Putin-Trump Best Friends, Not Forever
Vladimir Putin and President-elect Donald Trump should - on paper - be best political friends, and indeed they appear to be. Both have a tendency to use aggression in their favour; both use the top-down style of management; and finally, both Trump and Putin are strongmen who have reached the highest offices in their lands with the mandate of restoring their nations to their former glories, “great again”.
This apparent closeness, however, is bound to falter, just as it has for strongman leaders of the past. Unlike cultural and regional ties between other leaders, such as those between European heads of state, strongmen leaders are united by little more than leadership style and swagger. It is hard to see why the Putin-Trump relationship won’t succumb to such a fate considering, once the machismo wares off, there is little on an economic or ideological front that’ll hold the two leaders together. The lack of underlying principles means relationships fracture easily and often the two nations fall out spectacularly.
It’s happened before and will happen again. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact collapsed after nearly two years when Hitler invaded the USSR, and it has occurred numerous times since, notably Erdogan who turned on Assad during the 2011 uprising and backed the rebels instead of the regime. Since the leaders are not united ideologically, there is usually a trigger that sets off the determination of the, previously friendly, relationship. For Erdogan this was the goal of retaining a carefully managed image of a democratic moderate Islamist government.
For the Putin-Trump relationship, this trigger could be anything, although it’s safe to say global economics will play a pivotal role. The disparity between the Russian and American economies is staggering. For one, the dominance of the dollar on the international stage ensures Russia will always lag behind; the rouble is unlikely to assume the role of standard global currency anytime soon. Moreover, the American economy – assuming nothing changes under Trump – is far more attractive to investors than its Russian counterpart. Annual net inflows of FDI to the US in 2015 were USD379 Bn, whilst for Russia it was a feeble USD6.5 Bn; a mere 6 percent of the corresponding American figure. Once the figures are adjusted for population, the US still beats Russia by a factor of 9.5. Perhaps this disparity is due to the Russian reliance on oil, which forms roughly 65 percent of export revenues. For the US, this figure is a mere 8 percent, the result of which is a diversified and relatively more resilient US economy.
As Putin translates this economic weakness to aggression abroad, Russia and the West are likely to come into closer contact in the next few years through more Crimea-esque annexations or proxy wars. Indeed, both leaders have expressed the defeat of Islamic State as a priority, however the two will likely clash over Iran – a Russian ally but Trump’s foe. For Russia, Iran is a natural ally in the region, with mutual critique of Western foreign policy and military cooperation in Syria being just a few reasons why. This closeness is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, with Moscow’s veto on the UN Security Council being important to protect Tehran from Western-led sanctions. For Russia, this relationship allows the Kremlin to use its political links in Tehran for leverage with Washington, as well as be a major supplier of arms. After Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and the sanctions that followed, this apparent closeness was increased as both became “victims” of Western sanctions. Donald Trump, however, is less fond of Iran. Although his track record is sparse an erratic, the President-elect has expressed concern over the Iran nuclear deal secured by the outgoing administration, a position that jeopardises the progress made in the region and a policy at odds with Putin who has publicly warned against violating the deal.
There is little to be said about overlap of ideals between the two leaders and this ultimately means there will be little to hold the two together. Putin not retaliating to Obama’s expulsion of Russian diplomats signals that he has moved on from the current administration, however with the incoming administration bringing controversy and global instability along with it, history tells us there will be a spark that ignites the bridge between the two strongmen, however stable that bridge may look right now.