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Trump and Putin: Populists of a Feather?

Trump and Putin: Populists of a Feather?

Putin is taking a gamble on sowing the seeds of populism in the West.

On a personal level, Trump appears to be an admirer of Putin’s “strongman” leadership in Russia, a persona that Trump has sought to project at home. On U.S. foreign policy, Trump looks to cooperate with Russia on fighting the Islamic State in Syria and to weaken Russia’s diplomatic and military ties with Iran. On a geostrategic scale, Trump may be looking to align with Russia to challenge China’s growing influence—economic and military—in Asia and elsewhere.

On these issues, the United States needs to be wary of miscalculating power balances and intentions. In Syria, Russia has, for over a year and a half, directed its military operations toward bolstering the Assad regime against rebel groups, and not just bombing ISIS targets. Attempts to sever Russia’s relationship with Iran will also prove difficult, given their cooperation (albeit complicated) in Syria. Russia also began supplying weapons systems, such as the S-300 antiaircraft missile system, to Iran following the lifting of UN sanctions in 2016.

In Asia, despite general wariness and mistrust, Russia does not have a desire to upset its own relations with China and the benefits it accrues from trade, energy deals, and joint military and security cooperation. Furthermore, China and the United States are mutually dependent on healthy economic relations with one another, and on the strength of international economic system, to a far greater extent than Russia is on either.

Staring into the Abyss

For now, complicated relations between Russia and the United States rest on the shoulders of a populist-leaning President Trump and a populist-cynical President Putin. Issues of shared concern—such as the threats posed by ISIS—may bring the two closer together. Yet American populism, and its European counterparts, will at best present Russia with an opportunity to gain leverage abroad, and at worst serve as an example to the very political forces that the Kremlin fears most at home.

Most consequential for both nations will be whether Trump maintains his disinterest in promoting American leadership abroad. If the United States pulls back its diplomatic and soft-power engagement (as the White House’s initial State Department budget proposal indicates)—smaller states in eastern and central Europe will become more susceptible to the influence of neighboring Russia. Where there is a vacuum, it will be filled. And you can bet that Putin is eyeing the pending void with great interest.

Yulia Netesova is a journalist and currently a visiting fellow at Centre for International Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science. Torrey Taussig is a Doctoral Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her research focuses on authoritarian political dynamics and their relevancy for global security and U.S. foreign policy. 

Image: March 2014 address by Vladimir Putin. Kremlin.ru