BY HANK REICHMAN
I usually try to limit my posts to this blog to topics more or less directly related to higher education. However, given the many questions swirling around President Trump’s relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin and the importance to higher education of how Trump’s presidency develops, I thought I would share some observations from the website Russia Direct. The following quotes are from a piece by journalist and Latin America expert Eugene Bai, “Russia’s Euphoria About Donald Trump Already Fading.” The piece includes links, for those interested, to other Russia Direct posts on Trump and his reception in Russia.
“The political uncertainty in the United States surrounding the Trump presidency is now leading to alarmist commentary by some Russian experts and politicians,” the essay begins.
Russian media outlets are still keeping a close watch on Trump’s first presidential moves, with experts and society divided in their assessment of the U.S. president’s policy. Trump’s Russian supporters hail his first stances – the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the building of the Mexico wall and the “ban” on Muslims – as attempts to fulfill his pre-election promises.. . .
However, Trump’s opponents within the Russia media argue that, far from resolving any immigration problems, the Mexico wall will exacerbate the problem, destroy the achievements of globalization and send the wrong signal to the U.S.’s neighbor – Latin America. Likewise, Trump’s decision to withdraw from TPP was met with criticism by some pundits.
“TPP is a very important international project, which had been developed by the U.S. for a long period of time, and Washington abruptly withdrew from it,” Alexei Portansky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told Russia Direct. “Such precedent has never occurred in the history of the United States. A respected state with a well-developed governance system doesn’t behave in this way. Today, Trump creates an illusion that it is easy to take a political decision for the sake of America’s prosperity. However, in the globalized and interconnected era, political decisions cannot be taken so easily by definition.”
Russia’s population includes a sizeable Muslim minority, much larger proportionally than the Muslim population of the U.S. Hence there is growing concern in Russia about Trump’s anti-Muslim moves:
Even though the U.S. is ready to cooperate with Russia to fight international terrorism, the very fact that Trump sees Islam and the entire Islamic civilization as a threat should be seen as a warning signal, according to political expert Lilia Shevtsova. Taking into account that more than 16 million Muslims are Russian citizens (approximately 11 percent of the population), Trump’s campaign against Islam might turn out to be a headache for the Kremlin.
If Moscow won’t express a note of indignation about the controversial U.S. immigration ban on Muslims and similar stances, many Russian Muslims are hardly likely to approve such an approach. The Kremlin should take this seriously given the separatist sentiment that has historically existed within Russia’s Muslim community.
Likewise, Trump’s policy toward Iran and his threats to overhaul the Iranian nuclear deal might put Moscow in a vulnerable and awkward position. If the Trump administration indeed seeks to bring discord between Moscow and Tehran, Russia is hardly likely to meet the expectation of the U.S. in this regard.
The Kremlin is not interested in spoiling its relations with Iran, because Russia sees Tehran as a neighbor, a trade partner and a key stakeholder in the Middle East. Moreover, Russia is involved in numerous construction projects with Tehran, including the building of Russian nuclear facilities in Iran. Finally, Russia and Iran have found common ground in Syria and have been supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad since the beginning of the civil war in the country.
Here in the U.S. Trump is increasingly seen, correctly or incorrectly, as a witting or unwitting dupe of the Kremlin, although many Russia specialists have applauded (albeit quite uncomfortably) his seeming willingness to reduce tensions with the Putin government. Yet Russians themselves are increasingly skeptical of Trump’s ability to do this, intentions and motivations aside:
There is also increasing skepticism in Russia about Trump’s capability to improve relations with the Kremlin. For now, there is no unanimity on this question.
“Trump oversimplifies a great deal,” Maksim Yusin, a foreign policy columnist for Kommersant daily, told Russia Direct. However, there is one advantage. “At least, we have a window for opportunity, which we would never have had if Hillary Clinton had won the election.”
Like many other of his Russian colleagues, Yusin describes Trump as “a pragmatist, not an ideologue.” That’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also seen as a pragmatic, might see eye-to-eye with Trump and successfully cooperate. However, in order to achieve this goal, the U.S. should respect Russia’s strategic interests in the post-Soviet space (including Ukraine), according to the expert.
Some Russian pundits are also paying a lot of attention to the Trump administration’s critical stances toward Russia. At times, it seems like members of Trump’s team have not settled on one unified Russia policy. . . .
Despite the wishful forecasts that Trump would normalize relations with Russia, the current reality proves otherwise, according to Leonid Gusev, an expert at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University).
“His [Trump’s] appointees, which include the [new] representative at the UN Security Council and the [new] defense minister, talk in the same way as [Barack] Obama’s appointees.”
Russia’s obsession with the Trump presidency reveals the inferiority complex of the Kremlin and society in general, according to Shevtsova. She describes the situation as both “humiliating and comic”: Russians keep a close watch on Trump and the U.S. in an attempt to forget about their own plight and disorientation.
In fact, pinning a great deal of hope on Trump’s presidency creates a dangerous situation. The more hopes and emotions Russians express toward Trump, the deeper their disappointment will be if the flamboyant U.S. president fails to justify their expectations. The problem might be aggravated by the Trump administration’s hostility toward Russia. And this is not an impossible scenario.
As Leon Aron, the director of Russian Studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, warns, the key danger is Trump’s penchant for self-persuasion and his willingness to ignore reality. He might persuade himself that he found common ground with Putin during a summit, but the reality might contradict his beliefs. And this is the chilling and “creeping” moment when the over-confident “Trump finds himself offended and defeated,” warns Aron.
“He doesn’t have the professional political ability to withstand a punch,” the expert added. “It is difficult to predict what he will undertake, but I think it will be a very dramatic response.”
“Trump is likely to see Russia as an ally in his rebellion against the current world order,” said Shevtsova. “But America’s unpredictability will be a blow to Russia, because the Kremlin can afford unpredictable [foreign policy] somersaults only if it can predict the Western response. Yet if Trump might do anything, this will mean the end of the Russian game.”
One cannot rule out such a dramatic scenario. And, unfortunately, it is more realistic than the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations at a time when Washington is increasingly distrustful of Moscow. As a result, the Russian political elites should prepare for this scenario.
For the record, I only report these observations here; I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with them.
UPDATE (2/16): Today Bloomberg News published this story: “Kremlin Tells Media to Cut Back on Fawning Trump Coverage, Sources Say.”