Trump Could Deal With A Less-Belligerent Russia

Trump Could Deal With A Less-Belligerent Russia

Donald Trump is the president-elect of United States.

For all the misgivings about Donald Trump's penchant for saying things Vladimir Putin wants to hear, there is one possible positive outcome of the "bromance" between the president-elect and the Russian leader.

It could make the world a safer place. At least for the next few months.

Call it a game of Russian reset.

Like just about everyone else, Moscow was preparing for Hillary Clinton to win, which in the short term meant trying to delegitimize her victory by claiming the vote was rigged - the Kremlin had even lined up a postelection news conference with its top human rights official to pan U.S. democracy as a sham.

With Clinton, an intractable foe, in the Oval Office, Moscow would have had no reason to ease up on its brinkmanship in the Baltics, the bloody, road-to-nowhere standoff in Ukraine, and the vicious bombing campaign to wipe out resistance to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, all coated in Cold War-style rhetoric and nuclear saber-rattling.

Instead? Trump is headed to the White House. He never once expressed interest in containing or contesting Russian influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and offered to at least discuss Kremlin wish-list items such as lifting sanctions or recognizing the annexation of Crimea. And Putin, some analysts say, has no reason to dissuade the Republican of his willingness to deal before he takes office; in the short run, the Russian leader could decide to substitute his trademark unpredictability with diplomacy.

"With a reset White House, Russia can seek its goals through diplomacy, rather than secret operations like landing troops in Syria overnight," said Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst. "The important thing for Russia is to not be in the news for some massacre."

Frolov and other analysts are quick to clarify that any softening of Russian aggression will only last as long as Moscow believes something can be gained from dealing with Trump.

"My guess is that they will want to test the extent to which Trump will follow through on his rhetoric that places like Ukraine and the Baltics are not in the zone of U.S. vital interests by offering a 'sphere of influence' deal where they [Russians] can happily dominate their neighborhood in exchange for an end to confrontational rhetoric and efforts to destabilize Western European countries [plus cooperation in Syria]," Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist for CNA, a nonprofit research organization in Arlington, Va., wrote in an email.

Since the election, Russian officials have expressed guarded optimism that they will be able to deal with Trump. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, gushed that "It is phenomenal how close they are to one another when it comes to their conceptual approach to foreign policy," while at the same time warning that establishing mutual trust could take years, according to Reuters.

"We shouldn't expect love or gifts from Trump," tweeted Alexei Pushkov, a member of Russia's upper house of parliament. "He's a patriot and a businessman. But he's not an ideologue, he's a realist. And a realist understands the language of deals."

But each area where Putin would try to deal with Trump comes with a set of built-in snags.

In Syria, the Obama administration has supported more moderate forces allied against Assad, and wants the Syrian leader to step aside in favor of a negotiated settlement. Putin, who committed himself to supporting Assad's regime, faces a choice between going for the all-out victory over rebel forces that Assad wants and some of his generals say is possible, or waiting for Trump. The Republican might be "more amenable to accepting Russia's view that Assad should stay at least until ISIS and al-Qaeda are defeated in Syria," said Simon Saradzhyan, the founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

But for such a deal to work, Russia would have to be able to control Assad and persuade him to accept something less than an all-out victory.

In Europe, Trump has raised expectations that he would reassess the U.S. commitment to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. In July, he said he "would be looking into" the possibility of recognizing Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, as Russian territory.

Russia became alarmed about Ukraine's direction after anti-government protesters forced the ouster of its president in 2014 following his refusal to sign a pro-E.U. trade deal. Moscow had also viewed Ukraine's interest in joining NATO as unacceptable. Russia has backed a subsequent rebellion in eastern Ukraine, prompting the U.S. and European governments to broaden sanctions on Moscow initially imposed because of Crimea.

Trump's "criticism of NATO indicates he may be far less enthusiastic about further expansion of the alliance into the former Soviet neighborhood, which Russia views as a grave threat to its security," Saradzhyan said.

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at the Belfer Center, said a solution for Ukraine that Putin might pursue, and Trump might accept, could involve a new effort to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine in return for lifting most of the sanctions. But the deal "would likely depend on a Ukrainian commitment to remain a neutral and nonaligned state," a condition Kiev has not indicated it would accept.

Russian analysts worry further about the hard-line stance toward Russia reflected in the names reportedly in the mix for Trump's foreign policy team - a report by Politico included former House speaker Newt Gingrich; John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"These names make me sick," said Sergei Markov, an outspoken pro-Kremlin political analyst.

And then there is Trump himself. Nothing he said in the election campaign amounted to a promise. All of his campaign talk about willingness to deal with Russia could be just that - talk.

As much as the Obama administration accused Russia of meddling in the election in favor or Trump, it is plausible that the Kremlin was not hoping for a Trump win.

It is hard to know how a President Trump would react the first time a U.S. carrier gets buzzed in the Baltics or the first time his Congress pushes back over Ukraine.

"Unpredictability is Russia's most effective foreign policy tool," Frolov said. "But it's also Trump's."

© 2016 The Washington Post

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