The 2016 US presidential elections were unprecedented not only in their lack of focus on concrete policy ideas, but also on the level of Russian interest, and even perhaps involvement. During the election campaigns, accusations emerged from the Democrats that Russian hackers had carried out attacks against US political organisations to interfere with the election. Indeed, the hacked emails released by WikiLeaks are purported to have come from Russian sources. With this in mind, it should be considered how the election of soon-to-be ‘President Trump’ might affect relations between the US and Russia, and how this might affect the rest of the world.
Perhaps one of Trump’s most important campaign themes, apart from his promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, has been his reluctance towards whole-hearted support of NATO. Indeed, he questioned US commitment to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and demanded that NATO members fulfil their financial pledges (of 2% of GDP) to the organisation to guarantee US support. This has had a significant effect in both Russia and these former Soviet satellite states, the latter of which would, in that eventuality, be much more vulnerable to Russia ‘interference’. In the case of Estonia, the government has begun training its citizens in insurgency tactics, showing a genuine fear of invasion similar to that in Crimea from 2014. Indeed, Trump’s inward-looking stance in general is arguably of benefit to Putin, who sees NATO as the last bastion against his encroachment into former Soviet territories, which he sees as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence
Coming back to the allegations of hacking, the release of the emails by WikiLeaks not only undermined Hillary Clinton and her campaign, but also the US political process as a whole, particularly through the questioning of the activities of the Clinton Foundation and the payments received by former president Bill Clinton. WikiLeaks itself is purported to have ties to Russia, perhaps most notably with Julian Assange, founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks hosting ‘World Tomorrow’, which was broadcast from 2012 by RT (Russia Today), a Russian government-funded television network. Putin’s foreign policy efforts of weakening the Western-dominated political order have undoubtedly been helped by this undermining of the US political system, but also by Brexit and rising anti-EU sentiment elsewhere, which Russia may or may not be involved in.
There is general agreement amongst experts that both Trump and Putin want to improve US-Russian relations, particularly from the level they have been left by President Obama. Trump also appears to want a closer relationship with Putin than did Obama. Trump is a businessman, and therefore a deal-maker, and as such may potentially ‘gloss over’ some of the key issues of the US-Russian relationship (or conflict), primarily human rights, issues over NATO and Russian influence in Europe, in order to make a deal with Putin. In regards to Syria, this may lead to an end to the current stalemate, but the question must be asked as to whether Russian and American unity against Islamic State would re-affirm President Assad’s position and be detrimental to that of the rebel, anti-Assad forces that the US have previously supported.
However, the extent to which a ‘revolution’ in US-Russian relations could take place under a Trump administration is obviously constrained by pragmatism and political consideration, which are themselves undeniably linked. Following the election, Trump refuted several of his campaign pledges, must notably assuring Obama that he will respect America’s defence commitments, including NATO. Trump, per Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman, is also relatively isolated in his ‘positive’ view of Putin and Russia; the US political establishment in general, both inside and outside of Trump’s own party, holds much more distrustful views
The full extent to which a Trump presidency will impact US-Russian relations cannot be determined with certainty at this stage, and can only be predicated on educated guesses. Thus, the world must wait and see what a Trump administration will bring, and perhaps hope that he goes back on a few more of his campaign pledges.