Donald Trump’s Nov. 8 victory in the U.S. presidential elections was an unexpected victory for the Kremlin, which had used the campaign to hone its information weapons in a continuing campaign to undermine Western democratic institutions. The disclosure of Russian-backed hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s inner deliberations likely hurt Clinton by strengthening the perception that the process by which she received her party’s nomination was rigged. However, there was no evidence to support claims by some of her supporters that Trump was a Russian agent of influence. In some ways, the victory of the Republican candidate —whose unpredictability reportedly makes Russia uneasy—was less important to the Kremlin than the fact Moscow was able to exploit the campaign to show that the West is in chaotic decline.
Misgivings aside, most of Russia’s political establishment clearly preferred Trump. Speaking in the Kremlin, Putin congratulated Trump on his victory and said Russia was ready to work for better ties. In a series of election-night tweets, Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of state outlet RT, said she hopes “Trump recognizes Crimea as Russian, cancels the sanctions, comes to an agreement with us on Syria, and frees Assange.” But she highlighted how Moscow’s differences with Washington go beyond specific issues. “Corbyn. Brexit. Trump,” Simonyan added. “Any questions? The world is sick of the establishment, of its lies, and its lying, arrogant media. When the media and the authorities spend years sowing values that society isn’t ready to accept, explaining to society that it’s too backward, Trump wins.” Accordingly, the American election result was not someone’s victory, she said, but a defeat of “aggressive liberalism.”
During the campaign Trump, made comments on several issues that should be music to the ears of the Russian establishment. He seemed to endorse Moscow’s approach to the war in Syria, urged Congress to “look into” recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, and said Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine is “Germany’s problem.” The Kremlin welcomes Trump’s pledge to rebalance U.S. security alliances and push NATO members to pay more for their own defense. More importantly, Trump’s apparent call for a narrower understanding of U.S. national interests and global retrenchment could encourage Russian assertiveness in the Mideast and in the former Soviet republics. These prospects have been especially alarming for NATO’s frontline states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—for whom U.S. power has been the greatest bulwark against Russian aggression. As CEPA’s briefs this week demonstrate, the message from pro-Kremlin media in Central and Eastern Europe is that the United States and NATO are in retreat.
It is far too early in the presidential transition to assess whether U.S. commitment to the defense of individual allies or, more broadly, NATO’s eastern flank will radically change. While the results have clearly disappointed some allies, how Trump will govern is still unknown. Election rhetoric often does not match how a candidate acts in office. Moreover, Article 5 of the NATO Treaty—which commits all member states to consider an attack against one as an attack against all—was ratified by the Senate and is not subject to presidential revocation. Finally, the actual content of policy will also depend largely on Congress and Trump’s national security team.
Every U.S. president since the Cold War’s end has come into office with better bilateral ties with Russia high on his agenda. Each time the effort has floundered due to differences in assymetries of power, geopolitical outlook, values and mutual mistrust. With Trump’s election, all signs point to the beginning of a new cycle, but it’s premature to expect things to end differently than in the past.