The first official reaction that came from Russia after Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election, demonstrated Moscow’s deep conviction that the President-elect would contribute to the fundamental reshape of the Russian-US relations, recognizing Russia as an equal partner. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and other high-ranking officials repeatedly expressed their strong belief that the incoming Trump administration would resume a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington.
There is no doubt that Donald Trump has proven to be a very independently minded politician; however, it is uncertain whether it is enough to succeed in immediate improvement of the U.S. relations with Russia. Despite the fact that the President-elect definitely has his own ideas on the prospects of the bilateral relationship, so far there is no clear vision how to start the improvement process. (Akulov, 2017) Moreover, the outgoing Obama administration makes it rather difficult to reverse the U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, especially, after recent incident with the Russian diplomats.
It is widely known that since 2014 the US-Russia relations have deteriorated sharply because of a number of accusations and disagreements originated from a range of issues including countries' competing military operations in Syria, disputes over the Ukrainian crisis and Crimea annexation, which caused sanctions imposing against Moscow. In December 2016, the official accusations in hacking the American elections systems were added to the list of charges pressed by the U.S. against Russia. On December 29, 2016, the White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, publicly accused the Kremlin in hacking the U.S. political groups. For instance, the Obama administration blamed Russian authorities to allegedly trying to influence the 2016 presidential elections through the supposed hacking of both the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) servers and the email account of Hilary Clinton’s Campaign Chair, John Podesta. (Mora, 2017) The Head of Russia, Vladimir Putin, as well as the Head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Sergey Lavrov, have strongly denied any involment in the cyberattacks, including the DNC's and John Podesta’s leaks of sensitive information.
In response to Russia’s possible cyberattack against the DNC, the U.S. Government imposed sanctions on Russia’s Main Intelligence Agency (GRU) and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from Washington and San Francisco. According to the Foreign Ministry of Russia, it has to sent a special government plane to the U.S. to pick up 96 Russians, including the 35 diplomats and their family members, affected by the expulsion order. Moreover, the U.S. Department of State announced about the shutting of the property of the Russian Embassy, which Russian diplomats called dachas or summer houses, at Pioneer Point in Maryland, along with another Russian-owned estate on Long Island in New York. According to the official statement of Washington, the ambassadorial compounds were used by Russia’s intelligence agencies to spy on the nearby National Security Agency among other things. (Harding, 2016)
Actually, it was not the first time when the U.S. expelled the Russian diplomats. For instance, the George Bush administration expelled 51 Russian diplomats in 2001 accusing them of spying. Russia responded by forcing 50 U.S. diplomats to leave the country. Therefore, it was quite expectable that the Russian Governmet will also use the tit-for-tat diplomacy this time. For instance, the high-ranking official such as Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, and the President's Press Spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, clearly demonstrated that the political establishment in Russia is ready to use proportionate tactics against the U.S. Therefore, on December 30, 2016, the Head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, proposed counter-measures, which were supposed to be approved by Vladimir Putin. Within the framework of proposed measures, Russia was planning to expell 31 U.S. diplomats from the Embassy in Moscow and 4 diplomats based at the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, as well as to shut down the dacha of the U.S. Embassy’s in Serebryany Bor. (Walker & Addley, 2016) However, in his official statement the President of Russia rejected the proposed initiative showing an intention not to make an already sensitive situation even more complex.
The Kremlin is confident that the latest sanctions of the White House against Russia are intended to undermine bilateral relations, and the diplomats’ expulsions were not only a protest against Russian cyberespionage. Furthermore, there is a strong belief that by imposing the sanctions in the last few days of his presidency, Barak Obama is trying to disrupt his successor’s plans and to undermine the normalization of the Russian-US relations. In addition, according to the official view of Moscow, the sanctions pursue some domestic political purposes related to the political game that Republicans and Democrats play against each other.
Therefore, by choosing not to engage in the tit-for-tat diplomacy, the President of Russia is attempting to disarm his American critics, including members of Congress who consider him as aggressivelly adjusted in relation to the United States. This gives the U.S. President-elect more room to pursue closer cooperation with Russia. (Mora, 2017) Moscow's decision to refuse the imposition of sanctions as a response has not gone unnoticed and received a favourable response from the incoming Donald Trump administration. Consequently, Russia showed its deep conviction that further steps towards the restoration of the Russian-U.S. relations will be built on the basis of the policy, which the new administration is planning to implement.
However, it should be highlighted that the new presidential team has limited opportunities of radically changing the format of the Russian-U.S. interactions. Firstly, it will take at least half a year for the Trump administration to finish the process of power transit. Secondly, there is a high probability that Trump’s initatives would face opposition in the Congress, which has already showed its support for the tightening of the U.S. sanctions against Russia. Moreover, the President-elect will have to convince his own team members to give up the anti-Russia policy. For instance, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, together with James Mattis, who was appointed as the Defense Secretary, share the idea that Russia should be considered as one of the major threats to the U.S. national security. Taking into account that the position of some other members of the presidentional team regarding Russia has not yet been made public it is difficult to talk about drafting of a roadmap for improvement of relations between Moscow and Washington. Thirdly, Russia and the U.S. still have substantial differences in understanding current geopolitical trends that would shape the future world order. Despite the fact that according to the Donald Trump’s electoral platform, the U.S. military activities abroad should be reduced, Washington will continue using the exceptionalism paradigm, which sets the idea of the U.S. global dominance.
In conclusion, the establishment of friendly relations between leaders of the U.S. and Russia could be considered as the very first step on the way to restore trust in bilateral relations. However, there is no guarantee that the considerable political will on both sides will be enough to lauch the process of rapprochment. At the beginning of his presidential term Barak Obama also attempted to push the reset button in the U.S. relations with Russia. Therefore, Donald Trump’s intention to start the relationship anew will need much more time and effort in order to be implemented.
Akulov, A. (2017). Prospects for Russia-US Relations: Serious Assessment Requires Realistic Approach.
Harding, L. (2016). Georgian mansions, Moscow dachas and the souring of US-Russian relations.
Mora, E. (2017). Backfire: Obama Sanctions Allow Trump to Pursue Closer Relations with Russia.
Walker, S., & Addley, E. (2016). Trump praises 'very smart' Putin for not expelling US diplomats.
 Five GRU’s employee, namely, Vladimir Alexeyev, Sergei Gizunov, Yevgeny Bogachev, Igor Korobov and Igor Kostyukov, were put on the sanctions’ blacklist.
*Published in the February 2017 No. 14 issue of the "Asya Avrupa: Haber-Yorum" journal.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute's editorial policy.