Perhaps more than at any time since the Cold War, Kremlinologists are working overtime to decode Russia — galvanized, in part, by Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president.
Many analysts have expressed deep concern that Russian muscle-flexing — bellicose moves on its western front, an aggressive military intervention in Syria and an international trail of cyber-provocation — represents a clear challenge to the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. Such an environment, they note, could pose particular peril for an untested American leader.
But there is also a contrarian view: that following a deep freeze in Russian-American relations during part of President Obama’s tenure, Trump’s avowed deal-making bent and evident readiness to personally engage Russian President Vladimir Putin could produce a thaw with the potential to lessen, rather than exacerbate, global tensions on a range of issues.
Much will depend on what Russia wants.
What is Putin saying publicly about the incoming administration?
He’s been conciliatory. In his annual state of the nation address delivered from an ornate assembly room in the Kremlin on Thursday, Putin avoided the harsh references to Washington and its allies that are often a hallmark of such high-profile ceremonial speeches. Instead, he focused on Russia’s domestic challenges, and painted his own government as averse to international friction.
“We don’t want confrontation with anyone — we don’t need it,” official media outlets quoted him as telling an assemblage of Russian political elite. “We are not seeking, and have never sought, enemies. We need friends.”
What are Putin’s priorities?
In a word: respect. Like Trump, Putin derives fervent popular support from the theme of national greatness. The Russian leader bristles at any deviation from the narrative of Russian might, even if a long-feared empire is now seen by most outsiders as a nation in decline — albeit a very dangerous, nuclear-armed one.
Putin “wants the U.S. to treat Russia as an equal partner, in spite of the obvious disparity in factors like the economy and conventional military strength and the technology gap,” said Simon Saradzhyan, who heads the Russia Matters project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “He wants the same thing he essentially wanted from Obama: that the U.S. acknowledge that Russia is a great power that must have a say in all important decisions that affect the regions that surround it.”
But while Trump’s unscripted outpourings may appear to augur a friendship with Putin, analysts point out that the Obama “reset” with Russia at the start of his tenure foundered. The Russian relationship with George W. Bush also turned tense despite gestures like Putin’s sympathy call following the 9/11 attacks. In other words, substantive issues may soon intervene.
What are Russia’s main points of contention with the West?
From Russia’s point of view, the country is more threatened than threatening. Moscow has railed against the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and by American development of long-range ballistic weapons systems that could put Russia’s defenses within reach.
The West, for its part, denounced Putin’s push into Ukraine and punished his 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula with sanctions. The firepower Russia has brought to bear in propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad set in motion one of the bloodiest chapters of Syria’s catastrophic civil war, the battle for eastern Aleppo.
In the latest of a series of scathing diplomatic rebukes, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, said Wednesday that the Russian-backed Syrian government risked turning rebel-held parts of the contested city into “one giant graveyard.”
What are some issues to watch?
During the campaign, Trump said he would “be looking at” accepting Crimea as Russian territory — but the conversation centered around an interview in which it was not clear he was aware the peninsula had been annexed by Putin. In his speech, Putin reiterated that Russia would not tolerate “infringement” of its interests, and his diplomats have warned against any tightening of sanctions.
On Syria, Trump’s views might not diverge so greatly from Putin’s. The president-elect has signaled a rollback of support for moderate rebel factions seeking to topple the Russian-backed Assad, and has not insisted, as Obama has, that the Syrian leader must be removed or step aside. In his speech, Putin defended Russia’s actions in Syria as a fight against terrorism — “That is the task our servicemen in Syria are fulfilling,” he said.
What are possible grounds for common cooperation?
Putin said in his nationally televised address that global terror was a common enemy.
“We are ready to cooperate with the new U.S. administration,” he said.
Trump has already indicated he is amenable to joining forces with Russia against the militants of Islamic State. Analysts note other points of overlapping interests including nuclear security and non-proliferation.
What’s worrying Putin at home?
Fiscal woes, for one thing. The Russian economy shrank in 2015, hit by falling oil prices and Western sanctions, and Putin is struggling to contain inflation. Experts say Russia badly needs to modernize its economy, which is heavily dependent on energy resources.
“Russia is a ‘one-crop economy’ with corrupt institutions and serious demographic and health problems,” analyst and author Joseph Nye wrote in a symposium commissioned by the foreign affairs magazine The National Interest and Carnegie Corp. of New York.
In his speech Thursday, Putin called for regulatory reform that would help business overall, and greater development incentives in the lagging high-tech sector.
What has Trump said about Russia?
On that topic, personality has trumped policy. At rallies, in interviews and on the debate stage, Trump made repeated admiring references to Putin’s “strong” style of governance, contrasting it with what he characterized as dangerous weakness on the part of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. A recurring theme was Trump’s assertion that Putin had called him “brilliant,” although Russian-language experts told the fact-checking organization PolitiFact that the word in question — yarkii — would be more accurately translated as “colorful.”
What about Putin’s political future?
A former KGB agent, Putin has been in power since 2000, alternating between the prime minister's post and the presidency, with a governing style that runs to steely charisma, autocratic tactics and the ruthless crushing of political opponents.
Russia’s next presidential elections are in 2018, and analysts like Saradzhyan saw clear indications Putin intends to seek another term. In the speech, Putin repeatedly referred to planned development and economic initiatives that would take place in 2019.
Like many leaders from Russia's imperial past, he sees his own personal fortunes as deeply entwined with those of the state. Thursday's speech brought an echo of that, as he told compatriots: "We want to take charge of our own destiny."