The inauguration of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States caused anger, anxiety, and demonstrations across the world. Few were the countries that celebrated the event. Unsurprisingly, Russia was one of those few (Israel being another).
Both the elites and the ordinary people in Russia greeted the new US president, and even some in the political opposition saw the potential for positive developments under his administration.
The reason for Russia’s warm welcome of President Trump had nothing to do with claims in the US media that he was “a Kremlin agent” or that “Russian hackers” helped him win the election. It had much more to do with expectations among the elites, the ordinary people, and even the intelligentsia, of a new direction in US-Russian relations that would de-escalate internal and external tensions and favour their interests.
Many times during the past decade Russian President Vladimir Putin and his subordinates claimed that the world order that emerged after the collapse of the socialist camp and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not only unjust but also illegitimate.
There were no new foundational documents and institutions to replace those created at the end of World War II with the Yalta Conference. In the eyes of the Russian leadership, no country signed any obligation to consider the United States the only superpower and therefore nobody should comply with its leadership.
This logic explains the confrontations over Ukraine and Syria. For the Kremlin, both were used to demonstrate that there are “red lines” and that there is a need for a new world order. Russian foreign policy analysts have repeatedly claimed that the new US president might be ready to negotiate the creation of a new system of international relations to replace Yalta and the current unipolar model.
The “new Yalta” would redistribute spheres of responsibility to recognised great powers. The Kremlin, of course, sees Russia as one of them (alongside with the US, China, and perhaps Europe).
Among the ruling elite, there is also a much more modest expectation from Trump concerning matters of self-interest. Since at least 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and Russian support to the anti-Kiev rebels in Eastern Ukraine, many members of the ruling class experienced the effects of sanctions targeting them. With Trump in the White House, they expect the sanctions to be lifted, if he indeed wants to start a new chapter in Russian-US relations.
Ordinary Russians were also pleased with Trump’s victory. Part of the people’s joy we can blame on the extensively flattering coverage of his campaign and victory in the Russian media, but there were also very concrete reasons for it.
One is, again, hope for lifting of the economic sanctions. Ironically enough, ordinary Russians are actually suffering much more from the “counter-sanctions” on trade imposed by the Russian government on the EU and the US, which effectively raised the prices of basic goods and eliminated some types of quality foodstuffs from grocery stores.
Still, with this new stage in the Russian-US relations, those counter-sanctions could be lifted as well. But even if the sanctions remain in place, improving relations with the US does come as a relief for the Russian people. The confrontations of the past two years encouraged not only patriotic feelings among Russians, but also feelings of anxiety. In the early fall of 2016, discussions in the Russian public space about the possibility of war with the US started for the first time since the Cold War. Trump’s victory was perceived as a sign that at least there will be no war.
The opposition intelligentsia in Russia is mostly sympathetic to their US peers, the Democrats, in academia and the NGO community, and they also despise Donald Trump’s politics and style.
But even the opposition took a breath of relief with Trump’s victory. The fact is that since the winter protests of 2011-2012 against the rigged elections and the return of Putin to the presidency, the Russian regime has used the strategy of smearing its critics by accusing them of links to “evil American influences”.
That led to a legal, political, and media pressure on activists, many of whom have emigrated since 2012, and on independent civil society organisations which were subject to restrictions by a new “foreign agents” law. Thus, hostile relations with the US were instrumental in subduing the independent civil society. Nobody knows whether the regime will cease using this approach, but it would make sense to do so after America stops being a foe.
Even within the more radical opposition that would call such a consideration a “Stockholm syndrome”, there are some hopes that President Trump will prove to be a more difficult partner for Putin. This faction considered Barack Obama’s foreign policy a failure, not because it alienated Putin and imposed sanctions, but because that policy did not bring the desired results. They claim that Obama’s perceived “weakness” encouraged Putin to adopt more aggressive policies both at home and abroad, and they hope Trump will be a “tough Republican” keeping Putin quiet.
Time will tell what direction US-Russian relations will embark on. But if history is to have any predictive value, we should not be too optimistic. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama started their presidencies with rapprochement between the two countries – Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, while Obama was eager for a “reset” policy. Both ended their second terms at a low point in relations (with the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and with Syria and the hacking scandal in 2016, respectively).
Will this pattern be repeated with President Trump; will we witness a honeymoon for a year or two and the return to hostility in the longer term? The probability is high, but nothing is for sure.
After all, we know that the Trump presidency will be over in 2020 or 2024, but don’t know when the Putin presidency will end. It may happen before Trump’s term expires. And that would definitely open a new chapter in the troubled Russian-US relations.
Ivan Kurilla is a professor of history at the European University at Saint Petersburg.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.