December 11

Trump Presidency Likely to Result in Improved U.S. – Russia Relations

Introduction

Throughout Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he has praised Russian president Vladimir Putin and expressed his desire to improve U.S. – Russia relations (Diamond, 2016); which have sunk to a Cold War level under the Obama administration. This could signal the beginning of an unprecedented U.S. – Russian alliance; one that is likely to result in military and economic partnerships between the two countries. On the military side, the U.S. and Russia may begin conducting joint airstrikes against the radical Islamists attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. On the economic side, we may see increased energy cooperation in the natural gas industry as both the U.S. and Russia are the world’s top producers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) (International Energy Agency, 2016). However, regardless of what form the cooperation between the two countries takes, both are certain to benefit from a thawing of tensions which have continued relatively unabated since the October Revolution of 1917 (Foglesong, 1995). The benefit will likely take the form of improved economic conditions in both Russia and the U.S. and improved stability in the Middle East.

Trump’s Position

On multiple occasions throughout Trump’s campaign, the then presidential nominee expressed admiration for both Russia, and its leader, Vladimir Putin (Diamond, 2016). Trump also mentioned reestablishing dialogue between Moscow and Washington and improving relations between the long-time rivals (Diamond, 2016). This admiration has been reciprocal, and Putin has also emphasized his admiration for Trump, and his hope that the new president will be more willing than his predecessor to sit at the negotiating table with Russia to ease current tensions; including the lifting of current sanctions.

The rhetoric being espoused by both leaders is a likely indicator that the relationship between Russia and the U.S. will improve drastically during Trump’s presidency. While Trump has emphasized the fact that he would be firm in his dealings with Putin, he has also expressed his desire to work closely with Russia in Syria, to combat the Islamic State (IS) and other radical groups.

A New and Improved Syria Coalition

The Obama administration has been highly critical of Russia’s air campaign in Syria, claiming that Russian airstrikes are indiscriminately targeting both moderate rebels and civilians (Lee, 2015).  However, Trump has voiced his wish to pursue a different strategy in Syria; one in which the U.S. and Russia would conduct joint operations against radical Islamists. On November 14, 2016, both leaders had a telephone conversation in which they agreed that future cooperation between the U.S. and Russia will be an essential factor in combating terrorism (Burrows & Griffiths, 2016). However, much work is in order before the two countries participate in joint counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations. First, both countries will need to agree on who the terrorists are. Currently, both the U.S. and Russia claim they are targeting Islamic militants in Syria, yet both sides also claim that the other is supporting terrorism. Before Putin and Trump can fight terrorism together, they will need to decide who the terrorists in Syria actually are. This may prove a rather difficult task, as the U.S. currently supports the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, and is providing support to the “moderate” rebel factions in Syria – The Free Syrian Army (FSA), The Supreme Military Council (SMC), and Kurdish forces. Russia on the other hand is supporting the Assad regime, and considers all rebel groups as terrorists; with the exception of the Kurdish groups.

With both sides having completely opposite views on who the bad guys are in Syria, it may be difficult for Trump and Putin to develop a joint counterterrorism strategy. However, it has yet to be seen what Trump’s stance is in regard to the various groups of the insurgency. Also, it is unclear if Trump supports the overthrow of Assad. If Trump and Putin can reach an agreement on which groups to target, and Assad’s current/future position in Syria, it is likely they will conduct joint operations against various targets inside Syria, which in turn, will significantly weaken radical Islamists such as IS and could potentially lead to future military cooperation.

Natural Gas: Cooperation or Competition?

The U.S. and Russia are the world’s top two producers of natural gas (International Energy Agency, 2016). Currently, the U.S. and Russia are competing for control of the European market, and in April of this year, the first U.S. shipment of LNG arrived in Portugal, signaling an emergence of the U.S. as a major player in Europe’s energy market (Kantchev & Malek, 2016). This move directly threatens Russia’s control of the market, as Russia currently supplies roughly a third of Europe’s natural gas (Kantchev & Malek, 2016). However, for the time being, Russia will likely remain Europe’s top gas supplier as it’s piped gas prices remain lower than U.S. LNG exports. Yet, with U.S. LNG exports to Europe increasing, European consumers may choose higher costs over a dependence on Russian gas exports.

With Trump in office, and an improvement in U.S. – Russian relations, it is possible that we may see energy cooperation between the two countries in the natural gas sector. While there is still likely to be competition for European and Asian markets, both countries may reach pricing agreements in order to ensure long term growth and to avoid a reduction in prices due to overproduction. With the global demand for natural gas skyrocketing, it is likely that both U.S. and Russian gas exports will increase to meet future demands and both countries will need to cooperate in order to ensure maximum growth/profits.

Conclusion

With a Trump presidency, there will likely be a subsequent thawing of tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Both Putin and Trump appear to share similar views on the current situation in Syria, and an increase in security cooperation in the Middle East is likely. Also, the fact that both leaders have voiced admiration for one another serves as a positive indicator that an improved relationship between the two countries is likely. While there are current areas of contention that may remain during Trump’s presidency – such as the disagreement over missile defense in Europe – it is unlikely that these issues will prevent each side from sitting down at the negotiating table. In the natural gas sector, Russia and the U.S. will need to work together in order to maximize profits and ensure future growth. With both countries being the largest natural gas producers, and the global demand for natural gas increasing, the U.S. and Russia are in a position to dominate the global market; something which will require cooperation between the two countries. While there are many other factors which may influence future relations between the U.S. and Russia, the foundation which has been laid by Trump’s election as U.S. president is an indicator that at least over the next 4 years, we will see a reduction in tensions which have prevented open dialogue between Moscow and Washington for the last hundred years.

Bibliography

Burrows, E., & Griffiths, J. (2016, November 15). Trump, Putin speak about future of US-Russia ties. Retrieved from CNN: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/14/politics/trump-putin-speak-about-future-of-us-russia-ties/

Diamond, J. (2016, July 29). CNN. Retrieved from Timeline: Donald Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/28/politics/donald-trump-vladimir-putin-quotes/

Foglesong, D. S. (1995). America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1917-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

International Energy Agency. (2016). Key World Energy Statistics. Paris: International Energy Agency.

Kantchev, G., & Malek, M. (2016, April 21). First U.S. Gas Shipment En Route to Europe. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/first-u-s-gas-shipment-en-route-to-europe-1461253153

Lee, C. E. (2015, October 2). Obama Criticizes Russia Over Syria Strikes. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/obama-criticizes-russia-over-syria-strikes-1443820003