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The Kremlin’s Trump Gamble

Based on media coverage in the last week, Russia is more actively involved in U.S. politics than ever before –  whether hacking the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign or being accused of attempting to sway the election. Much of the discussion around these incidents has centered on Republican nominee Donald Trump’s apparent affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, and his regular ill-informed and nonsensical outbursts that provide every imaginable interpretation and its polar opposite.

Putin and Trump have certainly made unusual comments about one another to the press. Trump has alternately complimented Putin’s leadership qualities and domestic policies, repeated Kremlin propaganda about the circumstances of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and backtracked to insist that Putin “said very nice things about me,” but that he has “no relationship” with Putin and had never met or spoken to him. Putin in turn noted in December that Trump was the “absolute leader in the presidential race” and that the Republican nominee is “a very lively man, talented without doubt. He’s saying he wants to go another level of relations — closer, deeper relations with Russia. How could we not welcome that? Of course we welcome that.” (Though Putin never called Trump a “genius,” as Trump often claims.)

Recent media coverage has focused on the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, Trump’s softened stance on Russia after bringing on Paul Manafort and Carter Page as advisers this spring, or the idea of the Republican nominee being the ideal Russian concoction. What this flurry of attention has considered to a lesser degree, however, is that Trump is still Trump — meaning that he is as unpredictable for the Kremlin as he is for the Republican Party and American media pundits. Though Trump’s indifference, disinterest or ambivalence toward NATO and Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and even sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea suggests that he would be the Kremlin’s dream U.S. president, these very same qualities could also make him far more problematic for Moscow.

What this flurry of attention has considered to a lesser degree, however, is that Trump is still Trump — meaning that he is as unpredictable for the Kremlin as he is for the Republican Party and American media pundits.

Trump’s unprecedented foreign policy positions, which are isolationist in some cases but relativist or reactive in others, seemingly promise to shift unwelcome attention away from Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Yet in order for Trump to be a true boon for the Kremlin, he needs to be consistent, predictable and unwavering – and he is none of the three. Trump’s self-assuredness, arrogance and ignorance may benefit Putin today, but the same cannot be said for November, January or for the duration of a Trump administration. A minor disagreement with Moscow or perceived diplomatic slight or offense could quickly set off President Trump, as could sustained negative coverage and criticism of his Russia stances or dealings by the Washington political establishment and U.S. and international media. Trump is all about professing his love for deal-making, but by disparaging NATO, criticizing fellow Republicans and questioning long-standing agreements, customs and norms, for example, he has shown he is just as comfortable with deal-breaking.

Though the Kremlin clearly has a history of tense relations with Clinton, her administration would be more (predictably) hawkish in its response to Russia. Trump, on the other hand, enjoys practically no support from the U.S. foreign policy or national security elite and has demonstrated repeatedly that he will flip-flop based on political expediency, spotlight-stealing potential and his mood. Even a contingent of pro-Russia advisers or appointees is not enough to guarantee four years of stable policy-making or diplomacy, as they can easily be overridden, ignored or simply replaced.

Trump is all about professing his love for deal-making, but he has shown he is just as comfortable with deal-breaking.

As I’ve written previously in Pacific Standard, even though Russia seeks to prolong conflicts or incite divisions abroad through its tactic of creating predictability through instability, such as in Syria and Ukraine, its apparent preference for a Trump presidency could do the opposite for U.S. policy toward Russia. Trump has repeatedly stated that the U.S.’ foreign policy dilemmas are due to the lack of respect President Barack Obama enjoys abroad. Yet his comments as recently as May highlight how even his purported “bromance” with Putin will not necessarily prevent a serious escalation in U.S.-Russian tensions. When asked about Russian fighter jets buzzing U.S. vessels in the Baltic, Trump offered the following resolution:

“I mean, at a certain point, you have to do something … you just can’t take that … But it should certainly start with diplomacy and it should start quickly with a phone call to Putin, wouldn’t you think? … And if that doesn’t work out, I don’t know, you know, at a certain point, when that sucker comes by you, you gotta shoot.”

Trump’s obsession with commanding respect and displaying strength could very well result in a situation devolving from a terse phone call with Putin one moment to an order for military action the next – with repercussions as unimaginable as the absurd controversies and soundbites Trump fills the news with each week. Though he has been painted as leaning toward Russia, in reality his positions are as erratic as his speaking style – and would still need to translated into formal policies under his administration. Given how readily Trump is willing to backtrack on, downplay, contradict or ignore his past promises and statements, as president he could easily be both the Kremlin’s greatest friend and foe.

(Image: Reuters/RIA Novosti/Pool)

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