An accident waiting to happen: Trump, Putin and the US–Russia relationship

International relations International security Donald Trump United States of America Russia (Federation)

US–Russia relations are more acrimonious than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Initial hopes in Moscow that Donald Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 US presidential election might lead to a new quality of engagement have evaporated. Today, there is little talk of strategic cooperation, much less a ‘grand bargain’. The question instead is whether Washington and Moscow can manage their many differences, and avoid a dangerous escalation of tensions.

The signs are not good. US sanctions against Russia have been strengthened. Accusations of Russian interference in the US democratic process have become more strident. Vladimir Putin’s conduct of foreign policy is increasingly assertive. And US–Russia strategic arms control agreements are close to unravelling. Meanwhile, the acute dysfunctionality of the Trump White House threatens to create fresh crises and aggravate existing ones.

The best-case scenario for the relationship in the short to medium term may be one of mutual containment, reminiscent of the Cold War. However, even this relative stability appears elusive. Trump’s political weakness and anarchic tendencies point to further destabilisation. Against the backdrop of a volatile international environment, the chances of an accident, even of direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, have increased significantly.

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