The good, the bad, and the unclear: Russia-U.S. relations under a Trump administration

Beginning with the invasion of Georgia in 2008, and culminating in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia-U.S. relations have deteriorated to a post-Cold War low, and were a frequent topic of debate during the U.S. presidential elections. Now, in the wake of a Trump victory, Russia-U.S. relations are again at a crossroads.

Trump takes the presidency against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s accusation of Russian involvement in the DNC and Clinton campaign email hacks. To further strain relations, Russia has continued its support of Ukrainian separatists, and maintains that Crimea is legally Russian territory. Russia continues to support Syrian president Assad, despite being accused of bombing civilian areas and humanitarian convoys. Bilateral nuclear cooperation has also developed cracks, as Russia recently backed out of key agreements on plutonium cleanup and uranium research.

The president-elect has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and the Russian government during his campaign, claiming that he would have a “great relationship with Putin.” So what exactly could a “great” relationship look like come January, given the current state of relations, and the little we know about Trump’s foreign policy? In Syria, Trump’s potential policy may lead to greater military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, but in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the Trump presidency creates uncertainty for the very existence of these states.

The Good: Russia-U.S. relations under a Trump presidency offer a glimmer of hope for cooperation in Syria. The humanitarian crisis and ongoing civil war has been a point of bilateral contention, with the U.S. backing Syrian rebels and Russia supporting the reigning Assad regime. Trump’s vague position regarding Syria suggests that the United States will let Russia conduct its military campaign in Syria and wage the primary attack on ISIS strongholds there. The next administration will likely favor greater cooperation with Russia, and most likely, the restoration of direct military communication between the two countries. Despite the posture of cooperation however, the president-elect has called for a scaled-back U.S. presence in Syria, a conflict he deems a quagmire, in favor of letting Russia solve the crisis.

Should this be the policy pursued, Russia will have the flexibility to become more militarily involved in Syria, engaging its Navy or possibly ground forces, though the later is unlikely. With a lessened U.S. presence, Assad will be assured a say in the future of Syria. Russia will likely take on the primary leadership role in negotiating Syria’s political future and a peace settlement, presumably mitigating the risk of a direct U.S-Russia confrontation in Syria. Some foreign policy pundits predict that by eliminating a foreign power squabble over Syria, a peaceful settlement is more likely.  Middle East experts, however, have expressed concern that an emboldened Russia may get involved in other regional conflicts, such as in Yemen, if Putin is successful in Syria.

The Bad: As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, the “biggest loser” of election night is Ukraine. While this might be an exaggeration, it encapsulates Ukraine’s fear of an incoming president who appears to be allied with Russia. Trump’s former campaign manager resigned over direct ties to the corrupt ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and the incoming president himself cleared any mention of Ukraine from the Republican Party platform, which had previously called for sending lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine.

In the interest of pursuing better relations, the Trump administration could sanctions on Russia, with or without any Russian progress towards the implementation of the Minsk II Protocol. The new president may even decide to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legal, though the Kremlin denies that Trump and Putin have discussed the matter. Such a precedent could allow Russia to continue its aggression towards Ukraine unchecked and set the stage for future incursions into its periphery. Coupled with antagonistic comments towards fellow NATO members’ monetary contribution to collective defense, the Baltic states in particular are concerned that warmer Russia-U.S. relations may give way to an attack on Baltic soil with no invocation of Article V. Based on his previous statements, Trump seems unwilling to commit U.S. resources to protect smaller NATO allies, calling into question the future of the Alliance.

The Unclear: At the end of the day, the administration’s foreign policy will be partially determined by who is appointed to top positions in the State and Defense Departments. A few top picks, former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and former Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani, have stated that the Obama administration did not take a hard enough line towards Russia. Furthermore, Trump will face pressure and dissent from the Republican Congress should he pursue a softer stance. Many Republicans in Congress have advocated sending lethal aid to Ukraine, and reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO. Trump may find himself at odds with his own party over unconventional views towards Russia as a result.

At the end of Clint Eastwood’s iconic Western, the Bad is vanquished, and the Good rides off into the sunset, but he leaves the Ugly standing. For Donald Trump and Russia, the Uncertain remains.