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Memo to Putin: take care

Memo to Putin: take care

After Trump triumph, perhaps a moment of calm

by Ben Robinson

Fri 11 Nov 2016

President Vladimir Putin and his political allies in the military and security services have taken cynical pleasure in the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Throughout the election process, Russian news channels and official government statements showed clear support for Trump and fierce criticism of Clinton. The former’s apparent lack of orthodox strategic thinking on global issues and his isolationist approach may have encouraged Putin to believe that a Trump victory would enable Russia to continue, and perhaps increase, its resurgent international role.

Putin should be careful what he wishes for. Trump’s campaign was notable for aggressive and uncompromising rhetoric, which caused his rivals to steer their arguments away from policy issues towards countering and retaliating against his inflammatory claims.

Applied to the international context, Trump’s divisive rhetoric could frustrate many political goals for Putin, who has grown used to a US administration led by the level-headed Barack Obama.

Putin has been able to pursue a policy of confrontational, aggressive and populistic nationalism, safe in the knowledge that it would be met by diplomatic and measured responses. Trump’s performance during the campaign suggests he would resort to confrontational rhetoric of his own. This would leave Putin in a difficult position.

Despite Russia’s aggression since the annexation of parts of Georgia in 2008, the last thing Putin wants, or can afford, is a high risk military confrontation with the US and its allies. This could force him to rein in his rhetoric, lest he enter an escalation with Trump that, like the election campaign, allowed neither side to retreat or change course.

Domestically, Trump is on a surer footing than Putin, having secured both the House of Representatives and Senate for the Republicans and received a significant mandate from the electorate in a high turnout election. This is in contrast with Putin, whose party’s success in low turn-out parliamentary elections earlier this year owed much to the barring of credible opposition parties and intensive propaganda from state-owned media.

Crucially, much of the popularity of Putin and his United Russia party stems from the perceived success of the federation’s activities in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria. These have raised Russia’s global standing in the eyes of its people.

Putin lacks the political capital – and Russia lacks the flexible political institutions – necessary to suffer a loss of face through a climb-down from verbal confrontation with Trump or a military stand-off against the US.

Putin’s optimism over a Trump presidency may not be completely unfounded. However, if Putin believes that a less stable, less predictable and less outward-looking US, with a confrontational and populist showman as its leader, will be easier to deal with in relation to pressing international and strategic issues, he is likely to be mistaken. Both leaders would be wise to tone down their rhetoric from now on, and it would not be surprising if they do so.

Markets look to political statements as an indicator of price movements. Incendiary language from the US and Russia would imply heightened volatility ahead. After the moment of Trump triumph, now may be the time for consideration and calm.

Ben Robinson is Economist at OMFIF.

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