President-elect Donald Trump held a cordial telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after Trump’s election. The two men agreed to meet soon after the January 20, 2017 inauguration. There is an expectation that a meeting could take place before the end of January. There is also an expectation that Presidents Trump and Putin will reach an early accord on counter-terror cooperation, and that the United States and Russia will begin the process of mending fences, following a dangerous collapse in US-Russian relations, bordering on a new Cold War.
When President Barack Obama met briefly with Russian President Putin on the sidelines of the mid-November APEC summit meeting in Lima, Peru, it was at President Putin’s initiative (he saw President Obama standing alone and walked up to him and started talking). The Russian and American official accounts of that four-minute exchange were so radically different that it is clear the two men did not reach a last moment meeting of the minds. According to the Kremlin version, Putin pressed President Obama to revive the Kerry-Lavrov efforts to reach an agreement on how to solve the Syrian war diplomatically, and also urged the US President to press Kiev to honor the terms of the Minsk II accords on the status of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The American printout had President Obama scolding Putin for standing in the way of a final Minsk II deal.
For much of the Obama term in office, hatred of Russian President Putin has become the most popular cocktail party topic, subject of Congressional hearings, and Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal opinion columns. Last Sunday, the Washington Post accused Russian hackers and disinformation peddlers of hijacking the US Presidential elections—in favor of Donald Trump. A website, has gotten widespread coverage in the mainstream media, accusing a long list of anti-establishment publications and websites of peddling Putin propaganda and outright “fake news.”
This heavy anti-Russia mood is a significant factor in the Congress, where Senator John McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and where his close ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, chairs a powerful subcommittee on foreign operations of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The two have been harsh critics of Russia and of President-elect Trump’s pledge to resume cooperation with Moscow. They have been powerful boosters of the NATO expansion eastward to the Russian borders, and of the deployment of missile defense systems to Southeast Europe along the Black Sea.
While President-elect Trump’s National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has recently been to Moscow and has met personally with President Putin, the former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has also co-authored a book dealing with this issue. In their book, (The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies) the two authors identified Russia as a leading enabler for outright terror states Iran, Syria and North Korea.
This week, President-elect Trump named K.T. McFarland as his Deputy National Security Adviser. McFarland served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan Administrations and she was an aide to Henry Kissinger and a speechwriter for President Reagan’s Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. She, too, is considered to be an arch conservative, who will be hesitant to support a full embrace of Moscow as a partner in the Global War on Terror or other critical international efforts.
President-elect Trump will have some significant allies if he attempts to follow through with Putin. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a senior California Republican, has been a powerful advocate of a Washington-Moscow partnership on a wide range of global issues, including a revival of arms control agreements and a pullback of NATO from the Baltics and Central Europe.
On November 21, Edward Lozansky, the president of American University in Moscow, and Jim Jatras, a leading Republican attorney and former Senate Republican research director, wrote in Chronicles magazine that “The Big Three: America, Russia, and China Must Join Hands for Security, Prosperity and Peace.” They wrote: “When Trump takes office, for the first time since Ronald Reagan we will have a president with the stature and vision to put the interests of the American people first. Trump’s firm hand on the tiller of the American ship of state, combined with his business sense will enable him to deal confidently but fairly with the formidable, no-nonsense leaders of the world’s next two major powers: Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. This is a unique historic opportunity that must not be wasted… A Trump-Putin-Xi `Big Three Summit’ should be a priority for the new U.S. President’s first 100 days.”
Despite that lofty, optimistic rhetoric, there is much that is yet to be determined about Trump’s campaign pledge to work with Putin. Key national security posts have not yet been filled, including Defense Secretary, Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Treasury Department’s enforcement division has been an active foreign policy player, through the implementation of harsh sanctions against Russia, Iran, North Korea and other targets.
President-elect Trump has had two meetings with Mitt Romney, who remains a top contender for Secretary of State. Romney campaigned as the GOP nominee for President in 2012 on a foreign policy platform that deemed Russia to be the greatest threat to global stability and to U.S. interests around the world. Other hardliners, including Generals David Petraeus and James Mattis are also on the short list for Secretary of Defense or State.
Trump will face two opposed forces: on the one hand, the Republican Party factions or Cabinet appointees, and on the other, the views he expressed during his campaign in relation with forging strong ties with Putin. One of Trump’s closest advisers, Roger Stone, had made clear that the president-elect is intent on keeping neocon influences away from his national security agenda. As President, Trump has the opportunity to establish a personal rapport with Putin, and to order his national team to follow his lead. But these are hypothetical factors that will not be clear until his inauguration and his first actions as President demonstrate his ability to remain independent.
And there is also the question of what Russian President Putin really wants. The recent Russian offensive in Aleppo did not make Trump’s “Russia reset” any easier, and Putin could miscalculate the opportunity by assuming that Trump will be easy to manipulate.
Is the US President-elect up to these multiple challenges? Only time will tell.