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Trump's Reach: Russia

Trump's Reach: Russia

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Source: New York Review of Books

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Source: New York Review of Books

By Presley West

President-elect Donald Trump defied all expectations throughout his campaign, all the way up to his shocking victory on November 8th, 2016. In January, Trump will become the first President of the United States with absolutely no political or military experience. His “otherness” was a key factor of his campaign; he took stances and made remarks unparalleled in the current United States political climate. Trump’s favorable view of Vladimir Putin and Russia is one such example of this; the prevalent attitude in Washington is that the States and Russia have as many differences between them as they did in the Cold War Era. Putin is often seen and portrayed unfavorably in Western media, and Trump has faced heavy criticism over his “cozy” relationship with the leader of the Russian Federation. He’s even once suggested that Putin was a stronger leader than President Obama, and defended Putin’s questionable foreign policy transgressions by portraying them as things Obama does “at the same time.”  

Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his victory, and both leaders have expressed sentiment that they are committed to working together to maintain global security in the fight against terrorist groups and extremism. Trump’s win has caused a lot of uncertainty both domestically and overseas, and the promise of a cozier relationship with Russia has increased tensions with foreign policy experts. While a stronger relationship with Russia would have its upsides—including economic opportunity, something that business-minded Trump is well aware of— the issues between the two countries aren’t insignificant transgressions that can be easily overlooked. Primarily, the conflict in Syria has even the Republican party, including Trump supporters and allies, wary of any sort of increased negotiation with Putin’s administration. As John McCain put it bluntly, “the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people. That is an unacceptable price for a great nation.”   

However, despite strong congressional opposition from both sides for an increased relationship with Russia, Trump does have executive power that provides him with opportunities to steer the United States in a different direction if he so chooses.  On day one of his presidency, Trump will have the power to repeal current economic sanctions placed on Russia via an executive order issued by President Obama  preventing Russian individuals involved in the annexation of Crimea from accessing their property or assets held in the United States.

The Treasury Department followed suit with even harsher sanctions, deeply affecting Russia’s most prominent bank, arms manufacturer, and oil producers.  While repealing these sanctions may not be on the top of Trump’s to do list—that position most likely belongs to repealing/revising the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) and the Iran Nuclear Deal—he has the power to do so, and if Russia brings something to the table that Trump thinks is worth the backlash, he likely will.

Experts and civilians alike will be watching the situation in Syria closely. While the conflict in Syria is far too complex to be reduced to only two sides, Russia and the United States’ interests in the region are as far on the opposing ends of the spectrum as two states can be. Working with Russia in Syria would be a huge and costly turn-around from the United States current strategy of supporting the Anti-Assad rebel groups, and Trump will face enormous domestic opposition if he takes that course of action in hopes of eliminating or reducing the threat of the Islamic State.

Anti-Putin and anti-Assad sentiment is strong throughout Congress, which brings up a question worth asking: to what extent will Trump be able to change the relationship between Russia and the United States with so much opposition at home? Despite Trump’s heavy criticism of NATO and willingness to have talks with Russia, legislators refuse to see Russia as anything other than a global bully. Russia’s behavior against allies in Eastern Europe, the bombings in Syria, and the accusations of hacking during the election cycle have created a rift between it and NATO that is too deep to be mended by the relationship between two men with big, controversial egos and personalities.

Trump has backed down on or taken on a more moderate position on a number of issues since winning the election, which brings up another question: to what extent will he even try to change America’s relationship with Russia? It’s probably safe to say that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will be more open to speaking and working with one another than were Putin and Obama, but the rest remains uncertain. Trump may repeal the sanctions, or he may leave them. He might uproot the status quo in Syria, or he may take heed to his predecessor’s and many Republicans’ advice to maintain the current strategy. Trump has quite a bit of say in how to handle Russia going forward, but not absolute control. The possibility and fear that Trump could effectively act as Putin’s puppet is misguided. Trump, at his core, is a business man, so it’s likely that any “deals” struck with Russia will at least benefit the United States in some way. Though increased cooperation between the two nations is very possible, there are simply too many unknown variables to predict what actions Trump will take going forward. If anything, the mood in Congress suggests that it is highly unlikely that a strong alliance will be forged out of the current contentious atmosphere after Trump takes office in January.

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