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President Trump and U.S.-Russian Relations


by Gordon M. Hahn

Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president holds the possibility of a reset 2.0. He appears more open to compromise with the Kremlin than any other recent president-elect. The most important issue driving Russian-Western relations downward for the last two decades has been NATO expansion. The security challenge that NATO enlargement posed to Russia securitized the issue of democracy-promotion in the post-Soviet space or central Eurasia for Moscow. Color revolutions, whether the intended outcome of Western democracy-promotion programs or not, came to be seen as a vehicle for recruiting members to NATO and encircling Russia with potentially or kinetically unfriendly regimes. The best way to put an end to this cycle of Russian suspicion is to put an end to NATO expansion until such time that Russia becomes sufficiently democratic to become the next new member, perhaps along with other states (such as Ukraine) simultaneously. Trump might also drastically cut USAID’s democracy-promotion budget and put constraints on the kind of democracy-promotion activity it undertakes. In addition, Trump might be willing to engage in exploratory talks on developing a new security infrastructure covering the OSCE area of Europe and central Eurasia. Meanwhile, he might push NATO to recognize and begin cooperation with the CSTO on a number of key security issues – most importantly, in the war against the global jihadi revolutionary movement led by the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and Al Qa`ida (AQ).

Trump is likely to be inclined to step-up cooperation with Russia in the war against global jihadism, where the U.S. have strong common interests. Removing the demand for the removal of Bashir Assad from power in Syria and coordinating directly with Russia is now almost impossible given how far the West has gone out a limb to claim Russian and Syrian forces have been committing war crimes in Syria. However, indirect coordination between the two sides, for example, in clamping down on IS so its forces cannot cross the border into Syria from Iraq with impunity is possible.

Trump will also likely be willing to sharply reduce or end sanctions against Russia and seek a modus vivendi with Moscow in Ukraine. We are likely to see Washington allow its EU partners and pressure Kiev to be more flexible on implementing the Minsk 2 agreement or in developing a Minsk 3. In particular, Trump may require Kiev to engage in direct talks with the Donbass rebels, something that might actually push the rebels to compromise in return while limiting Moscow’s influence over them and need to influence them.

In return for these compromises by the West, Putin could be asked to end cyber attacks on US and other Western institutions and begin talks on how to control the cyber race, return to the bargaining table on nuclear arms and non-proliferation, and limit support for Russian support of Chinese goals in the South China Sea.

However, there are powerful forces in Washington, Moscow and Brussels, such as the NATO military alliance, that seek to exacerbate differences in the national interests between Russia and the West. On the American side, these forces will seek to shape Trump’s sources of information and pressure him to take a harder line against Moscow. Moreover, Trump inherits a lay of the land that will difficult to reshape without risk to his popularity ratings, given the gross exaggeration in the Western media regarding the ‘Russian threat’ and ‘Putin’s plans to recreate the USSR or Russian Empire.’

More than perhaps most US presidents and presidential candidates, except for Barack Obama and the Clintons, the top item on Mr. Trump’s agenda is Mr. Trump. He is a not very familiar with foreign policy issues, is not particularly intellectually curious about them, and has no fixed ideological-philosophical prism through which he views them that might drive any commitment he might have to the goal of gaining Russia’s integration into the West. Noecons and neolibs will be trying over the next two months to insinuate advisors into Trump’s administration. If there is any truth to the rumor, for example, that former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton will become Trump’s Secretary of State, then U.S.-Russian relations could just as well see a continuation of the downward trend with all the risks that is fraught. So any ‘reset 2.0’ will be difficult to establish. Given the bad blood that has developed between the establishments in DC and Moscow, if established any new reset may not survive for long. Hopefully, Trump will staff his foreign policy team with realists.

More globally, Trump’s victory will mean unpleasant changes for Europe on defense and security, China on trade issues, Ukraine in Donbass (and perhaps during a second Trump term in Crimea where Trump might be willing to recognize Moscow’s sovereignty over the peninsula), and Mexico on border and immigration controls. Putin in turn might be able to relax, no longer in fear of a color revolution. This might incline him towards a limited domestic liberalization in line with the historical Russian pattern of thaws coming in times of good relations with the West. We shall see…..


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago),; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles),; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct,; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California),

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the Making of the Ukrainian Crisis and ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.


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