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If Donald Trump is Elected, What Will be Next for the US-Russia Relationship?

04 Jun 2024
By Professor Alexander J. Motyl
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet at the 2017 G-20 Hamburg Summit. Source: /

Despite, or perhaps because of, Donald Trump’s recent felony conviction by a New York City court, all the polls suggest he is likely to win the forthcoming presidential elections in November. Things could change in the next few months, but policymakers throughout the world would be well advised to prepare for a second Trump administration.

Just what Trump’s policies will be is almost impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy, given the large number of imponderables and the systemic turmoil that is sure to affect America in the aftermath of his victory. Trump’s election will have an even less predictable impact on US-Russia relations. The best we can do is highlight some of the “known knowns”  that will form part of the domestic- and foreign-policy context within which Trump will have to act.

With respect to the domestic context, America will continue to be deeply polarised, and relations between Democrats and Republicans will remain hostile. Trump and his allies are highly likely to seek revenge by purging the “deep state,” prosecuting Democratic opponents, and possibly even curbing the media. In the presence of these two factors, civil conflict cannot be ruled out, consensual policymaking will be the exception, not the rule, and parts of the United States—including Washington DC—could become ungovernable.

With respect to the international context, Trump is almost certain to pursue a hard line toward NATO and America’s allies, insisting that they share a greater part of the defense burden. At the same time, he is unlikely to give the Europeans greater policy leeway, thereby annoying them. Far less certain is his attitude toward other countries and regions. Given his policies during his first administration, a hard line vis-à-vis China seems likely. As Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s temperamental twin, Trump will probably side with Israeli against the Palestinians, thereby annoying Iran and Russia.

The question of temperament will loom especially large in the foreign-policy realm. Everyone agrees that Trump is unpredictable. Who could have imagined that he would court North Korea, initiate the Abraham Accords, and supply Ukraine with Javelins—all while moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and claiming to admire Vladimir Putin? His unpredictability is likely to increase during his second term, partly because of his age, partly because he knows that this will be his last chance to justify his belief in his own genius.

What, then, might a President Trump be expected to do with regard to Russia and Ukraine? It’s possible that, as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban recently said, he won’t give a cent to Ukraine, thereby condemning it to defeat. But it’s also possible, as Trump himself has said, that he would have bombed Moscow when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Finally, it’s possible that he will try to end the war in 24 hours, as he promised, presumably as a result of marathon negotiating sessions with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Given Trump’s mercurial personality and lack of a consistent strategic vision, all three scenarios are thinkable. A rationally inclined neutral observer might easily and correctly conclude that none of these options would serve the world or the United States: abandoning Ukraine would destabilise Europe, bombing Moscow would risk world war, and 24 hours couldn’t possibly suffice to find an equitable solution to the war.

So which course of action would Trump choose? Chances are that he might be most inclined to that option that best serves his inflated ego. Abandoning Ukraine would make him look like a coward, escalating would enable him to play the tough guy, while negotiating would run the risk of failure. Seen in this light, standing up to Putin would do most for Trump’s self-perception and self-worth. And, as luck would have it, it would also be the best approach to ending the war on the West’s terms.

That said, we cannot ignore the Putin factor. Russia’s self-elected president would obviously prefer America’s abandonment of Ukraine to the other two options. But he won’t get it. A 24-hour deal might be to his advantage, were it possible, but given his intransigence, it’s probably impossible. Which leaves escalation by America Putin’s least favorite option because it’s most likely to tax Russia’s diminished resources and undermine his regime.

This analysis seems to point in the direction of a worsening of US-Russia relations under a second Trump administration, but only if one focuses on a limited set of factors and “freezes” the rest. But what if domestic politics infringes, as it is sure to do, on Trump’s foreign policy? He may decide that prosecuting Joe Biden is his only priority, which might imply continued funding of Ukraine or a cut off. Or Trump and the Republicans might make America ungovernable, sparking or inciting massive civil conflict, in which case Russia might be America’s least pressing concern. Or, finally, the soon-to-be octogenarian, hamburger-chomping Trump might, like Putin, part with the world, in which case all bets are off.

In sum, we do not know what Trump’s impact on US-Russian relations will be. They’re unlikely to improve, and they could get much worse. Or, then again, they could become irrelevant to Trump and his America First supporters.

The moral for policymakers around the world is clear: as life becomes infinitely more interesting under Trump, they will have to consider a wide range of contingencies, prepare for the worst while hoping for the second best, and never assume that what seems permanent and stable will always remain so.

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in 1992-1998. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, he is the author of six academic books and the editor or co-editor of over fifteen volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism and The Holodomor Reader: A Sourcebook on the Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.