The Kremlin Recalibrates, Turns on Trump

Three months ago, I predicted Russia would get a lot more than it bargained for in a Trump presidency. As it turned out, it looks likely to get much less.

During the campaign and the anxious period between election night and inauguration day, Donald Trump prompted widespread panic about the future of NATO and the Western alliance. Given his clear sympathy for Vladimir Putin and repeated statements corresponding with Moscow’s worldview, it seemed plausible that Trump might retract the U.S. commitment to Eastern Europe, sending longstanding allies back under the dark shroud of coercive Russian hegemony and ending the Pax Americana.

At the time, I proposed an alternative scenario. The Trump presidency, I argued, would benefit Moscow less than many, including Putin, might have thought. A capricious U.S. strongman might unfetter his country’s vast reserves of hard power from the shackles of international norms, smiting foes and striking deals on a whim. That would push Putin, forced into a reactive posture by the brash and unpredictable Trump, back on his heels.

Furthermore, even the best case scenarioan administration happy to cede Eastern Europe and the Levant to Russian hegemonywould deprive the regime of its U.S. boogeyman. Without an enemy to bash on nightly news programs, it would be a lot harder to exploit the rally-round-the-flag effect and distract Russians from the deep social, economic, and governance problems that beset the country.

So far, Trump has governed neither as a Kremlin stooge nor a champion of the West. Rather, his administration’s stance toward Russia is mired in a bureaucratic omnishambles.

The scandal over National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ouster effectively drained whatever political capital President Trump had left regarding relations with Russia. With Vice President Mike PenceUN Ambassador Nikki HaleySecretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all doing their best to reassure NATO allies of their commitment to holding the line against Russia (Mattis’ ultimatum on European defense spending notwithstanding), the short-term outlook for Russian-American rapprochement looks bleak.

The Kremlin has clearly noticed. Last week it ordered Russian TV stations to dial back their rosy coverage of Trump; in their rush to sell the public on America’s new president, they accidentally made him more ubiquitous than Putin himself. Less than a week later, Trump had dropped off television screens from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. What coverage remains has taken on a more ambivalent tone. This positions the regime’s propagandists to more effectively pivot it in the future in whichever direction best serves its interests: public support for a deal with the Americans, or a return to the bombastic nationalism that has kept Putin’s approval ratings in the stratosphere since 2014.

The mainstream consensus of Russian media commentators basically holds that the Russophobic foreign policy establishment in Washington has hemmed Trump in, and that the new National Security Advisor McMaster is another nail in the coffin of détente. This really isn’t too far off the mark, propagandistic buzzwords aside. Any conciliatory gestures toward Russia are unlikely for now, as the drip-drip of leaks swamps the White House and pressure mounts on Capitol Hill for a formal investigation into the substantial and murky ties between his advisors and Russian intelligence.

In the meantime, it seems likely that the  official U.S.  line on Russia, Ukraine, and European unity will at least pay lip service to mainstream ideas about the Western liberal order, while political operatives like Bannon and Trump himself continue to undermine that effort with unpredictable private and public remarks.

This means two things. First, sanctions relief is most likely off the table for now. Second, Washington will not act confidently or proactively in Eastern Europe, leaving potential wiggle room for Russian meddling , should Putin decide he can get away with it or feels like testing Trump.

In other words, everyone is thoroughly confused about U.S. foreign policy, most of all the White House itself. The  Kremlin will probably bide its time until the dust settles, avoiding major initiatives while gently probing Trump’s response to provocation. Expect more incidents like the one involving a spy ship skirting the coast of Connecticut, as the Russians try to learn how to predict this most unpredictable of men.   

Everything has changed, yet nothing is happeningfor now.

Image: Putin by Platon. (Firdaus Omar, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Nick Tonckens is a Russian Studies Intern at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously worked at the Wilson Center and the Massachusetts Senate. Nick is an alumnus of Bowdoin College and Phillips Academy, and recently returned from Russia where he served as a Critical Language Scholar.

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