For Russia, A Trump Victory Gives Putin Free Rein

With Trump in the White House, Putin may get away with even more international infractions, with fewer consequences

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Nov 15, 2016 at 4:07 PM ET

For Russian state media and pro-Kremlin politicians, Donald Trump’s unexpected capture of the White House was like Christmas and New Year rolled into one.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump, expressing hope that the president-elect would join the Kremlin in “restoring Russian-American relations from their state of crisis.”

Others in Russia were far less reserved.

As news of Trump’s shock election victory came through, Russia’s parliament broke into applause. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a well-known nationalist politician, ordered over 100 bottles of champagne to toast with lawmakers on what he predicted would be a dramatic upturn in US-Russia relations. Under Trump, Zhirinovsky said, “America will interfere less in things that don’t concern it.”

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State media, which had rooted heavily for Trump in the run-up to last week’s vote, preceded its news bulletins with a short sketch showing an actor dressed as Trump taunting one dressed as Hillary Clinton, the defeated Democratic Party candidate.

“This is a true revolution in American politics,” wrote Anna Chapman, the former Russian spy, on her Instagram account. “Good luck to Trump, to Americans and to all of us!”

Дональд Трамп избран следующим президентом США! Целый год все говорили, что его победа абсолютно невозможна, но это случилось. Для американской политики это подлинная революция. Американский народ одержал победу над транснациональными корпорациями, банкирами, Уолл-Стрит и оружейными промышленниками. Национально ориентированная политика одержала верх над политикой экспансии. “Изоляционисты” – над “ястребами”. Удачи Трампу, американцам и всем нам…! Donald Trump has been elected president! For a whole year everyone has been saying that his victory is impossible! But it happened. This is a true revolution in American politics. The American people have beat transnational corporations, major banks, Wall street titans and manufactures. The isolationists have triumphed over the eagles. Good luck to Trump, to Americans and to all of us! #Трамп #Клинтон #выборы2016 #США #Trump

A photo posted by Anna Chapman (@anya.chapman) on

Russian euphoria at Trump’s stunning triumph is understandable: after all, the 70-year-old president elect has repeatedly praised Putin, suggested he could recognize Crimea—the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by the Kremlin in 2014—as a Russian territory, and scrap economic sanctions imposed by the United States against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

“Russia could benefit by the turmoil that Trump’s presidency might plunge America into.” —Vladimir Frolov, Russian columnist and international affairs expert

On Syria, Trump has said he would be open to entering into a military alliance with Russia and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to end the conflict in the war-torn nation. He has also raised the prospect of the U.S. withdrawing support for Syrian opposition forces in eastern Aleppo, the besieged rebel stronghold. On Thursday, an Assad advisor said the Syrian president was “ready” to work with Trump.

“Trump’s view on the Syrian crisis and the way to go forward is very similar to what Russia is proposing—to work with Moscow on efforts fighting terrorism, and at the same time suppressing the rebellion [against Assad] and cutting supplies to the rebels. Moscow will try to engage Trump on this,” Vladimir Frolov, a Russian columnist and international affairs expert, told Vocativ.

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Perhaps most significantly, Trump has questioned America’s continuing commitment to NATO, saying its dissolution would not be “the worst thing in the world.” In July, he refused to confirm if he would deploy U.S. troops to defend the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from any Russian attack. The three countries are all former Soviet states that joined the bloc in 2004, as the Western military alliance expanded into central and eastern Europe. Before leaving the U.S. on his final foreign trip as President Barack Obama said he didn’t think Trump would pull out of the alliance. “There is enormous continuity beneath the day-to-day news that makes us that indispensable nation when it comes to maintaining order and promoting prosperity around the world,” he told reporters. “That will continue. In my conversation with the president-elect he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships and so, one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO and the transatlantic alliance.

Western analysts have long been worried that Putin could order a military incursion into one of the Baltic countries to divide and possibly bring about the collapse of the 70-year-old alliance. Article 5 of NATO’s treaty stipulates that member states are obligated to provide military assistance to a member state that is under attack.

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Now that Trump is on his way to the White House, alarm bells have been ringing in the Baltics. Under current U.S. plans, Washington will deploy around 4,500 soldiers, plus tanks and other military hardware to eastern Europe by February as part of NATO’s so-called enhanced forward presence program. With Trump’s ascension to the post of U.S. Commander-in-Chief, these plans are now up in the air.

“We are certainly concerned in the Baltics about Trump’s will to continue implementing the Warsaw decisions concerning NATO’s enhanced forward presence,” Kalev Stoicescu, a research fellow at the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security, told Vocativ. “Trump’s victory is obviously an encouragement for Russia to pursue its agenda, possibly at some point in time by the use of force.”

But while Trump’s campaign statements were, in the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, “phenomenally close” to Putin’s foreign policy approach, prominent Russian analysts tell Vocativ that the longtime Russian leader is worried about the former reality TV show star’s unpredictable character.

“Trump is seen in the Kremlin as a person who is psychologically complex and emotionally unbalanced,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin insider. “Putin was not panicking over the prospect of a Clinton victory. He saw her as an absolutely predictable politician who is very easy to read, and was confident he knew how to play her. With Trump, things are entirely unclear.”

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Belkovsky highlighted the Republican Party’s hardline stance on Ukraine as an example of where a Trump presidency might not be plain sailing for Russia. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and a reported leading contender for the post of U.S. secretary of state, has stated his support for supplying Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons to help it fight Kremlin-backed separatists in the east of the country. Congress approved the delivery of such weapons to Ukraine in September, but President Barack Obama has so far refused to sign off on such a move.

“They are drinking champagne and vodka in the Kremlin right now for one reason only—the weakness of the U.S. political establishment has been demonstrated. They are drinking for the defeat of American democracy,” said Belkovsky.

It was an opinion echoed in part by Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday.

“We are not experiencing any euphoria,” said deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov. “[We’ve had] very diverse experiences doing business with US administrations, both Republican and Democrat.”

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Ryabkov also admitted however that Russia had been in contact with Trump’s campaign team before last week’s election. Although he declined to go into details, the statement looks likely to trigger further controversy over the extent of Trump’s ties to Russia. Trump has repeatedly denied being in touch with the Kremlin. On Monday Putin and Trump spoke on the phone, and in a statement from his transition team, “President-elect Trump noted to President Putin that he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.”

Although Russian nationalists welcomed Trump’s victory, they were also cautious about what his presidency might bring. Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist ideologue with links to the Kremlin, told Vocativ that America under Trump would be less concerned with foreign policy. “They will not threaten us with nuclear war over the conflict in Syria,” he said. He warned though that “deep-rooted” differences between Moscow and Washington would remain.

“It’s obviously pleasant for Putin to see the defeat of a person who has labeled him a dictator, the head of a global mafia, and the world’s leading nationalist,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s council on foreign and defence policy.

“But with Trump, nothing about his future policies is clear at all. If we try to analyze his world view, there are some basic points – that America should not interfere in foreign affairs all the time, but on the other hand, he has said the U.S. should demonstrate its strength, so that is respected. We’ll just have to wait and see what that means.”

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Yet even if Trump does turn out to be just as hardline on Russia as Clinton pledged to be, his presidency might still prove a major boost to Putin’s attempts to re-establish Moscow as a global superpower.

“Russia could benefit by the turmoil that Trump’s presidency might plunge America into,” said Frolov, the international affairs analyst. “He’ll face public protests and when he starts implanting some of his campaign promises on immigration and trade, he might spark an economic crisis in the United States. The fact that the United States would be embroiled in domestic turmoil and maybe even significant tensions with U.S. allies in Europe and Asia benefits Moscow because the United States would be focused on its own problems and much less on confronting Russia’s international assertiveness.”

Some Russians are hoping for much, much more than that, though.

“If Trump recognizes our Crimea, scraps [economic] sanctions, comes to an agreement with us on Syria, and frees [Julian] Assange, then I’m retiring. Because it will be a beautiful world,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of the Kremlin’s propaganda TV channel, RT.