The presidential transition in the United States following the election of Donald Trump in November has been one of the most interesting transition periods in recent years. In part, it has to do with the difficulty in predicting and speculating the names that the president will appoint to the senior positions in the administration — including secretaries of state, defense and the national security advisor.
One of the most debated names during this period was Mike Flynn, who was appointed in the very early stages of the transition as the national security advisor to the White House. Flynn’s resignation from the national security advisor position last week generated similar debates to those that had emerged during his appointment.
The debate on the potential impact of the Russian government and people affiliated with the Russian government on the U.S. elections has been a frequently cited and speculated issue during and in the aftermath of the November election. With the resignation of Mike Flynn, this issue came back to the forefront once again. There are some unanswered questions concerning the details of the ongoing investigation. Last week, the New York Times broke a story that some of Trump’s team members had regularly met with the members of Russian intelligence before the election. This issue became the dominant topic during President Trump’s press conference yesterday.
The resignation of Flynn was an apparent example of the establishment’s dissatisfaction with Trump’s Russian policies. Yet, U.S.-Russian relations, which have a huge impact on global politics, must not be a topic in U.S. daily politics
Trump has reiterated that he has not been in touch with anyone in Russia, and in addition, he has done no business dealings with the country. The question at this point is what will be the future of U.S.-Russia relations following the speculation that already led to the resignation of the shortest-serving national security advisor in recent history.
President Trump’s press conference signaled the potential direction of bilateral relations. He responded to repeated questions about Russia by defending his former national security advisor and criticized the media and the leaks from the intelligence agencies about the investigation. He said: “What he did wasn’t wrong … Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So, it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. … I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job.” Trump also repeatedly asserted that he has no ties to Russia. There have been varied reactions from different sections of society.
There are calls for launching a broader investigation through the policymakers in Congress and far more curious questions from the media about Russia. Under these circumstances, it will be challenging for foreign policy makers to conduct normal foreign relations with Russia. Whoever launches any initiative with Russia will be under strong scrutiny in regards to its ties with the Russian government. This situation, of course, will impact the foreign policy of the Trump administration in the coming days. Especially if the pressure becomes unavoidable or if the previous policy proposals of the Trump administration in regards to relations with Russia will require updating or modification.There is already a challenging agenda in relations, including: the conflict in Syria, the Ukraine issue, the election-hacking controversy and the fight against Daesh. Over the past few days, President Trump has also tweeted about Crimea and wrote, “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”
In the meantime, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with his Russian counterpart and reportedly urged Russia to withdraw its forces from Eastern Ukraine. In his statement following the meeting, he stressed the fact that the U.S. will work with Russia when it finds areas of cooperation “that will benefit the American people.” He said, “Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies.” President Trump also mentioned his willingness to cooperate with Russia when he can and stated in the aforementioned press conference that: “It would be great if we could get along with Russia, just so you understand that. Now tomorrow, you’ll say, ‘Donald Trump wants to get along with Russia, this is terrible.’ It’s not terrible. It’s good. We had Hillary Clinton try and do a reset.” However, despite the reiteration of this commitment, it looks like it will be harder for the Trump administration to continue its current rhetoric and policy position about Russia.
The relations between Russia and the U.S. will increasingly become a domestic and political issue for the U.S. The political polarization in the country may make the situation even more difficult for the Trump administration to conduct its desired policy with Russia. In order to avoid such a gridlock, the Trump administration may need to launch a transparent investigation to respond to the criticisms and concerns in regards to Russia. The bilateral relationship is one of the most important connections for international security, and the direction of relations will be important, not only for two countries, but also for the international system as a whole.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on February 17, 2017.