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Foreign Policy

What’s Next for US-Russia Relations?

Jan 16 , 2017
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

Throughout the presidential election and since becoming President-elect, Donald Trump has remained on good terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with both men signaling their desire to improve relations. In what is seen as a significant move, Trump selected Putin’s friend, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to be his new Secretary of State. It has also been reported that Trump has removed Russia from a list of US defense priorities. On the other hand, however, President Obama has ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russia’s alleged intervention in the 2016 US presidential election. Putin has since responded that Russia will not expel any US diplomats, stating, “We will make further steps to help resurrect Russian-American relations based on the policies that the Trump administration will pursue.”

These signals indicate that there are bound to be some changes coming in US-Russia relations. The question is where the change will occur, how it will progress and what its limits will be. It is possible that both sides are just testing the waters, as official Russian spokespersons have been cautious in commenting on such improvements. For example, the Russian President’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said on Dec 14, “It’s absolutely illogical to make any forecasts, not to mention to cherish some dreams that everything will all of a sudden change instantly.” And on Dec 21, Peskov added that Russia hopes the Trump administration will help improve strained US-Russia relations, which he described as “frozen”, but it does not expect any immediate breakthroughs.

In the more than two decades since the Cold War ended, both sides have competed amid cooperation and cooperated amid competition. Examples of cooperation include the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, though it expired in 2009; anti-terrorism cooperation, despite current disagreement between Moscow and Washington over how best to counter so-called Islamic State in Syria; joint participation in, and resolution of, the Iranian nuclear issue; discussions on the handling of the North Korean nuclear issue; and acceptance by both sides of the historic agreement reached at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in late 2015. Competition between the two nations, on the other hand, has mainly centered on the eastward expansion of NATO. NATO has extended membership to a number of Central and Eastern European countries, and it is now attempting to pull Georgia, Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union into its sphere of influence. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the Ukraine crisis and the US deployment of an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe are both outcomes of NATO's eastward expansion.

Once Trump takes office, an area in which he is likely to cooperate with Russia is anti-terrorism in Syria, though this will involve a process of consultation. Indeed, on Nov 16, the Washington Post quoted a US official as saying that after the US presidential inauguration the US may seek to restore the agreement reached with Russia in September last year on joint airstrikes and establishing a joint center to combat jihadist groups. Another area is the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia, though this would be subject to constraints by Western European powers. Timothy Colton, a Harvard professor and chair of the Department of Government, believes that once Trump officially takes office, he may lift some of the sanctions on Russia’s economy, but it will be a complex process. A third area of potential cooperation could be the gradual restoration of the NATO-Russia Council, the framework of which could be used for both sides to engage in dialogue on European security.

Putin spokesperson Peskov has stated that Trump could improve trust between Washington and Moscow by persuading NATO to slow the pace of its expansion or withdrawing troops from the Russian border. Nevertheless, Russia does not expect the new US government to abandon NATO expansion in a hurry. Likewise, the US may soft-pedal the deployment of an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, but it will not suddenly abandon the facilities that have been constructed. It may, however, resume negotiations on reducing and limiting strategic arms. Although some people claim that Trump may seek to do business with Russia on Crimea and Syria, it will be difficult for Trump to openly protect Putin on the Crimean issue. In short, given the deep-seated structural contradictions between Russia and the United States, areas for potential improvement in bilateral relations are limited, and uncertainties look set to continue.

It is worth mentioning that people talk about Trump wanting to team up with Russia to contain China. Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again”, and his goal is to maintain his country’s position as the world’s most powerful economy. He values China, but he harbors an ambition to curb China’s rapid rise. Nonetheless, for its own sake, can the US allow Trump to use all its energy and resources to fight China? US business executives have already expressed concerns about fighting a trade war with China, as the first casualty is sure to be the American people. As for urging Russia to team up against China, Putin will have done his calculations and realized that the comprehensive strategic partnership with China has provided powerful support in the face of mounting long-term external pressure on Russia’s revitalization. Russia, therefore, cannot afford to use China as a bargaining chip to obtain better relations with the US. Moreover, though Russia may choose to cooperate with the US in the aforementioned areas, these areas do not infringe upon China’s core interests.

Russian experts generally believe that the Trump presidency presents new opportunities for relations between Russia and the United States, and although the US might try to encourage Russia to contain China, Russia will not join forces with the US. Regardless of the state of relations with the US, Russia knows that its relationship with China is valuable and extremely important in its own right. An article published on the website of the French Institute for International Relations and Strategic Affairs on December 12 said, “Some say the biggest challenge to the US is China and not Russia, but Washington’s mechanisms may not allow Trump to do what he wants.” As for China, it will seek to build a new type of great power relationship with the US while seeking to work more closely with Russia, and look for more areas where their interests converge as things change in order to cope with the challenges of globalization together.

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