I never really went to bed on Tuesday. I stayed up until 1:30AM watching. Despite all polls, despite a confident Democratic party, despite all of our fears, hopes, and expectations, the stars aligned and the seemingly impossible happen. Well in retrospect it isn’t so unbelievable, but it is still shocking nonetheless. We could go into why Clinton lost for hours. We could spend days trying to figure out what this election means for women, African-Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and so on. Quite frankly, nobody here or abroad knows what is going on. Trump ran a campaign heavy on criticism and light on policy. His real viewpoints and ideologies remain to metastasize. Personally I don’t even think Trump knows what he is doing yet. The election surprised him most of all.
But Russia knows exactly what this all means. Putin was quick to extend congratulations and cooperation. Russia’s ultra-nationalist fringe candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, held a party at the Duma to celebrate. Even Gorbachev was happy at the prospect of a Trump presidency. And why wouldn’t they be? After years of sanctions and Western opposition Russia finally has a reprieve: one of Trump’s few stated, plausible policies is relaxation with Russia.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations have more or less collapsed. Disarmament initiatives, cooperation against terror, and the NATO-Russia council fell apart. Crippling sanctions were placed against Russia by the West, and these have had a substantial impact on the Russian economy. Russia has responded in kind with continued support of Ukrainian separatists, military involvement in Syria, cyber intrigue, and pressure on NATO states. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen to the point where media outlets have been falsely advertising World War III and discussing nuclear preparedness. Many were paranoid about Russian conquest of Ukraine or the Baltic States, two completely unfounded fears.
At the start of this election both the GOP and Democrats were anti-Russian. Hillary wanted to continue Obama’s policies and perhaps create a no-fly zone. Meanwhile the Republicans were calling for greater preparation and increased military presence in Eastern Europe. I remember quite clearly when Ben Carson suggested that he would consider all viable options to stop Russia, including nuclear weapons. This bluster resonated well with conservative voters who had long criticized Obama’s policy as too soft on Russia, and yet they ultimately chose the softest candidate on Russia, Donald J. Trump. It turns out that Trump’s economic and nativist message mattered more to people than foreign policy.
But now we are faced with an interesting question: can Trump manage to revive relations with Russia? Undoubtedly he wants to, and Putin would certainly be willing to oblige him. But can he actually do this? How far can he go? Here is where everything gets fuzzy. Trump is building his cabinet with many people who were tough on Russia, and the Senate and House are both controlled by the Republican Party who, just a brief while ago, were calling for a harder reaction against Russia. Trump and the Party differ over a number of issues, and this is one of them.
Of course, foreign relations are increasingly the domain of the imperial presidency. Trump has plenty of room to visit with Putin, work out deals, and his word carries a tremendous deal of symbolic weight. Trump is willing to end sanctions and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and he has unlimited opportunities to work towards this effect. I think that the GOP, for all their jingoism towards Russia, will be happy to let Trump heal relations with Russia. It would mean a symbolic break with past policy; why would Republicans pass up a chance to try to bury Obama’s legacy? Russia may become a bargaining chip for other disagreements between Trump and “his” Party, but I think Trump will be able to deliver on his only tangible and realistic policy goal.
Let’s call it: the Trump Thaw. You heard it here first folks. I searched, it seems like people use the words “Trump” and “Thaw” and “Russia” in a sentence but not as I have. Some people say “Trump Thaw” as a phrase to discuss GOP acceptance of Trump. Well that is ok, I have another name picked out if Trump Thaw doesn’t stick. Maybe we could try: Trumptente! Kremelania? Should we give them a power couple name? Is Vladonald catchy enough? Maybe we should move on…
How will the healing process take place? Here is where things get interesting. Trump and Putin are similar in some ways. I believe they are both masters of symbolic action: read their body language, look at how Putin arrays his foreign policy and reigns over opposition, look at how Trump managed to win an election. Far from Trump being a madman who says anything and everything, I think he has very carefully cultivated and acted out this part. Putin and Trump are also used to negotiating with businessmen: Trump makes deals and Putin took out the oligarchs. So how will these wily cats approach each other? I can imagine Trump going to Putin, although it would be a very powerful statement if Putin set foot on American soil. Regardless, the Thaw will occur, and a meeting will make a profound impact.
Of course, Russia isn’t just happy about immediate direct benefits of a Trump presidency. The Kremlin is also going to benefit from the ripple effect Trump will have on Ukraine, NATO, and the EU.
Regarding Ukraine, this is a massive defeat for them. Ukraine lost its strongest backer when Trump won the election. It was a little sad to see Poroshenko acknowledge the Trump victory by saying that he hopes for cooperation. I do not see this happening. Ukraine may be at the mercy of Russia, again.
NATO, long-standing opponent of Russia in Europe, it also placed at risk by Trump’s election. Trump called for an end to NATO bandwagoning. He was unwilling to enforce Article V (collective defense) unless allies paid their fair share. For some allies this wouldn’t matter, but a significant amount of NATO members do not contribute their due amounts to the alliance, especially since NATO was used by Bush in an attempt to legitimize US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of what to do with NATO is trickier to call. Trump may be able to repair US-Russian relations, but convincing the GOP to abandon a longstanding and important alliance would be far more difficult, especially with the GOP in control of the Senate (our treaty affirming arm) and the House (our budgetary arm). I believe that NATO will remain well-funded by the United States, and we may even see the reconvening and strengthening of the NATO-Russia Counsel and renewed attempts to push NATO “out of area” in the fight against terrorism. NATO members are still paranoid though. Estonia’s pro-Western coalition collapsed following the U.S. election: they had a wide list of issues beforehand but Trump’s victory may have been the death knell. Ironically Estonia was one of the most fervant supporters of NATO and they have paid for their membership in human life and monetary contributions.
How can the US election possibly affect the European Union? Well, setting aside the fact that NATO and the EU are interrelated, the election still has a great deal of salience. Viewed in a broader context, the Trump surprise is the second big step in a Western realignment towards nationalism and populism. Remember months ago when we all thought that Brexit was going to fall flat? We all know how that went, and all the questions that raised for the EU. Now with Trump’s victory these movements are gaining more and more legitimacy. France seems next on the chopping block. Hollande’s regime has self-immolated. The next prospective election of France seems to be a toss-up between former President Sarkozy, a candidate mired in intrigue and corruption, and the face of the ultra-right, Marine Le Pen. Does this seem at all familiar to our election? Well, one detail is off: this time the female candidate is the nationalist. France has never had a female leader, so who knows what might happen. Marine Le Pen’s campaign though is energized by the Trump win-the wind is at her back. If France goes the nativist route it could shock the EU. Russia would like this.
It isn’t hard to see why Putin, Zhirinovsky, and Gorbachev celebrated: Trump’s election is tantamount to a Russian foreign policy coup.
I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump does and says. Likewise, his apparent nativism and anti-intellectualism is a big turn off. But I have to say that he does understand Russia better than any other candidate. He was the only person saying that Russia does not have designs against Ukraine (beyond the unspoken reality that Ukraine is and will remain in Russia’s sphere), and I can finally see my dream of renewed Russian-U.S. relations aimed at bolstering international security achieved. I can also say with absolute certainty that Putin will remain in power now at least until 2024. Putin likely had his upcoming 2018 election secure, but with the lifting of sanctions, peace with the West, and tangible, legitimized victory in Ukraine he will be riding high as usual (barring any extraordinary circumstances). The more things change…