US relations with Russia continue to deteriorate, but that could all change from January 20.
W hen analysing the past it can be easy to get caught up in grand theories and frameworks and to forget the ability of a rogue actor to change everything. In the contorted history of US-Russian relations, Donald Trump may go down alongside Mikhail Gorbachev as one such figure.
Although American politics remains as partisan as ever, one of the few things Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the government should respond firmly to apparent interference from the Russian government in last year’s US election. Such an intrusion into America’s democratic process is seen as unprecedented and unacceptable, and leaders of both parties have been quick to call for sanctions.
Only very few politicians have backed inaction. But one of them, the president-elect, will soon be in charge of foreign policy.
In response to the alleged hacks, Barack Obama last week ordered 35 Russian diplomats to return home. Republicans stopped short of actually complimenting the president but most senior figures - including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John McCain - all agreed it was the right decision. Mr. McCain called the hacks “an act of war.”
Although Russian involvement has not been proved beyond doubt, the evidence is clear. As Hillary Clinton often claimed during the election campaign, 17 federal agencies have said they believe the Kremlin was behind the breaches.
Mr. Trump, however, remains sceptical, citing his own expertise on the matter. “I know a lot about hacking," he told reporters, "and hacking is a very hard thing to prove, so it could be somebody else.”
Extraordinarily, Mr. Trump sided with Mr. Putin against his own president. When Mr. Putin decided not to retaliate by expelling US diplomats, instead inviting their children to the Kremlin for New Year’s Eve, Mr. Trump declared the move “very smart” - and pinned the tweet to the top of his account for good measure.
We are therefore at a strange juncture. The latest events mark a new low for US-Russian relations in the post-Cold War era, yet the man about to take the reins in Washington looks set to take a very different course from those who have gone before.
Will Mr. Trump continue to ignore the cyber-attacks when he comes to power? He certainly has a strong motive to do so, since accepting that the Kremlin had intervened on his behalf would both be acutely embarrassing and cast his victory into doubt.
Mr. Trump may not be so quick to defend Mr. Putin as the election fades from memory. But if he does continue with his current stance, some observers fear the US could be in real trouble.
“If Trump chooses to pursue the course he has hinted at... the cost to America and its allies will be far higher than simply turning a blind eye to much of the Kremlin's bad behaviour,” Molly McKew, a foreign policy and strategy consultant, told The World Weekly. “Trump's endorsement of the Kremlin's tactics would exact an enormous cost on our allies and on our own country.”
Mr. Trump: the Rogue One
On the other hand, the outgoing administration was unable to stop Mr. Putin annexing Crimea and intervening brutally in the war in Syria. Could Mr. Trump’s unorthodox approach have more success?
His bluntness may allow him to be straightforward with the American people in a way Mr. Obama wasn’t about the illicit tactics used by the Kremlin. And his refusal to bow to convention could allow the US to adapt to this modern form of warfare.
“Our toolbox should be as full and comprehensive as the Kremlin's,” Ms. McKew told TWW. “The tools might be technological or cyber; financial or economic; cultural, informational or diplomatic. This can include targeting Russian state media, Russian assets, and the assets of individuals who have profited from the Kremlin's kleptocracy. We need to identify our weak points, ask the right questions, and develop a range of responses to each.”
Whether the US political elite likes it or not, relations with Russia are sure to change. Mr. Trump’s apparent chumminess with Mr. Putin could be disastrous for the US. But if he wants to prove he’s “no puppet” and decides to confront Russia in the same way that he has confronted his own country’s political establishment, then perhaps it could prove an unexpected boon in managing this trickiest of relationships.
Many Americans maintain, under their banner of ‘not my President’, that Mr. Trump is the wrong man for the White House. But the wrong man in the right place could perhaps make all the difference.