Following Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential election victory, both the President-elect and Russian President Putin have raised expectations about a potential sea-change in U.S.-Russia relations. Issues such as Syria, Ukraine, and ongoing NATO and missile defense deployments along Russia’s periphery are likely to loom large over the coming months.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call to discuss the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship under a Trump administration.


Not checked against delivery

Tom Carver: Good afternoon everyone.  This is Tom Carver here from Carnegie Endowment and this is a media call on Russia and Russian relationships with the U.S., post the U.S. presidential election.  The call is on the record, it will last for about 30 minutes.  And we will have a transcript available for any of you that want one, hopefully about 24 hours afterwards.  The one thing I would just ask is that when you ask a question, please identify yourself so that we know -- everyone knows who’s talking. 

So anyway, I’m pleased to have with me here Andrew Weiss who is vice president and runs our Russia Eurasia Program in D.C. and Dmitri Trenin, our longtime head of the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

So let me just start with getting kind of some initial reactions from both of you. 

Andrew, do you want to start? 

Andrew Weiss: Sure thing.  So welcome everybody and we’re very much looking forward to your questions and I think both Dmitri and I will try to be pretty fast in setting the theme here and then dive into whatever questions and issues are on your mind. 

Yes, obviously we’re still at a pretty early stage of the -- of the initial transition so it’s hard to talk about policies because, you know, frankly we don’t know the personnel let alone the actual policy positions in the new administration.  And, you know, stuff has been widely written about lack of experience, the lack of clear signals about where this administration is going to go beyond the bumper stickers that have been widely reported. 

But at the same time, you know, the fundamental point is that there’s a liberal international order that the U.S. has led and underwritten since World War II.  And in the past, the U.S. seemed to be the, you know, the key bolster of that and underwrote it (financially), and we may now be the chief accelerant for dismantling it.  And a lot of what Mr. Trump said publicly seems to put him in opposition to that order and to the cost and burdens that the United States has to shoulder. 

But I think we do all need to take a little bit of a broader aperture on the problem and say that what happened between the United States and Russia is an element of a bigger international picture where we have forces of disintegration, regionalism, populism and nativism, sweeping technological change and great power competition and not least, and all of those are kind of washing over the next administration inevitably.   

And the U.S.-Russia relations are part of that (piece) and part of that backdrop but they’re neither the key catalyst nor the sort of potential cure-all from the huge challenges that are going to confront the new administration when it comes into office. 

Many people have been talking about how the president-elect is the consummate deal-maker, he probably pales in comparison to Vladimir Putin in that department.  And the question will be, is there a deal and I’ll turn to Dmitri in a second, that the U.S. and Russia might be able to work out that deals with issues like problems with Syria, the problems with Ukraine.  But, you know, I’m deeply skeptical that the world has reached a point where a couple of great powers can meet in a room somewhere and cut big deals over the heads of smaller countries. 

And, you know, particularly in the case of the Syria conflict it's, you know, for example, the U.S. and Russia were to do more together and (Raqqa) falls and ISIL looks like it’s in (perilous) shape as a result of that, there’s still a majority of the Syrian population which is Sunni and who are going to be deeply aggrieved and will fight. 

In Ukraine, you have sort of a similar story where, you know, Russia may have taken responsibility for four million odd people, thanks to its aggression.  In the Eastern Ukraine, thanks to the annexation of Crimea but there’s 38 million-odd Ukrainians who are obviously not going to fall back into some Russian sphere of influence because of a deal that gets cut between the United States and Russia. 

So, you know, I think there’s a lot of issues out there that will defy neat and tidy solutions.  And then the final point which I’ll end on is, you know, I was doing some reading last night where I was reading back to the early days of the Reagan Administration, and you see -- I think shaping up in the U.S. is a similar storyline where you have very big personalities who end up really fighting each other inside the U.S. administration. and as a result, you got fair amount of incoherence, indecisiveness, and drift in U.S. policies in 1981. 

And if I sort of overlay some of those articles with the world that we’re probably going to have on our hands after January with the new Trump team, I’d say, you know, it doesn’t look like a team that’s gearing up for something and it’s going to have its act together from day one. 

But anyway, maybe with that I’ll turn things over to Dmitri. 

Dmitri Trenin:Dmitri here.  Well, thank you.  I agree with Andrew, it’s too early to speculate about the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship under President Trump. 

But I will say that I’m very concerned about the trajectory of the relationship that has emerged in the last couple of years and has culminated to a point when a kinetic collision between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria has become a possibility, if not a probability if the trajectory were to be extended. 

I think that the U.S.-Russia relationship, and I agree again with Andrew, is part of bigger changes in the global order.  And one key element of that is the appearance or reappearance of (great bar) competition, something that the world has not seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s not just Russia but Russia included. 

I’m skeptical as to the chances of reaching some sort of an overarching deal between the (presidents) of Russia and the United States to cure all problems.  I don’t think it’s possible, not just likely, I don’t think it’s possible.  At best, the relationship is likely to be a transactional dealing with individual problems, hopefully making the world less dangerous because I think that the U.S.-Russian kinetic collision would be one of the most tragic developments in international relations you can imagine. 

We have just dodged the bullet in Syria, hopefully we can find ways of protecting ourselves against that in the future, that would be my most important expectation of the relationship going forward.  And something else, if the result of a direct interaction between Presidents Putin and Trump would be agreement on the common language that both sides will use to pursue and protect their interests, that to me would constitute an achievement. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Let’s open it up for questions.  Does anyone have questions for Dmitri or Andrew? 

Operator  On the phone line, if you would like to ask a question, please press star then the number one on your telephone keypad. 

Tom Carver: While we’re waiting, Dmitri, maybe I could just ask you something about one of the things that Obama -- or Putin always seemed to rankle with Obama was the fact that, you know, it wasn’t taken seriously enough, wasn’t given kind of full accord of his position as a (superpower).  Do you think Trump will improve that just even at the (optic) level? 

Dmitri Trenin:Well, I don’t know.  But I think it’s safe to say that Obama's comment about Russia as a regional power made Putin strive for a position on the global scene that would leave no doubts about Russia being a major power.  Not an equal of the United States but a major power to be taken seriously. 

Tom Carver: Do you have any sense that Trump will kind of help Putin get the respect that he feels he needs or would you think it’s (kind of destined) to be confrontational? 

Dmitri Trenin:I think that it’s not so much the respect for Putin as a person.  I think that if Trump treats Russia as a major power with its own interests that would be a big step forward seen from the Kremlin toward a more sound relationship. 

Again, built on interest, built on par relationships, built in all those things that are fundamental to a real politic-based world order.  If that’s the case, then I think there can be some sort of understanding on a number of issues, that I don’t think that there can be one deal or a series of overarching deals that would fundamentally change the relationship. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Let’s see if there’s any questions. 

Operator  You do have a question from the line of Emily Tamkin of Foreign Policy, your line is open. 

Emily Tamkin: Hello.  First of all… 

Tom Carver: Hi Emily. 

Emily Tamkin: Hi.  Thank you both so much for taking the time to do this with us today.  One thing that has not been covered as much in discussion of what this will mean for U.S.-Russian relations is what it will mean for civil society in Russia and how the U.S. relates to civil society in Russia. 

And I was wondering if you had thoughts on that particularly since the anniversary of the (then) 65 Pushkin Square Protests coming up. 

Dmitri Trenin:Well I think that’s on the Kremlin's perspective.  Russian Civil Society off limits to the United States. 

And if the United States provides any assistance to elements of civil society -- that in all position to the Kremlin, this will be seen as inadmissible interference in Russian domestic affairs and consequences will follow against both United States and those organizations who would be seen as agents of the United States within Russia. 

Andrew Weiss: And there’s little indication of what we know anyway that Trump wants to pursue a kind of values driven… 

Dmitri Trenin:There’s no indication of that.  There is no indication whatsoever of that. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Other questions? 

Operator  Your next question comes from the line of Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor, your line is open. 

Laura Rozen:   Thank you all for doing this. 

Dmitri, I’m interested if you think the operation to retake Aleppo from the rebels will be completed by the time Trump is inaugurated and if that would present any opportunities for Trump and the Russians to try to reach a political solution there? 

Dmitri Trenin:Well I think that the plan is to have Aleppo taken over completely by the Syrian government forces by the end of the year and certainly by the time of the inauguration in Washington. 

Russia has been basically pursuing a line in Syria that envisagedthe United States and Russia playing the dominant role in the Syrian diplomatic process and the United States and Russia collaborating against ISIS.  Both strategies or both objectives rather would contribute to Russia’s overarching goal in Syria to be treated as a major power globally because if you can be of decisive importance in a place like the Middle East. 

And Syria is the place where, you know, to a large extent the fate of the Middle East is being decided.  Then you are by definition a global power.  And you can only -- you can only achieve that if the United States plays along, so there will be a Russian interest in engaging the United States or reengaging the United States in both the peace process and also engaging it in some sort of a joint military campaign against ISIS. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Other questions? 

Operator  And, again, if you would like to ask a question, please press star then the number one. 

You have a question from the line of a participant whose information we weren’t able to gather.  Please state your name, your line is open. 

Heidi Jensen:   Hi.  My name is Heidi Jensen, I’m from the Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten).  I wanted to ask you about what you expect from Trump in regards to sanctions against Russia.  I’m sorry if you already touched upon this but I didn’t hear the beginning of your -- of your briefing.  Thank you.   

Andrew Weiss: I think that -- you know, it’s Andrew here.  I think there is, you know, an immediate decision point that EU is facing on rolling over sanctions at the end of January. 

And most people seem to believe that decision is likely already been taken and the real dilemmas will confront people in the summer timeframe.  I think that the United States is the chief glue at this point that sort of keeps the EU energized on sanction.  And in light of what’s happening in France, in light of Brexit, it’s going to be very hard to sustain internal EU's support for sanctions going forward in the absence of a very strong push from Washington. 

I’m sort of less worried maybe at the moment about where the Germans are but this looks like fragile, it’s not I think predetermines that sanctions regime will unravel.  Any number of things could happen between now and the summer.  We all remember that the main driver behind the Sectoral Sanctions which (have set) -- were posted on certain types of financial transactions, transactions in the energy space and in industry related activities, were results of the shootdown of the Malaysian Airline in July 2014. 

So the world is an unpredictable place, but there’s no doubt the Russian government would love to see the sanctions regime unravel.  It would love to drive wedges between the United States and our European partners and they’ve been working very assiduously on that for the better part of two years now.  So it’s an old storyline.  But I think that the new administration coming in probably is going to be, you know, like all administrations taking a long policy review, they’re going to look at the status and (Minsk) agreement which has, you know, any number of serious flaws and opponents and sort of dim horizons in front of it. 

And so it will sort of eat up the better part of the next six months.  So I think what I would probably sort of betting is we’re just going to have a kind of long period of, "Wait, we’ll get back to you, we’re looking at this", and, you know, it will not be something that the new administration takes a  strong view on, on day one. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Thanks.  Others? 

Heidi Jensen:   All right.   

Tom Carver: Hello?  I just lost you. 

Operator  You do have a question from the line of Michael Crowley of POLITICO, your line is open. 

Michael Crowley:  Hi everybody, thanks again for doing this.  Dmitri, I joined the call minutes late, so I apologize if I missed something pertinent. 

But I heard you say that you were skeptical that there will be an overarching deal.  But what might Putin try to do in his own?  Have his assumptions changed about what redlines are that he cannot cross?  Should we expect to see him -- should we expect to see (adventurism) in pressing forward in Ukraine potentially or new provocations in the Baltics, or conversely might he not want to embarrass Trump and try to work out whatever he can through bargaining? 

Dmitri Trenin:Well, I don’t think that Putin will try to, quote, unquote ("Test Trump") either before he takes over or after the inauguration.  I think it would be stupid and I think that Putin is getting ready for his first encounter with Trump, he wants to have it in a propitious environment. 

So I wouldn’t expect anything that people are often concerned with, you know, all various provocations, various moves that would seek to put the inexperienced American President off balance, whatever. 

As for Putin's strategic thinking, I don’t believe that his redlines have changed.  So basically any enhancement which seems unlikely of U.S. involvement in Ukraine such as provision of lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military would be seen as a non-welcome change in the balance, and that would I think exacerbate the situation in Ukraine. 

Again, we have absolutely no evidence to suggest that this maybe the way that the new administration will handle Ukraine, at least initially.  I don’t think that Russia is hatching or has been hatching or was hatching in the last couple of years any designs to reconquer the Baltic States, invade a NATO country, invade other Western countries in Europe. 

As for the close encounters into Baltics, again, I think that they served their purpose in the last couple of years.  I don’t think that there's need today to send a message back to Washington.  I think the message was sent and it looks like it’s been received.  If the Russian see unusual activity by NATO air forces close to their borders, that may change but if that does not change, I don’t think that there will -- there will be, you know, more, call them provocations, call them close encounters happening in the skies over the Baltic Sea or close to the borders of the Baltic States. 

Andrew Weiss: Can I -- can I maybe differ a little bit, hi Michael, from Dmitri here. 

Michael Crowley:  Hi.  Yes. 

Andrew Weiss: I think that where we're -- where we're likely to see a lot of problems over the next 18 to 24 months is in, you know, the world of Russian stoking and opportunistically trying to amplify populism, nativist voices and disrupt the political processes underway.  We’ll have the first steps to that this weekend in Italy with the referendum results. 

Then there’s a referendum I think in a month’s time in Netherlands, followed by the French election and then ultimately the German election.  So I think we’re in a very delicate phase and I take very seriously the comments of people like the German Internal Security and B&G director in the past two weeks about the role of the Russian government in sponsoring various cyber intrusions and providing financing to political parties including in Germany.  You have (Die Linke) and you have Alternative for Deutschland.   

So I think there’s a pattern here, we’ve seen in the U.S. election, very provocative and destabilizing steps by entities related to the Russian government.  This movie is, you know, playing out mostly in the shadows and there’s not a lot of obvious pushback at this point but I would think it will be a dominant theme and the Germans are I think very widely getting ahead of us and trying to publicize their concerns but it’s a very worrying quantitatively new element in Russia’s engagement with Western countries and I think it has a poisonous effect. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Other questions? 

Michael Crowley:  Thanks. 

Operator  Your next question comes from the line of Kaitlin Lavinder, your line is open. 

Kaitlin Lavinder: Hi, this is Kaitlin Lavinder from the Cipher Brief, thanks for taking the time to do this. 

Dmitri, you mentioned Russia’s overarching goal in Syria to be treated as a global power and at the same time you don’t see Russia invading any of the Western European countries or any of the Eastern European countries anytime soon.  Kind of going hand-in-hand with this, it seems like Russia’s long-term strategic goal is to build an area of air, land, sea denial, so it’s kind of buffer zone with what it's doing in Syria, Crimea, and also the (build-up) in Kaliningrad. 

Do you think that this is an accurate observation and if so, how should the incoming Trump Administration interpret this and respond?  Thank you.   

Dmitri Trenin:Well, I don’t think I can answer the latter part of the question.  I don't think -- I don’t know.  I have no opinion on how the U.S. should react to that. 

But I think I would agree that Russia is building up its military power in the exposed enclave of Kaliningrad, also using it as leverage against the United States assets in Europe and against the European members of NATO.  I think that Crimea is also something that the Russians are fortifying or militarizing as you like in the view of the very hostile relationship that is likely to stay between Russia and Ukraine.  Actually, no matter what trend the U.S.-Russian relationship takes in the next couple of months or even a couple of years. 

I believe that with the crisis in Ukraine and what followed on the NATO side, on the Russian side, we are seeing the reemergence of military standoff in Europe along Russia’s western borders and I think it’s a permanent fact that we will have to live for a period of time, probably a long period of time. 

Syria is another thing, it’s not about protecting the Russian homeland, it’s not about military standoff with the West, it is about using military force to achieve major geopolitical objectives in an important region of the world.  So I think it needs to be treated separately or differently from what Russia is doing in Crimea or Kaliningrad or elsewhere in the European portion of the country. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Thanks.  We have time for at least one or two more questions. 

Operator  Your next question comes from the line of Heidi Jensen, your line is open. 

Heidi Jensen:   Hi.  This is Heidi Jensen, Danish journalist, again, from (Jyllands-Posten).  I didn’t hear you touch upon whether Trump is expected to accept that Crimea is now Russian and is there an expectation in Moscow that Trump will accept that?  Thank you.   

Dmitri Trenin: Frankly, I don’t think that there’s an expectation in Moscow that the status of Crimea is part of the Russian Federation will be formally or informally recognized anytime soon by anyone. 

So I don’t think that there’s an expectation that Trump will do that despite his comment about the population of Crimea being better off under the Russia rule and then it was under the Ukrainian rule. 

Andrew Weiss: I think that any -- to recognize Russian integration of Crimea will be deeply injurious to the Trump reputation internationally and sort of open up a Pandora’s Box.  So I would be very surprised if we head down that road. 

Heidi Jensen:   OK, thank you. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Let’s just do one more question. 

Operator  And there are no further questions in queue right now. 

Tom Carver: Do you guys have any (sense to) or any light that you can shed on, on what the team might be under Trump?  No.  Andrew is shaking his head. 

Andrew Weiss: I haven’t seen any new announcements. 

Tom Carver: OK.  OK.  Well let’s pull this to a close, we’ve been doing 30 minutes.  So I thank you very much indeed. 

As I say, there will be a transcript available in the next 24 hours or so, so contact (Michelle) if you want it or she will send it out to you or actually (Peter).  And that’s the end, thank you very much.  Take care. 

Operator  And this concludes today’s conference call, you may now disconnect.