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The thaw can wait

In his first two years in office, the U.S. president has failed to achieve the rapprochement with Russia he promised to seek during during the 2016 campaign, and there is reason to believe that concrete results on this front will elude him over the next two years

by Fabio Squillante
24 January 2019
10 min read
byFabio Squillante
24 January 2019
10 min read

Had his party performed well in the mid-term elections, Donald Trump would probably have accelerated relations with Russia, trying first to avoid nuclear rearmament, and then seeking collaboration on other plans, with a view to gradually overcoming the economic sanctions imposed on Moscow.

The president’s party continues to control the Senate, so it is unlikely that the investigation into the relations between members of his staff and emissaries of Vladimir Putin will end with a conviction. The House, however, is now firmly controlled by the Democratic opposition, which will certainly redouble its investigative efforts, aiming at impeachment or, at the very least, making Trump unpopular enough to stop his being re-elected. It is a difficult game to play for the Democrats but also for the president, who had to give up a planned bilateral meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Domestic and international factors

Just a few days before the summit, on November 25, two Ukrainian patrol boats and a tugboat were forcibly detained by the Russian Navy at the entrance to the Kerch Strait, which separates the Crimea—annexed by Moscow in 2014—from the Russian region of Krasnodar. At least three Ukrainian sailors were injured in the action; the 24 members of the crews were arrested and 15 of them sentenced to two months in prison for crossing the border illegally. The Ukrainian reaction was very tough. President Petro Poroshenko invoked NATO intervention in the Black Sea and declared a state of war in all the regions bordering with Russia and Moldova. Moscow accused him of wanting to prevent free elections in the presidential elections to be held in March, because the regions in which the state of war is in force are essentially Russian-speaking. The polls, moreover, show Poroshenko to be in trouble and seem to favor his rival, Julija Timoshenko, who was vigorously supported by Hillary Clinton when she headed the State Department.

The day after the Russian-Ukrainian naval confrontation, Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is involved in the “Russiagate” investigation, changed one aspect of his previous testimony, stating that Trump had intended to build a hotel in Moscow when he was already a candidate for the White House. The two facts—the naval confrontation and Cohen’s new testimony—prompted Trump to cancel the meeting with Putin, which had been carefully prepared by National Security Adviser John Bolton during a recent visit to Moscow. The two did manage to exchange a few words on the sidelines of the summit. During the press conference at the end of the Buenos Aires summit, Putin himself gave the U.S. president his version of the facts in the Kerch Strait. It is nevertheless clear that the Democrats—and others besides them—intend to do everything they can to hinder the development of relations between the two leaders. It is difficult for staff alone to find agreements on complex issues, despite the two leaders speaking to each other and having shown on several occasions that they can find common ground. It happened in Syria, for example, where Russians and Americans conducted military operations for months without incident. This cooperation also took place in the management of oil prices, an area in which Putin accepted Trump’s request to restrict prices. The Russian budget, moreover, has been set to hold at a price of 40 dollars a barrel, about half what is needed by Saudi Arabia to avoid spending cuts and an increase in its deficit.

Trump would like Russia to become a strategic ally in the battle for the containment of China, and Putin is well aware of the history of his country, which was dominated for some 400 years by an invader from the East. While China has 1.3 billion inhabitants, Russia has just under 147 million, only 36 million of them living in Siberia. The growth of Chinese power is, for Moscow, the strategic risk par excellence, but the hostility of the United States is pushing Russia to establish ever closer ties with China. The level of distrust between the two Asian giants, however, can be seen in concrete decisions, such as the route of the “New Silk Road,” which crosses dozens of countries but circumvents Russia.

The containment of China and the role of the E.U.

During his first two years in the White House, the U.S. president has failed to achieve the rapprochement with Russia he had announced during the election campaign, and there is reason to believe that concrete results on this front will elude him even over the next two years. The leaders of the two countries may be doing their best to avoid friction, but the objective situation favors competition. In the United States, moreover, no one considers Russia an ally, and the idea of attracting it into the western orbit in order to counteract Chinese growth more effectively should not involve strengthening Moscow’s strategic position.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Washington has always done its utmost to prevent even economic integration between Russia and the European Union. Republicans and Democrats have strongly and successfully opposed the creation of the South Stream gas pipeline, which was supposed to bring Russian gas to Italy, across the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. Similarly, U.S. politicians on both sides are still opposed to the doubling of Nord Stream, the gas pipeline that supplies Germany with gas from Russia through the Baltic Sea, “avoiding” Ukraine and Poland.  In repeated communications with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump has insisted that Germany should buy liquefied natural gas from the U.S., rather than cheaper Russian methane. Yet, if not to Europe, Moscow would sell it to China, alleviating that country's dependence on oil imported by sea.

Moreover, Putin may have hoped for Trump to beat Clinton in the elections, but that doesn't mean he is willing to support him on every occasion. As a result of the harsh political battle in the United States, the president is spending more time defending himself against opposition attacks and paying less attention to Putin's maneuvers to diminish the erosion of Russia’s area of influence. The occupier of the White House evidently has two priorities: 1) to contain China militarily to hinder its expansionism in the Pacific, diplomatically to remove North Korea from Beijing’s protection, and finally to limit the commercial and economic strength of the country; 2) to reduce the “independence” ambitions of the European Union and keep the continent firmly in the West and under Washington’s control. According to Trump’s strategists, this is the only way to win the battle with the Chinese, and they are probably right.

As for Russia, the thaw can clearly wait and, while waiting for relations with the U.S. administration to strengthen, which could come with a second term presidential mandate for Trump, it can be kept at bay with sanctions, with the heavy military engagement in Syria and with the continuing tensions along the band that runs from Finland to the Caucasus, through Poland, Ukraine, and Romania.

Tsar Vladimir between triumphs and shadows

Following his triumph in the presidential elections last March, which saw him returned to power with 77 percent of the vote, Vladimir Putin began his fourth term by focusing on economic growth and budget consolidation. Among his efforts was a reform of the pension system, which, having significantly raised the retirement age, caused considerable discontent. The budget was set to ensure balance even with an oil price at $40 a barrel. An approach which, incidentally, was also useful in the discussions held with Donald Trump, who called for a reduction in oil prices. For Moscow, in fact, it was easier to agree to the cut demanded by Washington than for Riyadh, which can only balance its budget if the price per barrel is $80.

Despite the discontent about pension reform and the defeats suffered by his party, United Russia, in some local elections, Putin maintains a firm grip on power and broad popular consensus, a consensus also supported by controversies in the West regarding cases such as doping among Olympic athletes. The economic sanctions adopted following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused the national economy to contract significantly and led to a sharp drop in the ruble, which increased the cost of imports, but favored exports. The government has launched an extensive program of subsidies for agricultural and industrial companies in an attempt to encourage the production of good quality mass consumer goods and to reduce the country’s dependence on imports from abroad.

The military intervention in Syria has allowed Russia to resume a leading role in the Middle East, maintaining a strategic position in the Mediterranean. The conflict also showcased the country’s military,  one of the few cutting-edge industries in Russia. Putin has also shown that he is able to deal with such diverse interlocutors as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, maintaining cordial relations and collaboration with all three.

His greatest failure lies perhaps in not being able to restart relations with Washington. The head of the Kremlin placed his bets on Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential elections, but investigations into the so-called “Russiagate” have so far prevented Trump from starting a constructive dialog with Putin, and this is unlikely to happen before the end of the U.S. president’s current mandate.

Putin’s other serious failure lies in the ever closer relations between Kiev and the West. Despite annexing Crimea and controlling the separatist areas of the Donbass, Moscow has in fact lost its influence over Ukraine, a country which is crucial to Russia’s strategic security. Moreover, economic support for regions torn away from Kiev is adding to the costs that Russia bears for sustaining the separatist republics of Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara) and military intervention in Syria. The expenditure is considerable for an economy like Russia’s; its GDP in 2017 was just 57.46 percent of California’s.

Author: Fabio Squillante

Editor-in-chief of Agenzia Nova, of which he was founder, was correspondent from Moscow for the Italian agency Ansa and for the newspaper La Stampa, for which he also followed the activities of the EU Institutions from Brussels and Strasbourg. He was responsible for the regional service of the AdnKronos agency.