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Trump may trump Putin at his own game

As the dust settles after the election of Donald Trump, Fiona Clark looks at what this new era of US-Russian relations may bring.

For many, coming to terms with the election of Donald Trump to the White House is like going through the five stages of grief. Denial comes first, then anger followed by bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Acceptance of the unknown - a whole new era not just the way the US is governed internally but how it reacts to the rest of the world.

One of the few countries that has met his election with enthusiasm is Russia. Its parliament greeted the news with applause as legislators proclaimed that Trump is the man who could succeed in resetting relations between the two countries because he doesn't carry the anti-Russian baggage of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

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Russian Trump fans celebrate

Indeed, as has been revealed by a plethora of articles, Trump has a long history of relations with Russia. Since the mid-80's he has tried with varying success to make property development deals and has built himself a team of powerful allies in Russia. And as the Western media contemplates just how much of a role the Kremlin played in his election - and now in the formation of his government - acceptance may well be shifting to fear.

It seems as though his election plays right into President Vladimir Putin's hands. For the past few years Putin has tested boundaries of the West's patience - the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine, South Ossetia's constantly moving border, and more recently the flexing of military might with the parade of nuclear-capable missiles near the Baltic countries and the rain of bombs in Syria.

The Baltics and Ukraine, especially, have good reason to worry about a Trump presidency as he's already said he isn't sure if either are really worth fighting for. It's as if Trump is giving Putin a green light to ramp up what's said to be his expansionist agenda. Out-going President Barack Obama is clearly worried. He's urged Trump to stand up to Putin.

Saving face

Admiral Kusnezow Russland Flugzeugträger (picture-alliance/dpa/Dover Marina)

Russia is keen to protect its interests in Syria

And this is where things become interesting. Here we have two men who seem on the surface to be leagues apart. Trump - brash, loud, flashy, and unpredictable. Putin on the other hand is cold, quiet and disciplined - a product of his KGB past. But they have a number of similarities too. Both share a natural talent for manipulating public opinion. Both say one thing and do another. Both love power and both are narcissists. And that may play out in unexpected ways.

Let's take Syria for example. Russia's press says a Trump presidency will help the Kremlin in its fight against terrorists in Syria. There's no mention of what will happen when it comes to making decisions on the fate of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Will Trump just settle for a victory against the "Islamic State" group and walk away handing Russia the keys to Damascus and its political future? That seems unlikely given the balance of power issues, the alliance with Saudi Arabia and the oil and gas interests in the region.

And while Trump is seemingly proposing a much more internally focused set of policies, you can't help thinking he's going to like strutting his stuff on the international stage. Eventually though someone will explain the area's strategic interests and he'll be expected to maintain the status quo, so this won't be as easy for Russia as it thinks.

And if Putin does decide to push the envelope of his borders just a little further and Americans start calling their new President weak or a "pussy," the chances are he's going to rise to the bait. After all, he is a man who does not like to lose. But he'll be coming head-to-head with someone of a very similar ilk.

The only saving grace in this situation is that Putin is a very clever man. He may be an opportunist but the risks he takes are calculated. In some ways Trump in the White House may actually rein him in. He won't want to provoke someone he thinks he can work with. He'll play nice - pushing for the sanctions to be removed so that Europe, already divided over their effectiveness, is forced to follow suit. Just how long this honeymoon of pleasantries lasts though is anyone's guess.

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