Russian President Vladimir Putin may have gained a new friend in a very high place Tuesday night. Within a couple hours of the final announcement that Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, Putin phoned the president-elect to congratulate him on his victory. Putin said the two needed to talk to steer Russia and the U.S. out of this critical condition and that he hoped Trump would use his new powers responsibly. (He also noted, for the record, that the deterioration of U.S.-Russia ties is “not Russia’s fault.”) When the Duma opened its session, Russian lawmakers gave a standing ovation to commemorate the results of the U.S. election. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a bit more reserved, however, cautioning that Russia had heard a lot of words during the campaign but would judge the new administration based on its actions.
Russia sees Trump as a more pliable American negotiator willing to buck his own establishment, and this is just the thing Putin needs as his own foreign policy strategy hits a wall. Russia has spent the past year crafting a strategy to position Moscow as both spoiler and problem-solver in multiple theaters, making it as obstructionist and indispensable to Washington as possible in resolving thorny issues like the Syrian civil war and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The problem with that strategy is that Russia is much better at playing the spoiler, and aggression does not earn much in the way of strategic concessions. Since Russia could only go so far in trying to drag Iran and the Syrian government to the negotiating table, and since Moscow was unwilling to concede its leverage in eastern Ukraine, it had little hope of exacting guarantees from the West to ease sanctions, for instance, or to place limits on NATO’s military buildup in the former Soviet sphere. In fact, the strategy of linking Syria and Ukraine had begun to backfire as the United States pushed Europe to layer on additional sanctions in response to the Russian's role in the siege of Aleppo.
Now, Putin is going to sidle up to Trump and his advisers, framing the U.S.-Russia confrontation as a product of irresponsible policymaking by the Washington establishment. He will focus on Trump’s role as a businessman, arguing that sanctions are bad for business and no way to start a real dialogue.
This scenario will give members of the U.S. military establishment, intelligence community and Republican-run Congress plenty of heartburn in trying to assess just how far negotiations with Russia could go. At the end of the day, the United States is still driven by a strategic imperative to prevent a single power from dominating Eurasia. Russia is not necessarily resurrecting the Soviet empire and waging an ideological war with the United States this time around, but it is working to divide Europe and entrench Russia’s position in its former Soviet space, aware that this buffer will be critical as the country faces rising internal challenges in the year ahead. As Moscow expands its sphere of influence, a U.S. alliance structure built up since the world wars comes under threat. The degradation of those alliances would make it much more difficult for the United States to balance against Russia, a nuclear adversary that will harbor deep distrust toward Washington no matter who sits in the Oval Office and that still has plenty of tools at its disposal—from proxy conflicts to cyber and nuclear threats to conventional military buildups—to maintain pressure on the West.
Here, Putin may end up hitting another wall. Trump may want to negotiate and could use executive authority to ease up on sanctions. In return, Russia could de-escalate to some degree in Syria (which was primarily a bargaining chip for Moscow to negotiate with Washington, anyway). Russia is unlikely to make any big concessions in eastern Ukraine, however. This is Putin’s Mexico, after all. Moscow is not going to weaken its hold in a critical buffer state when divisions in Europe are playing to its favor and when the United States has produced a president that may be more conciliatory. Trump could be more flexible in his interpretation of the Minsk accord and offer to partially lift sanctions to get the conversation going. But the Trump administration is unlikely to reverse history and severely compromise the United States’ geopolitical imperatives in Eurasia.
Nonetheless, Putin can use this interim period to play off the perception that the United States and Russia are gearing up for some serious bargaining. This sends a deeply unnerving message to the smaller states caught in Russia’s borderlands that now have to assess just how much U.S. security guarantees are worth at this point. As their insecurity grows, Russia can step up pressure, using its economic leverage, political agents of influence and a variety of intimidation tactics and incentives to try to steer these countries toward a compromise on things like curbing NATO’s activities and opening the door wider to Russian investment.
But there is also a perception at home that Putin needs to worry about. Russia is growing more vulnerable from within because of economic crisis, declining faith in the government, growing resentment among the population and building pressures in its near abroad. The Putin regime’s stability hinges on a Cold War "us v. them" mentality. Framing the United States as enemy No. 1 with an agenda to dismantle the Russian state is an increasingly attractive tactic to fuel nationalism and bind the state together to cope with other stresses. So Putin can try to get chummy with Trump, but he is going to have to show at home that he has received some big concessions if he wants to secure his domestic position in trying times. Those big concessions are where the United States as a nation is likely to draw the line.
Reva Goujon is vice president of global analysis and Lauren Goodrich is senior Eurasia analyst at Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence platform.