News analysis

Putin happy - but also wary - about a Trump presidency

Jonathan Eyal Russian President Vladimir Putin should be delighted with Mr Donald Trump's election as President of the United States. After all, Mr Trump has praised Mr Putin as a "great, powerful leader", and has even hinted that he may recognise Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory.

But though Russian parliamentary deputies gave Mr Trump a standing ovation when the US presidential election results first became known, leaders in Moscow are more subdued, with Mr Putin merely expressing the "hope" that he may "work together" with the new US leader.

For, like most Western leaders, Russia's rulers were surprised by Mr Trump's victory and are still not sure what to make of him.

Nonetheless,as far as Mr Putin is concerned, there are numerous advantages to having a President Trump. His election creates tensions in US-Europe ties, a boon for Moscow which has always seen the transatlantic link as directed against Russian interests.

Mr Trump's questioning of the purpose and viability of Nato and the doubts this is bound to generate among America's European allies is also music to Mr Putin's ears, coming as it does just when the US-led military alliance is planning to deploy troops closer to Russia's European borders.

But the most important advantage from Russia's perspective is that Mr Trump seems to be approaching Europe as a purely transactional relationship, rather than an alliance of values, as all US presidents since the end of World War II have treated America's ties with Europe.

A propaganda ad toasting Russia's President Putin and US President-elect Trump has appeared in Montenegro - days after a Moscow-linked militia was accused of conspiring to murder Mr Milo Djukanovic, Prime Minister of Montenegro, in a sinister bid to curtail Nato power. "Make America great" was the rallying cry of the tycoon while on the campaign trail. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Putin loves this approach for, like Mr Trump, he regards Europe as a real estate property which simply needs to be divided into spheres of influence.

And, as hoped in Moscow, Mr Trump, the other real estate mogul in this relationship, could well be tempted to see matters in a similar light; the mere fact that this has now become even a remote possibility is tantalising for the Russian leader.

Still, Mr Putin and his advisers are keeping their cool and not making big plans about a long-term "reset" in their relations with Washington. One reason for this is that Moscow has no clue about the composition of Mr Trump's presidential team.

"We've heard many words, but we will judge by actions," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has witnessed at least four US presidential elections while in office.

And the few people whose names have cropped up as potential members of the Trump presidency are not very reassuring for Moscow. Chief among them is Mr John Bolton, who served in the Bush presidency and is famous as a fierce critic of Russia in general, and of Mr Putin in particular.

Another reason for Moscow's circumspection is that Russia hates unpredictability, and Mr Trump seems to be offering this in spades.

Dr Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow, a US think-tank with an offshoot in the Russian capital, claims that not only would Mr Trump be unable "to conduct and carry out foreign, military and any other initiatives by himself", but also the "reaction to his presidency from the American establishment will be unpredictable", thereby increasing Russia's uncertainty.

But although he would hate to admit it publicly, Mr Putin's biggest fear may be that Mr Trump with his business-oriented approach would ultimately conclude that Moscow is simply not worth Washington's attention.

This is because while the US' trade with China stands at US$660 billion (S$940 billion) annually, its trade with Russia is roughly 20 times smaller.

And next to being contradicted, what Mr Putin hates most is simply being ignored.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Putin happy - but also wary - about a Trump presidency'. Subscribe