News analysis

Trump and Putin: A relationship set to be tested soon

A woman with a child walks past a mural of US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade.
A woman with a child walks past a mural of US president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • For much of this year, Mr Donald Trump and Mr Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a long-distance courtship. They have said kind things about each other in public and separately expressed visions of a mutually agreeable future.

Since Mr Trump's election, the anticipation has become more explicit. It culminated this week in the US president-elect's call for America to "move on" from allegations of Russian electoral hacking, and the Russian president's blithe pronouncement on Friday that he would rather plan for a new relationship with Mr Trump than retaliate in kind to sanctions and expulsions ordered by outgoing president Barack Obama.

But as with all such arms-length pairings, the looming question is whether Mr Trump and Mr Putin will find fulfilment or disappointment once face-to-face reality strikes.

US and Russian officials and experts are deeply divided over the answer. Some see Moscow playing Mr Trump like a fiddle. The Kremlin "sees Trump's presidency as a net loss for the US strategic position that Russia should take advantage of", said Mr Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based analyst.

Others depict the Russians as genuinely willing to deal and cautiously optimistic about improved relations under a US president who has none of the prejudices they see in the Obama administration.

But as with all such arms-length pairings, the looming question is whether Mr Trump and Mr Putin will find fulfilment or disappointment once face-to-face reality strikes.

While some fear that Mr Trump has no firm understanding of the policy complications ahead and the threats posed by Russia, others say Mr Trump the deal maker may be just the right person to set relations back on a road to cooperation that will benefit US national security.

Mr Trump has identified areas of shared US-Russia interests, including counterterrorism in general - and rolling back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in particular - as well as countering nuclear weapons proliferation. He has suggested that there are deals to be struck with Moscow on Syria and Ukraine, indicated that Nato's strong defensive posture on Russia's western border may be negotiable, expressed scepticism about sanctions - unless applied to Iran or North Korea - and implied that the fuss over Russian electoral hacking is overblown.

Some of his pronouncements have huge policy gaps and contradictions. In Syria, for example, how would counterterrorism cooperation with Russia against ISIS influence Mr Trump's plans to crack down on Russian ally Iran, which has its own interests in both Syria and Iraq?

The first indication of policy substance may come two weeks from now, when Mr Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Mr Rex Tillerson - the ExxonMobil chief executive who has argued that sanctions against Russia hurt US business - appears before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Several Republican lawmakers, including committee chairman Bob Corker, have said that any move to begin a new relationship with Russia by diluting or removing Ukraine-related sanctions is a non-starter.

Mr Putin and his advisers have spoken about a desire to improve relations, although there is no Kremlin expectation that Mr Trump's Inauguration Day on Jan 20 will bring an overnight change.

While pleased by the direction in which Mr Trump appears to be moving, Moscow sees "policy incoherence" so far from the president-elect, said Mr Thomas Graham, who served as senior Russia director on former US president George W. Bush's National Security Council staff and is now managing director at Kissinger Associates.

"If I read what the Russians have been saying, they don't expect relations to turn around quickly," Mr Graham said in an interview.

"They're surprised that on the Western side it's seen as if President Trump is going to hand over the keys to the barn to Russians."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'A relationship set to be tested soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe