By Yaroslav Makarov | November 14, 2016
The news of Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections was met by a round of applause in the Russian State Duma, followed by a spontaneous celebration with champagne. Some Western observers were quick to conclude that Russian lawmakers confirmed Mr. Trump was indeed Moscow’s "preferred" candidate in these elections. However, the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his comment took a much more cautious tone, saying that Kremlin will “make its judgement [about the new US administration] depending on its actual steps.” Now, as the eventful campaign is over and the speculations about Moscow’s involvement in it can be put aside, we face a simple fact that can be surprising for some. Russia, just as pretty much everyone else, is perplexed with the question – what does the Trump presidency mean for American foreign policy?
The recent instability in the West, marked, in particular, by the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe and the Brexit vote, so far has been relatively beneficial to Russia, because it limited the US and EU efforts to isolate Moscow for its involvement in Ukraine. But Donald Trump entering the stage does bring the amount of uncertainty to a level that is uncomfortable for the Kremlin. During the campaign, Mr. Trump made it clear that, as a president, he would welcome dialogue and cooperation in Russia, thereby letting Moscow stay in the room. The rules of the game have never been stated, though, and this leaves plenty of opportunities for collisions with potentially global implications.
For instance, at this moment Moscow does not have a clear idea about how the Trump administration will approach military cooperation in Syria. Despite critical differences in views on the end goal of the long-lasting civil war, the coordination mechanism set up between Russian and American militaries to avoid incidents in the Syrian skies has been hailed as highly pragmatic in nature and surprisingly effective. However, earlier this year Donald Trump expressed an opinion that the US should shoot down Russian planes in case of a dangerous flyby. The possibility that the US might react differently to what previously was acceptable can greatly affect the security situation in Syria.
In fact, this gives Russia a dangerous incentive to use the current period prior to Mr. Trump inauguration for unilateral action. At this moment, Moscow has an unprecedented naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, including the nation’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, and is fully prepared to launch the final offensive, along with the Syrian government forces, against the rebels near Aleppo. The situation can degrade very rapidly, rendering the lengthy and tedious peace restoration process in Syria as a failure.
The ongoing Syrian crisis is far from being the only global issue where clear rules of behavior between Russia and the US are a must. Another prominent one is the European security system, but here, again, Mr. Trump’s loose statements about possible revision of US participation in NATO create major uncertainty. This lack of information invites Russia to weigh its options, some of which might include mounting pressure on the eastern border NATO and further intimidation of Ukraine.
Russian president Vladimir Putin in his congratulatory message to Mr. Trump was as specific as he could be about what Kremlin in fact wants from the new US administration – the return of the bilateral relations to the “pre-crisis” level. No matter how far are Moscow and Washington from that elusive point of reconciliation, it seems like now is the moment for the president-elect to be specific in his Russia policy – just to remove the temptation to misbehave.
Some things are inevitable. Mr. Trump will have to work with Moscow on bringing peace to Syria. He will also have to look for the intricate balance between alleviating Russia’s security concerns and protecting the right of post-Soviet states to choose their own way. Unlike winning elections, all those problems will not be solved overnight. To make his first step, Mr. Trump should get rid of at least one of his arguably numerous flaws – the unpredictability. His transition team should work fast on articulating the new American foreign policy and communicating it to all stakeholders. The sooner this happens, the better it will be for everyone.
Yaroslav Makarov is a staff writer for the Journal of International Policy Solutions. A first year MIA student, Yaroslav comes with several years of experience as a foreign correspondent covering global affairs. At GPS, Yaroslav is focusing on energy and sustainability issues.