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18 January 2017

Does Trump have allies for getting closer to Russia?

If the elected President wants to improve relations with Russia through lifting sanctions, he will have to fight not only with Democrats but also with his own party

The Russian political and expert community was encouraged by Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential election. Many analysts point out that he will conduct pragmatic foreign policy, which involves cooperation with Moscow. It does not seem that in Russian leadership there are people who believe Trump will be able to radically change the nature of U.S.-Russian dialogue. The problems that have brought bilateral relations to a standstill are systemic and long-lasting. It is doubtful that the new administration will recognize Crimea as part of Russia, forget about Ukraine, surrender Syria, and completely abandon its Alliance obligations with regard to Poland and the Baltic states. In fact, the Kremlin's calculation was quite different. Moscow feared that victory for Hillary Clinton would bring intensification of American aid to Russia’s liberal opposition in the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections. Clinton was perceived as a threat to Russia's conservative elite. In this regard, Trump's win really was good news for Moscow, which now hopes that Washington will no longer interfere in the internal affairs of Russia.

Meanwhile, during Trump’s first press conference, the future President of the United States once again stressed the need to normalize relations with Russia. Trump is confident that international terrorism is the major external threat which can unite the efforts of Washington and Moscow. These statements are positively evaluated in the Kremlin, where calls for the need to overcome the crisis of confidence between the two countries are also heard. Of course, the desire of the two leaders to change the current situation is a good foundation to restart the bilateral dialogue. However, there are a number of serious objective obstacles that will be difficult to overcome. There is a misconception in Russia that the U.S. President's will and desire are enough to solve the acute foreign policy issues that hinder productive relations. This perception is most likely based on Moscow’s projection of Russian realities, where the President has limitless opportunities, onto the American one, which entails a multi-layered system of checks and balances. In this regard, Trump's wish to change relations alone is not enough to improve affairs with Russia. To restart relations with Moscow successfully, Trump needs a team of like-minded people in the White House, and strong support in Congress.

As Trump is too far from political bureaucracy, he has entrusted the appointments of his future political consultants to experienced specialists. After the primaries, there was a huge wave of criticism because of soft attitude against Russian policy in general, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular. Vice President Michael Pence became an answer to the soft rhetoric of Trump.  Surprisingly, little attention was paid to Pence's personality. Mr. Pence is interesting for at least two reasons. First, he is a systematic Republican who sticks to party rules only, and enjoys great prestige in the American conservative community. Second, he is a consistent critic of Russian policy. Some may say that the leaders of Trump's staff chose Michael Pence because he would be ideal for the role of ‘bad cop’ on U.S. policy on Russia. However, it is a serious mistake to think that Pence will obey the political will of President Trump.

The new Vice President has built serious connections within the Republican Party leadership during his work in Congress, and governorship in Indiana. It is noteworthy that in the House of Representatives, he was in the Committee on Foreign Affairs and initiated numerous resolutions and bills. Undoubtedly, in choosing Pence, Trump counted on his experience in foreign affairs and broad connections on the Capitol Hill. In addition, it is necessary to take into account the trends of the last sixteen years, when Vice Presidents Dick Cheney, under George W. Bush, and Joe Biden under Obama, had serious influence on foreign policy strategy development. Pence’s experience, connections, and credibility suggest that this trend will continue.

Other appointments in Trump’s administration also do not look promising for Russia. Mike Pompeo, who was appointed Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, regards the current Russian policy as a threat to the United States and its allies. Formally, the Director of the CIA reports the Director of National Intelligence. However, the CIA Director often works directly with the White House and with the relevant committees in Congress regularly. Most often, the successes and failures of American foreign policy are largely dependent on the authority of the CIA Director. During the hearings in the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Pompeo said he did not share the opinion of President Trump that the U.S. could cooperate with Russia in any directions. The Pompeo stressed that Moscow "should be punished for the destabilization of Ukraine, and for support of the dictatorial Assad regime in Syria".

Pompeo's point of view on the importance of stronger actions against Russia is shared by Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, and Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Mr. Mattis says that the most important thing today is to recognize that "Putin is trying to undermine the North Atlantic alliance." Speaking about the prospects of American-Russian relations, the U.S. General stresses that America has had little success in a long list of attempts to engage Russia in positive collaboration. The most stressful hearings were Rex Tillerson’s, former ExxonMobil CEO. Influential Senators like Benjamin Cardin (Democrat), Robert Menendez (Democrat), Marco Rubio (Republican), and John McCain (Republican) had great doubts about Tillerson because of his friendly relations with President Putin and some pro-Russian actions. The aforementioned legislators accused ExxonMobil lobbyists of blocking the bill in favor of Ukraine, and of  attempts to lift sanctions against Russia. Mr. Tillerson said that as the Secretary of State, he would support the sanctions policy and other actions aimed at trying to force Moscow to respect the rules of international law. Tillerson also said that he would protest against any decision of President Trump aimed at abolition of sanctions.

Friendship with Russia is favored by Michael Flynn - the National Security Advisor, and Nikki Haley - the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Both politicians are convinced that America should cooperate with Russia on Syria. Besides that, Michael Flynn and Nikki Haley are against the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They also believe that the United States should not actively intervene in Ukrainian affairs, and concentrate on the fight against ISIS, instead.  Many experts believe that the opinions of these politicians, to some extent, balance the rigid positions of Pompeo and Mattis. In relation to Michael Flynn, such a supposition is partly justified as National Security Advisors have traditionally had great influence on the head of the state (for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell). As for Nikki Haley’s position, it is purely executive in nature. She will operate on the basis of instructions from the State Department, and her personal opinion does not matter.

It is important to remember the psychological background around Russia. After the publication of U.S. intelligence agencies report about the intervention of Russian hackers in the presidential campaign, a growing number of Americans are inclined to believe Moscow has an extremely hostile attitude towards the United States. Americans do not trust politicians who do not believe their own information security services and continue to advocate for restorating relations with Russia. On this basis, President Trump and many members of the administration will have to make serious efforts to get rid of the reputation of the pro-Russian politicians.

In Congress, the leadership of both parties reached a consensus on policy towards Russia. The Speaker Paul Ryan (Republican), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican), the leaders of Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, and Senate Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer are all united in favor of extending sanctions against Russia. Moreover, they support an increase of military-technical assistance to NATO allies, especially to Poland and the Baltic nations. Paul Ryan says Russia is a global threat, and America must do everything to protect its interests and its allies. In general, the last hearings showed that Congress would not allow the White House to monopolize the process of making foreign policy decisions.

Trump’s main ally on Russia will be Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, from California. He was President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter and has the reputation of a brilliant fighter with the Soviet communist regime. However, the Congressman's views changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He admits that opposition leaders are subject to repression in Russia, but still believes there is freedom of religion, and that in general, the country is more open than its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Rohrabacher defended Moscow during the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, and criticized Obama's policy in Ukraine and the Middle East as misguided. He also believes that Washington politicians do not understand Russia and treat it unfairly. In general, the pro-Russian Congressman supports the position of Flynn and Haley that Russia and the United States should unite efforts to defeat Islamic extremism. It is noteworthy that Trump also considers Congressman Rohrabacher as a possible Head of the State Department. But it seems unlikely that the members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs will approve the nomination of the pro-Russian member of the lower chamber to such an important position.

It would be difficult to find other supporters of a closer US-Russian policy in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, there are certain politicians whose views on some specific international issues coincide with those of Moscow. Thus, such Republican Congressmen as Justin Amash (Michigan), Michael Burgess (Texas), Steve Stockman (Texas), John Duncun (Tennessee), Chris Gibson (New York), Raul Labrador (Idaho), Todd Rokita (Indiana), and Donald Young (Alaska), as well as the Democrats Alan Grayson (Florida), and Beto O' Rourke (Texas) consistently voted against allocating any U.S. aid to Ukraine, and arming the Syrian opposition. Friends of Russia in the Senate are Rand Paul (Kentucky), and Dean Heller (Nevada).

Senator Paul supported Edward Snowden and was against American involvement in the Syrian conflict. He is known for his pacifist and even "isolationist" views. Rand's father, who defended Russia more than others, and criticized America influenced him much. Despite the fact that Rand Paul is considered a friend of Russia, he condemned the annexation of Crimea and called for a harsh response to Putin from Obama's administration. In turn, Senator Heller voted against helping Ukraine as, in his opinion, it is ruled by large scale corruption.  He also did not back America's involvement in Middle East conflicts.

Based on current realities, it is possible to draw some conclusions. Firstly, if the elected President wants to improve relations with Russia through lifting sanctions, he will have to fight not only with Democrats, but also with his own party. Trump understands the importance of cooperation with Congress in terms of the key political problems: fiscal policy, taxes, immigration, health, energy. It is unlikely that he will want to spoil relations with legislators for the sake of rapprochement with Moscow. Secondly, Congress is going to be highly active in foreign policy issues in the next four years. The legislative branch, which has been subjected to harsh criticism in the past eight years, will do everything possible to prove its worth and effectiveness.

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