Photo: Reuters/Dmitri Lovetsky
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expanding his country's influence. Photo: Reuters/Dmitri Lovetsky

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s projection as a ‘killer’ by Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly signifies the attention the specter of Trump-Putin relations continues to receive in the US.

While an automatic and easy transformation of US-Russia relations under the Trump administration doesn’t seem to fall in the realm of possibilities, what however can prevent it is not just media’s projection of Putin as a ‘killer’ but the conflicting policy positions that Trump has laid down in the first three weeks of his presidency.

Notwithstanding Trump’s election campaign and ‘pro-Russia’ rhetoric, his elevation into presidency has forced him to rethink a lot of things, particularly the questions of the US-EU relations and the future of NATO—questions that directly relate to the future trajectory of US-Russia bilateral relations as well.

For one thing, the transformation of sanctions-filled relations into sanction-free relations is not going to happen without creating problems of new sorts — problems that are likely to open significant cracks in Trump’s plan for Russia. It is likely to go down a dusty road due to Trump’s other conflicting objectives.

For instance, Trump’s reaffirmation of NATO alliance and the reported willingness to facilitate Montenegro’s entrance into NATO — a step that would necessarily infuriate Russia — are the proverbial ‘two step backward’ taken to balance the rhetoric of his campaign with the institutional realities of America’s relations with its European allies and Russia.

Talks about inclusion of Montenegro’s inclusion is emerging at a time when its officials had recently accused Russia of attempting a military coup.

In this context, Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn’s backing of Montenegro’s entrance into NATO is likely to fly in the face of Trump’s attempt to try to befriend Russia, as Russia sees NATO expansion as aggression against its own interests.

What has added a lot more significance and weight to the question of continuation and expansion of NATO is the aggressive attitude the Trump administration has adopted toward the Middle East in general, and Iran in particular.

In this context. Trump’s anti-IS rhetoric notwithstanding, what remains unclear is how he will attempt to reconcile Russia when he has already aggravated relations with Iran, and when his officials are reportedly working on “driving a wedge” between Russia and Iran.

According to a report:

The Trump administration is exploring ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State” said senior administration, European and Arab officials involved in the policy discussions.

This strategy appears to be how the Trump administration seems to have thought about reconciling Trump’s two contradictory objectives i.e., better relations with Russia and aggressively challenge Iran at the same time.

The “driving the wedge” strategy is highly unlikely to work under the given circumstances.

This dualism wouldn’t work to the advantage of the US due potentially to the interlinked nature of Russia’s presence in Syria, which has now been extended to almost 50 years, and the nature of Iran-Syria relations.

Iran is the key to Russia’s long-term presence in Syria just as Syria is key to Iran’s presence in and reach to Israel’s “underbelly” i.e., Lebanon.

Separating Russia from Iran is, therefore, a task that is much harder than tilling the frozen-ground of US-Russia relations. In fact, the dual policy is likely to going to add more snow to the frozen ground (read: Russia has already rejected Trump’s labelling of Iran as a terrorist state).

While Russia has, as could be expected of it, shown its willingness to normalize its relations with the US, it is unlikely to achieve it at the cost of alienating Iran or even if Trump administration shows its willingness to change its stance toward Ukraine.

While it may very well be possible that the Trump administration may use the Ukraine question and the issue of lifting sanctions to bargain with Russia on Iran and Syria, what remains unclear in this behalf is the kind of the deal that may ultimately come into place.

While lawmakers in the US have already started to expect some kind of a deal with the US as they are opposing lifting of sanctions without getting concessions from Russia, we are yet to hear from Russia about the extent to which it can and cannot go, particularly with regard to Iran and Syria. What we should therefore expect in the near future is not deterioration but both parties working out a deal

It might take some time because if the challenge for the US is to separate Russia and Iran, the challenge for Russia is to separate the US from Iran and Syria and retain what it has already gained in Syria in terms of long term military presence with or without Assad in power.

Salman Rafi

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan based independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His areas of interest include South and West Asian Geo-politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at