Moscow, the Russian parliament broke into applause. Might there be an encore this week, when Trump is expected to name his secretary of state? Or will he find a chief diplomat with a more Russophobic bent?
It’s no secret that Trump was the Kremlin’s favored candidate. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly referred to Vladimir Putin as a strong and effective leader. He even went out of his way to shed doubt on US intelligence assessments that Russia was trying to manipulate the election via cyberespionage.
Maybe none of this matters. When President George W. Bush first met Putin, he famously said that he had “looked” into Putin’s eyes and seen his trustworthy soul. Obama, too, had high hopes of a reset with Russia. Both times, events triumphed over optimism.
But if Trump and Putin do forge a 21st-century detente, it would bind the United States to an authoritarian nation notorious for political repression, military opportunism, naked interference in the affairs of other states, and a dismal record on human rights — all of it grounded in a cult of Putin-personality.
What is more, such an alliance would reshuffle the global order. Among other things, we could see a widening of Russian influence, the restoration of President Bashar Assad of Syria, and rising concerns about hidden conflicts of interest between Trump and Russia.
The key thing to understand about Syria is that there isn’t just one war underway — more like two wars with at least four competing factions. The first is between Assad and various non-Islamic State rebels. The other is between the Islamic State and an alliance of forces led by the United States.
Russia says it’s fighting terrorism in Syria, but the country is really focused on the Assad-rebel side of this conflict — not the Islamic State. Russian air support is helping Assad recapture territory and defeat non-Islamic State rebels.
If the Trump administration does decide to join with Assad and Russia, the results could be extremely awkward, to say the least. It would put the US into, effectively, an alliance with Iran, which is already on Assad’s side. It would also anger European allies, who have long insisted that Assad must go, as the brutal bombing of his own people makes him unfit to lead Syria.
And how’s this for a scenario: By aligning with Russia, we might unwittingly set the stage for a confrontation between US-supported Assad troops and US-supported Kurdish forces — the same Kurdish forces who have led the ground fight against the Islamic State and who now control territory that the Assad regime might want to reclaim.
The current chill in US-Russia relations began after a popular uprising against a Putin-friendly president in Ukraine. Shaken by the events, Russia seized Crimea and stoked a low-level conflict between east and west Ukraine that persists today; the US responded with sanctions against Russian businesses and members of Putin’s inner circle.
Trump seems less concerned about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. He has talked openly about lifting sanctions — even accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. What’s more, his team worked behind the scenes at the Republican National Convention to scrub a provision of the party platform that called for arming Ukraine against Russian-backed rebels.
The big question, for Trump, is how far this laxity goes. If Russia can take Crimea, what other parts of the old Soviet sphere could it reclaim? Could it assume direct control of Georgia? Undermine democratic governments in Latvia or Estonia?
For 60 years, the surest check on Russian expansion into Eastern Europe has been NATO, but there, too, Trump has sent mixed signals, saying that countries who don’t pay shouldn’t get protection. And once NATO support becomes conditional, Russia can start testing the limits.
Corruption is already endemic in Russia. Not just the mild corruption of bribes and payoffs, but something more deeply ingrained, where business success hinges on political connections and politicians are groomed for loyalty rather than public service.
If you want to succeed in Russia, the best thing is to know Putin. And one concern about Trump is that he brings a similar mindset to American politics. Trump’s cabinet picks, for instance, have disproportionately gone to campaign loyalists, whether it’s Stephen Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Steven Mnuchin, or Michael Flynn (who has an odd Russia connection of his own, as a regular contributor to the Kremlin-controlled network RT).
When people know you value loyalty, they respond by making themselves loyal — and giving preferential treatment to other loyal followers. As a telling example, consider that two days after Trump’s election, the Ukrainian government ended its corruption investigation into Trump’s old campaign chairman Paul Manafort, suspected of receiving undisclosed money while working for Ukraine’s former ruler.
That bit of Trump-friendly dealing happened in public. But given Trump’s unusual stature as president-businessman, it’s possible similar things will happen in hidden pages of Trump’s tax returns — which are not set to be released anytime soon.
Sometimes, perhaps often, it will be hard to determine whether Trump’s dealings with Russia are motivated by public or private interests. And while we don’t know the extent of Trump’s business relations with Russian oligarchs, there are hints. Back in 2008, Trump’s son and business partner, Donald Jr., said Russians made up a disproportionate share of their assets, adding, “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Putting it together
If Trump does forge a new alliance with Russia, it will be a policy of his own making. The military brass and the intelligence community are united in their skepticism of Russia. CIA chief John Brennan told the BBC Wednesday that Trump should be “wary of Russian promises.”
And who knows? Maybe experience will make Trump rethink his praise for Putin — say, if the Russian leader backtracks on a private pledge or balks at Trump’s “America first” approach to trade.
But Trump has proved time and again his willingness to take risks, buck consensus, and pursue unorthodox policies. If that means a new era of US-Russia cooperation, the fallout will stretch from Europe to the Middle East, empowering a brutal regime in Syria, potentially undermining the democratic government of Ukraine, and unsettling the balance of power in Eastern Europe.
And every time Trump does make a surprising concession to Russia, we might be left to wonder whether it involved some unknown conflict of interest crossing between the United States and Moscow.