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Russia, Ukraine, and Donald Trump

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CDA Institute Council Advisor Richard Cohen comments on American-​Russian relations in light of the upcoming Trump presidency. This is based on his opening remarks during a panel on Ukraine at the Ukrainian Armed Forces Day at the Canadian War Museum on 6 December 2016.

In the short term there will undoubtedly be uncomfortable moments for Ukraine and for America’s other friends and allies around the world, stemming from Donald Trump’s offhand thoughts about Crimea, NATO, and China, amongst other things.

In the medium and longer term, however, the advent of the Trump presidency may be just what is needed to strengthen resolve in Ukraine, in Europe and in the West in general.

The much talked-​about ‘bromance’ between Putin and Trump will probably not last very long given the widely divergent interests of Russia and the US, and the personalities of the two men involved.

A couple of quotations illustrate my point:

Fiona Hill, of the Brookings Institute, says that: Russia, …has “always been an expansionist power…not one to give up anything and concede anything—pretty much like the United States…We’re going to have an awful lot of friction. And Trump isn’t exactly the most diplomatic of people. So I imagine he’ll fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly.”

And Uri Friedman, writing in the Atlantic says: “…both men seem to prioritize making their own country great again above all else, meaning they’re unlikely to compromise when their national interests come into conflict.”

So if the Putin-​directed cyber hackers did interfere in the US Election campaign on the side of Donald Trump, it may turn out to be Putin’s biggest strategic mistake. He might have been better off backing Hillary Clinton, who would probably have continued the broad policy lines of her predecessor.

For the past 8 years, US policy under President Obama has been predictable. Obama is a rational and well-​intentioned man who believes that other world leaders think and behave pretty much as he does. Sadly, as we know, this is not always so and Vladimir Putin is a case in point.

Obama’s failure, for all his good intentions, to act on Bashar Al-Assad’s blatant crossing of Obama’s very clear ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons, looked to the world like a clear show of weakness. It was probably an important factor in Putin’s decision to move into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and later Syria. Putin will push in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere when and where he senses an open door!

Unlike Obama, Trump is unpredictable, both for his friends and allies and his potential enemies. He is also tough and belligerent and we can be sure that ‘making America great again’ does not include being pushed around by Russia.

And it’s not lost on the Russians, the Chinese, and others, that despite its reluctance to act decisively in the last few years, the US remains by far the strongest military power in the world. Couple this with the fact that Trump has promised to build up American military strength, the US could again be a country that demands the respect and attention both of friends and of potential adversaries.

So ironically, the coming Trump presidency, because of the uncertainty it creates, may make Putin think twice before he launches any new adventures in Ukraine or elsewhere.

This could give the West, and the US itself, some breathing room to adjust to a new US approach to its international role. And time perhaps to reshape our ideas and strengthen our resolve on how to respond to Russian and others’ aggression in Ukraine, in Europe, and around the world.

Richard Cohen is president of RSC Strategic Connections, sits on the Council of Advisors of the CDA Institute, and served in the Canadian and British Armies. He was Professor of European Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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Guest Tuesday, 21 February 2017
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