Donald J. Trump’s shocking triumph in the American presidential election will have some unusual foreign-policy repercussions. During the campaign, Democrats frequently tried to damage Mr. Trump’s standing by claiming that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was working for and supporting the Republican nominee. Now many may believe that America’s huge political upset could even be described as a victory for the Kremlin.
In fact, the idea peddled by American news media that Mr. Putin supports Mr. Trump is far removed from reality. Proponents of this idea have blithely ignored the assessments in mainstream Russian news media and by Russian analysts, which have never been particularly enthusiastic about Mr. Trump.
There is a lot of concern in Russia about what will happen to American foreign policy once Mr. Trump is inaugurated.
The main problem with Mr. Trump is that no one — including the president-elect himself — seems to know what he will do as president, especially in the area of foreign policy. His statements on foreign relations so far have been confusing and, at times, contradictory. His aides and advisers also appear to have a broad range of conflicting views on America’s foreign and defense policy.
What is more, Mr. Trump will have to find an accommodation with the Republican Party establishment. His administration’s foreign-policy and defense appointments may well become a bargaining chip in that difficult process. As a result, some very unexpected figures, including outspoken hawks, may be put at the helm of the State Department and the Pentagon. Mr. Trump’s own apparent preference is to focus on domestic matters, especially the economy, so he may yet delegate foreign policy and defense to the established Republican elite, which is clearly hostile to Russia.
Considering all of this, no one in the Kremlin, where people closely follow American politics and intelligence reports, would seriously consider betting on Mr. Trump.
Unlike much of the American and international news media, Russian analysts and commentators have never underestimated Mr. Trump. Even though he was sometimes compared to Vladimir Zhironovsky, a flamboyant and outspoken Russian populist, Mr. Trump was more often viewed as a strong and charismatic right-of-center leader. Some Russian commentators even reckon he may more resemble Ronald Reagan — a successful president pursuing a tough unilateral line on foreign and domestic policy.
In the longer term, however, Moscow can take comfort from some trends in American politics that have been put into stark relief throughout 2016. On foreign policy, both Mr. Trump’s campaign and Bernie Sanders’s Democratic primary bid highlighted a renewed American proclivity toward isolationism. Large segments of the American public are tired of endless military campaigns in the Middle East, and weary of the burden of America’s foreign commitments.
Even more important, it has become clear over the past two decades that globalization has not been such an unalloyed boon for the United States as some wish to portray it. In fact, it is the industrial heartland of America that has borne the brunt of the displacement caused by the breakneck globalization advocated by the Washington elite.
The key question now is whether America’s nascent isolationism will translate into policy. Even if it does, it won’t happen soon. The American political elite remains almost universally interventionist and supportive of globalization.
In the meantime, as Russia tries to figure out what to expect from the Trump presidency, it has very little reason to hope that the new president will offer any major concessions or strike any major deals with Moscow, regardless of what he said during the campaign. And Moscow has very little to offer to Washington at the moment. There are few areas for possible cooperation. Even if Mr. Trump does want to improve relations with Russia, he will find out when he moves into the Oval Office that the United States has little to gain from such an improvement.
This is why there is no reason to expect — either now, or in the foreseeable future — that America and Russia will strike some grand deal to divide the world into spheres of influence. Even more modest compromises seem unlikely. The Trump administration will have no incentive to make overtures to Moscow, such as taking a softer stance on Ukraine or easing the sanctions on Russia. Besides, for Mr. Trump any softening toward Russia would face opposition from within the Republican Party and in the American foreign policy and defense communities. The new president is unlikely to be willing to pay the steep domestic political price, especially since improving relations offers no tangible benefits to America.
The basic problems in Russian-American relations stem from Moscow’s fundamental aspiration to return to the global arena as a great power, and even to contemplate integration into the American-led, pro-Western world order only on the condition of being recognized as a great power that dominates most of its former Soviet neighbors. These Russian aspirations will remain unacceptable to any American administration for years, if not decades, to come.
There’s only one way this could change, though it is a scenario that many Americans may find uncomfortable to contemplate.
In the event of further major deterioration of America’s positions in the global arena — for example, if the United States is dragged into a confrontation with China while remaining mired in the Middle East — Russia may look like a more appealing ally, or at least a less appealing adversary. A confrontation with China, and other foreign-policy complications, might force Washington to seek a rapprochement with Russia, in the same way that rivalry with Germany had once forced the British Empire to put aside its longstanding differences with Russia and sign a pact in 1907. But for this scenario to come to pass, Moscow will have to remain firm and unyielding for as long as it takes.
Ruslan Pukhov is a defense analyst and the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a think tank based in Moscow.