A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A New Reset?

President-elect Trump’s relationship with Putin is likely to run into obstacles.
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American president-elect Donald Trump may succeed where previous presidents have failed – he might create a close working relationship with Russia. But this friendship is built on a foundation of shared contempt for international norms, and is anything but stable.

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© REUTERS/Stevo Vasiljevic

Several American presidents, including Barack Obama and George W. Bush, have attempted to “reset” relations with Russia. Each failed because of the fundamental contradictions in the relationship between the United States and Russia, which include different understandings of the sovereignty of smaller states, the importance of democracy and the rule of law, and the basic principles of the global order.

President-elect Donald Trump, however, might have a different experience: unlike his predecessors, he shares Russian President Vladimir Putin’s distrust in liberal Western values. Both reject the norms and institutions created by post-World War II US policy. This could further undermine the very functionality of the international order, a path Putin began with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

For Putin, this axis of irresponsibility is much more effective than merely linking and funding a network of populist movements throughout the Western world. The new US president might undermine the international order all by himself by cutting private deals with authoritarian leaders, including the Russian president. The first victim of such a deal could in fact be Ukraine, which is not really important to US policy and apparently easy to cede to Russia’s sphere of influence.

A Nightmare for the EU

All this is indeed a nightmare for the EU member states, which are struggling with their own institutional reform crisis and already face Russian security challenges. They are not prepared for an American withdrawal from Europe, which Trump threatens to accelerate. Germany in particular is not ready to take on the kind of European leadership role the US government expects – and the already precarious balance of power between the EU’s larger and smaller states makes it unlikely that Berlin will risk further polarization.

However, this American-Russian reset has several constraints.

First, as Putin’s Valdai speech at the end of October clearly showed, Moscow was preparing for a Hillary Clinton victory, despite its support for her opponent. Putin’s message in Sochi was that Russia will make no compromises in Ukraine or Syria, and will continue challenging US dominance in international security, in effect saying that in any compromise the US would have to make the first offer. Now, Russian leadership has to change its paradigm. The US will no longer be Russia’s main enemy – which poses significant challenges to the Putin regime, which, hamstrung by low oil and gas prices and lacking an economic development strategy, relied on an external enemy to maintain national unity.

Second, Russian leadership is obsessed by its desire for recognition as equal to the US in international politics, which was one of the main reasons for its Syria campaign. An isolationist President Trump might make a deal with Vladimir Putin on Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, but will do this primarily to focus on domestic policy. As a result, Putin will not get the attention he is looking for, which could become a source of frustration. Furthermore, Russia lacks the resources to fill the gap the US would leave in Syria and other parts of the world. The country is economically the size of Spain, but maintains the ambitions and military of a global power. That will overstretch its economic capacity – and could lead it down the same path that brought the Soviet Union to collapse.

Third, even if Trump wants to strike a deal and recognize Crimea as part of Russia – and Ukraine as part of the Russian sphere of influence – and tries to abolish the Magnitsky Act along with the Ukrainian sanctions, he will struggle with a strongly anti-Russian Republican-dominated Congress. This could be the first major conflict to demonstrate clearly that Trump was never a purely Republican candidate, and in fact stands in direct opposition to many of the party’s principles. Without making compromises and building bridges, Trump will be completely blocked.

Furthermore, would Ukrainian society accept such a “deal”? Further destabilization of Ukraine would be a major catalyst for an even more dangerous security conflict in Europe, one in which Russian leadership has the impression that it has permission from Washington to solve the Ukrainian problem however it likes.

Fourth, Trump wants to spend less on NATO and defense – which Moscow likely hopes will mean the end of missile defense systems in Europe. Missile defense is a major project for the American arms industry, however. Will Trump the businessman really start a fight with a key US industry and the defense lobbying groups – and, once again, with his own party – on this issue? Is this in America’s interests? And what can Russia offer in return for stopping this project?

Finally, many observers argue that fighting terrorism, particularly the so-called Islamic State, might become a common project within the context of a US-Russia reset. But Russia has thus far been primarily fighting groups that oppose Bashar al-Assad – some of which have American support – rather than IS. Putin has used and is still using the uncertainty around the US election and subsequent transition to gain as much as territory in Syria as possible at the cost of civilian lives. When Trump was elected, Moscow and Damascus began a comprehensive new campaign against rebel groups in Aleppo. Is this the basis for a trust-based relationship?

Don’t Panic

All this shows that it will be difficult to reset US-Russia relations. The two presidents’ unpredictability, their tendency to make deals based on informal relationships, and their disinterest in the basic functionality of multilateral institutions will make building a sustainable new foundation for US-Russian relations unlikely; they will both maneuver for short-term gains, but lack long-term common interests. For Moscow, Trump is a person who can undermine US democracy, but not someone you build a global agenda with. Putin and Trump have no answers to global challenges. Both are great at deconstructing the existing order, but have no idea how to fix it or build a new one.

What does this mean for the EU and Germany? Strengthening international law and institutions is now more important than ever before, and has to stand at the core of European policy. Europe has become even more important for its role in protecting and embodying an open, tolerant, rule-based, and democratic order. Angela Merkel made this very clear in her congratulatory letter to the new US president-elect.

But the EU member states have work of their own to do – they need to reform their bureaucracies, find answers to both globalization and populism, and recognize the limits of neoliberal policy. As long as Russian leadership undermines the European (and international) security order and is unwilling to support peace in eastern Ukraine, the sanctions against Moscow have to continue. It’s crucial for member states to show the new US president how important NATO is for European security and transatlantic relations, while investing more in their own security.

It’s not time to panic just because Putin and Trump are meeting – but it makes it all the more urgent that the EU rebuild confidence in Brussels and the European institutions. Their homework is to respond to their citizens’ demands while strengthening rule-and-norm-based order.