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10 November 2016

US-Russian relations are about to change – what next for Syria and eastern Europe?

Short-term peace for PR purposes, long-term ego clashes.

By jana Bakunina

Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Donald Trump on becoming the 45th President of the United States. According to an official statement on the Kremlin portal, he expressed hope that the two of them can work together to repair the relations between Russia and the US and to address threats to global security.

Putin said that the constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington – based on the principles of equality, mutual respect and recognition of each other’s positions – is in the interest of people of both countries and the world at large.

Putin is right – the relations between Russia and the US do have global implications. Putin will aim at repeating the Yalta conference, which took place in the Crimea after the World War II when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had divided the world into areas of influence.

Putin was a young KGB officer when the Berlin Wall had been taken down, and the Soviet Union had fallen apart nearly half a century later. Crucially, it’s Russia’s loss of influence in world affairs that has been most painful for Putin. It is precisely what the Russian President has been working to restore. He would seek two promises from Trump: not to interfere in “traditionally Russian” territories (former Soviet republics), and a seat at the table when discussing global affairs.

In return, Putin may have to concede influence in such countries as Venezuela, rather than entertain the ideas of rebuilding military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. If Trump wants to build a wall on the border with Mexico, Putin won’t mind. He prefers isolation to truthfulness and transparency.

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The new Trump-Putin world order is certainly worrying for Russia’s immediate and close neighbours, including eastern Europe. In the past decade, every conflict and uprising in Georgia or Ukraine was supported by the Kremlin on one side and by Washington on the other side. Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili would not have dared to send government forces against South Ossetian separatists in 2008 if he hadn’t been explicitly supported by the US.

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If Putin and Trump were to agree that Russia’s neighbours are off-limits to the US, then the chance of a successful democratic uprising in Belarus, for example, is zero. The Kremlin will see to that. As for eastern Europe, Trump’s victory means that far-right, nationalist parties have just received a massive boost of confidence. Weaker neighbours make Putin stronger.

The situation in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular, has a chance to get better. This is because, up until now, Putin has been supporting Bashar al-Assad to counterbalance the US (and to show Russian television viewers that the Kremlin is fighting terrorists and is exercising its military arsenal on a par with Washington).

The war in Syria is impossible to win and the popular support for it is waning both in Russia and in the US. Talks between Trump and Putin may well result in co-operation and withdrawal of military forces. In fact, such a joint act would be a great piece of PR for both presidents. Trump will appear as a reasonable man who can negotiate. Putin will once again divert attention from domestic economic woes and government corruption to a show of strength in international affairs.

In the long term, it is unlikely that Trump’s presidency will lead to collaborative relations between the two countries and world peace. Putin’s power thrives on secrecy, provocations and lies – not openness. Trump is fundamentally self-centred, hot-tempered and unpredictable. After 16 years in power, it is hard to imagine Putin kowtowing to anyone. In the game of two egos, the world will watch in a state of high alert and anxiety.