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Russia's Trumpian pipe dream

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Andrey Gurkov
November 11, 2016

Vladimir Putin, it seems, bet on the right horse. But the new US president will disappoint Russia in terms of foreign policy and harm it with a shift in energy policy, says Andrey Gurkov.

Kombobild Trump/Putin

When news of Donald Trump's election victory reached the State Duma in Moscow, there was applause. Russia's parliamentarians celebrated the Republican's victory as if he were one of their own. The Kremlin announced its fondness for the outsider early on, more than a year ago. Now, at the end of the marathon US election campaign, Russia's political elite sees itself vindicated: President Vladimir Putin, once again, bet on the right horse.

Moscow hoping for an end to sanctions

Moscow's preference for Trump is in part based on its decisive rejection of Hillary Clinton: The Kremlin had absolutely no desire to see the former secretary of state in the White House, for they expected a tough stance toward Russia - whether regarding Ukraine, Syria or human rights issues. On the other hand, the Kremlin was very happy about signals being sent during Trump's campaign. The real-estate mogul repeatedly expressed his desire for rapprochement with Russia, even suggesting that he would accept Russia's annexation of Crimea.

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Andrey Gurkov writes for DW's Russian department

And that, it seems, is the nub of the issue. Putin's hope was and is that Trump will be an unconventional US president and absolve him of his sins against international law - such as the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula - and drop sanctions against Russia. Such hopes are bolstered by feelings that one could do business with an authoritarian macho like Trump, maybe even become friends - after all, both parties seem to be on the same wavelength, personally and ideologically. Donald Trump as a kind of second Silvio Berlusconi as it were, only much more powerful.

Can the plan work? No one knows how the political neophyte will act once he gets into the Oval Office - if he will listen to his advisors, if he will respect his Republican party, Congress and European allies. The plan, hatched in Moscow, of a partnership between two powers that view each other as equals and divide the world into respective spheres of influence, as was the case during the Yalta Conference in 1945, has a number of flaws.

'Great America' versus 'Multipolar World'

After all, Donald Trump was voted into office on the promise of restoring American greatness. Such greatness consists of two main elements: economic success at home and strong leadership abroad. It is doubtful that Trump will be able to bring back jobs from China and elsewhere for his Rust-Belt voters as promised. But in any case, structural changes for doing so will take a long time to complete. Will Trump, the highly competitive and success-hungry achiever, have the patience to wait?

Pussy Riot takes on Donald Trump

He will also have the international stage as a place to sell America's perceived greatness via spectacular actions. And who has been the most vocal critic of America's claims of global leadership? Vladimir Putin. His own vehemently propagated concept of a multipolar world, which in his eyes points to a Russian ascendency, is not compatible with Trump's idea of America as the greatest nation on earth.

That does not mean that a confrontation between the world's two most powerful nuclear nations is as inevitable as so many fear. But an impulsive Trump, with his American chauvinism, could quickly be tempted to demonstratively cut Putin down to size should he get in the United States' way. It could happen, for instance, in the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" in Syria, thus quickly waking Russia from its dream of a "power axis" between Washington and Moscow.

Shale revolution threatens Russia     

Yet, even if Donald Trump keeps his promise of foreign policy isolationism, his economic program will still be bad news for Moscow. It directly threatens Russia's livelihood - energy export profits. The new American president could not care less about protecting the environment, and says that he will invest heavily in fossil fuels.

Symbolbild Ukraine Russland Gaspipeline
Russia's economy relies heavily on energy exportsImage: AFP/Getty Images/S. Supinsky

By scaling back environmental standards, or perhaps even offering direct federal support, he could push shale oil production in the US in order to create jobs and, above all, to strengthen US energy independence. That would drive already-low global oil prices - from which Russia is suffering badly - down even further. And strengthening shale-oil production, while at the same time using coal to produce electricity, would allow America to export much more liquid gas to Europe, and thus cut into the profits of the current market giant: Russia's Gazprom.

In short: The applause at Russia's State Duma seems to have been a bit premature. In the end, Donald Trump's election victory will, for Putin's Russia, likely turn out similarly to the annexation of Crimea - a shiny tactical victory and a disastrous strategic defeat.