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In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine, a bold move that many saw as a step towards recreating the former Soviet Union. The US, the EU, and Australia responded by imposing sanctions that have since been crippling the Russian economy. Since these developments, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, the relationship between Russia and the West has been heavily strained.
Closing The Gap?
The US and Russia believe themselves to be founded on opposing principles. For the US, communism has always been a scourge that strangles freedom and breeds corruption. For Russia, capitalism and democracy are a front that America uses to forcefully spread its influence to all areas of the globe. Thus, the tension between these superpowers is said to be ideological as well as geopolitical.
The American election, however, has shown that, ideologically, the two nations are perhaps not so far apart. Both countries are witnessing the revival of a previously dormant ethnic nationalism.
Trump’s victory has gone a long way in proving that, underneath the image of freedom and prosperity that is constructed by a liberal elite, the American people are largely discontent. Like much of the Russian population, many Americans are also fuelled by a nationalistic rhetoric, and a desire to return to a nostalgic period which prioritised its citizens’ interests over geopolitical supremacy. Americans voted for Trump because they believe he will deliver this. Indeed, Trump’s campaign rhetoric, characterised by the slogan “Make America Great Again”, mostly leaves foreign policy and concern for other countries dangling at the bottom of his presidential agenda.
For global leaders and markets alike, Trump’s policies and behaviour as president are unpredictable. This includes his relationship with Russia. Trump has, in the past, shown admiration for Putin. This has been overemphasised by a liberal media that is concerned with how Putin might manipulate his relationship with Trump to affect the everyday lives of American citizens.
However, Trump is primarily concerned with domestic policy. He values protectionism for the country’s economy, trade, and resources. Trump is confused as to why America should stretch its resources to hold up smaller nations that refuse to pull their weight. This is where his disdain for both NATO and international trade deals (including the TPP, WTO, and NAFTA) originates.
Trump has also made promises for domestic policy that he must, for the sake of continued support, keep. He has to deliver on reducing unemployment, curbing immigration, and growing the economy. These policy areas will largely preoccupy him and, thus, Putin will be somewhat of an afterthought, not a priority. Relations between the US and Russia might, in this case, become more amicable but mostly unaffected.
The Trump In Putin
One the other hand, Trump might seek to build even closer ties with Putin. He could alleviate sanctions, strike up new trade deals, and co-operate with the Russian military and intelligence services on the Syrian conflict. He might see some of himself in Putin: the leader of a global superpower that seeks to return his country to its former prestige. He could further alienate Europe and recuperate trust with the Kremlin.
His behaviour as president-elect, including the appointments made to his cabinet, and his treatment of Number 10 already demonstrate that, to an extent, this is the path he wants to take. His win has already proven that the national feeling in America is similar to that in Russia or Turkey, rather than to the EU. Obama had to use his final European tour to restore the confidence of EU leaders in the positive fate of NATO.
Angela Merkel’s congratulations after Trump’s victory are an offering of cooperation, but they are also loaded with anxiety and warning. Europe realises that its liberal values will not be the same as the values of Trump’s America. Instead, it is Russia that has the opportunity to build on common ground.
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