Trump and Putin: How Special a Relationship?

Time magazine’s decision to make Donald Trump its ‘Person of the Year’ may have seemed like the ultimate no brainer in a year when we got rather used to expecting the unexpected. However, did the illustrious journal get it wrong? Instead could a case have been made for awarding this annual badge of prestige to Trump’s counterpart in Moscow?

2016 was a very good year for Vladimir Putin. The EU, viewed by the Kremlin as a major threat to what Russia sees as its legitimate interests in the former Soviet space, was plunged into even deeper crisis after the UK’s referendum. In France, François Fillon, who favours lifting sanctions and establishing an anti-immigration and terrorism partnership with Russia, emerged as the clear frontrunner in the forthcoming presidential elections. Closer to home, in Bulgaria and Moldova, elections saw the rise of Moscow-friendly presidents while Czech and Hungarian leaders continued to make public their high regard for Putin. Surely then the elevation to the US presidency of a man who has been critical of NATO, sceptical of the need to maintain sanctions against Russia and who has spoken in the warmest of terms of his admiration for the Russian president, must have been the icing on Vladimir Putin’s already sumptuous cake?

Not necessarily. Despite the Kremlin’s antipathy towards Hillary Clinton (Putin famously holding her personally responsible for fomenting ‘colour revolutions’ in its former Soviet backyard and supporting anti-Putin opposition in Russia) and the allegations of Russian cyber-attacks, a Trump presidency might not prove to be as beneficial to the Kremlin as is widely thought. Indeed, there is a line of thought that goes something like this: Putin’s preferred scenario was actually a close Clinton victory, the electoral outcome possibly being contested by the Trump camp. Further hampered by a hostile Congress, Russia would have faced a weakened and bruised yet predictable president. Instead it faces an emboldened and entirely unpredictable Trump administration.

Indeed, US policy towards Russia under a Trump presidency is anything but clear. The incoming President talked opaquely about making ‘some good deals with Russia’ in his interview for The Times on the 16th January. Although Russia was ‘hurting very badly right now because of sanctions,’ Trump suggested that ‘something can happen that a lot of people are going to benefit (sic)’. Statements from leading members of Trump’s team are a little more illuminating yet contradictory. While Trump’s nomination for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has called for a ‘frank and open dialogue’ with Russia, defence secretary-in-waiting, James Mattis, has accused Putin of trying to wreck NATO and argued that Russia represents a major threat to the global order.

If we are unsure of US intentions towards Russia, are we any clearer of what Russia wants? How will Putin play the Trump card?

Again, the answer is unclear. The Putin regime is at its most confident when the West is weakened and divided and gleefully and assiduously does whatever it can to encourage such divisions. However, Russia’s strength can be too readily over-estimated and the idea that we are witnessing a fundamental change in the world order and that Putin will have Trump in his pocket does need to be questioned. What Russia wants most from the West is recognition of its perceived sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. It would also like to see the lifting of Western sanctions (something Trump has hinted at) to take the heat off its struggling economy (weakened more by years of depressed oil prices as much as the sanctions). However, as the incoming US President would, no doubt, testify, there are two sides to a deal. It is not clear whether Russia is either willing or able to offer Trump anything in return.


Dr David White

Lecturer in Political Science

Department of Political Science and International Studies

Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies