Trump really can't do much to reduce tensions with Putin's Russia
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As the shock of Donald Trump's stunning victory on Nov. 8 fades, the future of the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship will occupy a prominent position in Trump's foreign policy agenda.


Russia played an unprecedented role in this presidential cycle. Not since the days of the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev era has Russian entered the American political dialogue in such a demonstrative manner.

So what policies will Trump pursue vis-a-vis Moscow?

Can his much-trumped negotiating skills reduce tensions with the Kremlin?

First, let's recall Trump's campaign statements about Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S.-Russian relations.

In actuality, his statements were sparse and did not reflect meaningful, thought-out policy. His position was essentially that improved relations with Russia were desirable; Putin is a very strong leader; and that Putin made positive statements about Trump (although it must be noted that Trump's view of Putin's comments are a far departure from what Putin actually said).

While virtually everyone would favor a de-escalation of tensions with Russia, the question remains: At what cost to the U.S. and its allies would this desired improvement come?

Trump failed to provide this critical explanation on the campaign trail.

Furthermore, Trump's expressions lacked intellectual rigor, as well as conviction. This suggests that improved bilateral relations may be another campaign promise that ultimately may be discarded when politically expedient.

Obstacles to improved relations with Russia abound in Washington. No other issue bridges a seemingly impenetrable partisan divide in Washington as does Russia's Putin. Trump will face near-unanimous Republican congressional opposition to any favorable gestures toward Moscow.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Senate to take up Trump's border-immigration plan next week Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback MORE (R-Ky.) commented after the election that Congress would vehemently oppose any weakening of the NATO alliance (recall that Trump spooked NATO allies when he suggested during the campaign that the U.S. may review its allegiance to the alliance and pursue a policy of pick-and-chose in relation to implementation of Article 5).

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO Mark Kelly considering Senate bid as Arizona Dems circle McSally MORE (R-Ariz.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee — who has regularly denounced Putin — has also issued a strong statement opposing any rapprochement with Moscow.

Beyond Congressional opposition, practically the entire foreign policy establishment — including U.S. intelligence agencies — opposes a reset 2.0 with Moscow.

Seasoned foreign policy veterans, including notable Russian specialists, are extremely skeptical of the achievability of improved relations given the fundamental gulf which separates current U.S. and Russian policies and principles.

In light of the U.S. intelligence community's claim that the Kremlin was directly responsible for the hacking of key Democratic operatives' email accounts (as well as assertions of planting widespread false media reports on social media), pushback to any "grand bargain" with Moscow will be swift, severe and played out in public.

To deescalate tensions, Putin would likely insist upon a formal recognition of Russia's annexation of Crimea and termination of sanctions against Russia.

A clear violation of its international commitments, Russia's annexation of Crimea was the first shifting of European borders since the end of World War II, and continues to have political reverberations.

Although candidate Trump exposed a profound ignorance of Russian military activity and presence in Ukraine and Crimea, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ MORE would face enormous opposition both domestically and internationally to any such arrangement with Moscow.

While Russian state-supported media outlets supported candidate Trump and celebrated his unexpected victory, Russia's political elites are increasingly skeptical over the outcome. The Russian establishment is a firm practitioner of the adage better the devil you know versus the devil you don't know.

While Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonConservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president Trump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier MORE may be personally disliked in some quarters of the Kremlin, she represented stability and a continuation of President Obama's policies, although with more muscle. Her foreign policy team would likely have consisted of well-known establishment figures with whom Russian foreign policy leaders would likely have had longstanding working relationships.

Trump's election, however, upended the political establishment and will result in a significant recalibration of U.S. foreign policy objectives. Thus for Moscow, Trump — besides being mercurial and thin-skinned — represents a departure from current U.S. policy and will assemble a team with which the Russians will now have to develop new relations. A case in point is U.N. Representative-designate Nikki Hailey, Republican governor of South Carolina, who is unknown to Moscow due to her absence of foreign policy experience.

Still, some initial progress is likely, though it will almost certainly be fleeting. Once key Cabinet positions are filled (especially secretaries of State and Defense), a flurry of activity will begin.

While the agenda has yet to be shaped, a meeting between the two presidents during the first half of 2017 may occur. We should expect a significant media blitz about a reinvigorated relationship and warm personal relations between Trump and Putin.

All of this will almost certainly be short-lived.

While Trump the businessman prides himself on negotiating great deals, he has yet to demonstrate the political acumen to negotiate such a great deal with Putin — an avid student of political history and practitioner of "great game" politics.

Moreover, the Russian leader's zero-sum-game attitude and the "asks" from the Russian side (recognition of Crimea, removal of sanctions) are too great, with too little to offer Washington in return.

Carroll Colley is managing director of Highgate Consulting.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.