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Trump could reset ties with Russia's Putin in 'grand bargain' involving terror fight, Syria

When President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office in about three weeks, he could set American foreign policy on a course that brings U.S.-Russian relations closer and leads to progress on the war against terrorism and the Syrian crisis.

Foreign policy experts suggest that a "grand bargain" could be negotiated between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which could address the global terror war and resolution of the Syrian conflict. Yet any potential agreement comes amid high tensions between the two countries, as President Barack Obama announced retribution on Russia in response to alleged U.S. election tampering.

Putin has publicly dismissed U.S. intelligence claims of political hacking, which were widely seen as a way to undermine the U.S. government. But the Russian leader also commented on the need to improve relations between the two countries, agreeing with Trump that the situation "cannot get any worse" and that "together we will think about how to make things better."

"When there's a change of leadership and other interests coincide, then things can actually improve pretty quickly," said Robert English, a specialist on Russia and director of the University of Southern California's School of International Relations.

"Putin looked at his economy and said, 'You know what, I just cannot afford to continue to spend the kind of money that I am on the military and foreign adventures.'" -Edward Turzanski, Foreign Policy Research Institute national security expert

There's been a pattern of Russian relations going sour in the past three U.S. presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Some experts suggest Trump and Putin exchanging pleasantries is a positive step but may not be enough to fix the relationship that has suffered from long-standing differences over geopolitical issues.

Yet during Putin's Dec. 23 news conference, the Russian leader said he wanted a "business-like" relationship with the new administration.

The Russians have "a real urgency to get back to normal economic relations and get these sanctions removed," said English, who worked in the Reagan administration as a Defense department policy analyst.

Russia's economy has been under stress due to low oil prices and Western economic sanctions stemming from Russian hostilities in eastern Ukraine and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Russia's military campaign to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — which is at odds with U.S. interests — has also had an economic cost, as well as military casualties on the Russian side.

"Putin looked at his economy and said, 'You know what, I just cannot afford to continue to spend the kind of money that I am on the military and foreign adventures,'" said Edward Turzanski, an international policy and national security expert with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, October 21, 2015.
Kremlin Press Office | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow, October 21, 2015.

A moderate recovery in oil prices may help Russia in 2017, but foreign policy analysts suggest there are still reasons for Russians to improve ties — namely, the fight against global terrorism and the war against the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL.

"Putin has a problem with Islamic extremists and so does the United States," said Turzanski, who worked in the U.S. intelligence community during the Reagan administration.

The Russian envoy to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was killed Dec. 19 in an attack in Ankara that Trump blamed on a "radical Islamic terrorist." The ambassador's assassin shouted, "Do not forget Aleppo," a reference to Syria's second-largest city, and the site of a bloody and lengthy campaign by the Syrian government and its Russian ally to oust rebels armed by powers including the U.S. and Gulf states.

"The battle for Aleppo is over," said USC's English. "We're not going to get what we wanted [in Syria], which was Bashar al-Assad removed. But there is a deal out there for a managed transition where we work with Russia instead of against Russia. And maybe then we can tackle some of the other problems."

A leaked Pentagon memo dated Dec. 1 from Trump's defense transition team was obtained by the publication Foreign Policy and revealed a top priority of the president-elect is to "develop a strategy to defeat/destroy ISIS."

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with then-ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson on August 30, 2011.
Alexey Druzhinin | AFP | Getty Images
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with then-ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson on August 30, 2011.

On the whole, Turzanski said Trump probably views more cooperation in the terror fight as "a good starting point" to begin to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship. For Putin, working together with the new U.S. administration on priorities such as global terrorism and Islamist fundamentalists "won't put him in a position where it's going to cost him a lot."

One person likely to be critical in any negotiation is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump's choice for U.S. secretary of state and a longtime friend of Putin. Tillerson is known to have negotiated commercial deals with world leaders, and if confirmed by the Senate, will be asked to put his skills to use as America's top diplomat.

Others are not so certain the Russians want to take on ISIS, which now poses threats beyond the Middle East with members or its terrorist sympathizers.

"In reality, my view is that the Russians aren't all that interested in defeating ISIL," said Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russia and Eurasia program in Washington. "It's not as much of a priority to them as it is to us and our European allies."

Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, said the priority for Moscow has been keeping the Assad government in power. Recent ceasefires with opposition forces fighting Assad could form the basis of an eventual political solution for Syria. The civil war in Syria has contributed to a refugee crisis and claimed at least 400,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

"You hear a lot of talk about a 'grand bargain' — a comprehensive deal," Rumer said. "Now that they've achieved a breakthrough in Syria, they will offer something in exchange there. They will not give up Assad and they … will maintain a military and naval facility in Syria."

It's unclear how any deal with the Russians over Syria might look in a Trump administration, but experts suggest it could involve a higher level of cooperation in fighting global terrorism. Also, they suggest Putin may be motivated to give "an election present" to Trump to score points for future issues.

At the same time, better ties with Putin might help the new U.S. administration offset Chinese ambitions, which include the Beijing government's island buildup in the South China Sea and other military and economic actions.

China's defense budget — already second to the U.S. in terms of annual spending — is on track to almost double in the 2010 to 2020 period and overtake the entire Western European regional defense expenditures, according to the annual Jane's Defence Budgets Report released this month by IHS Markit. Meanwhile, it predicts Russia's defense spending will decline this year for the first time since the late 1990s.

Some analysts argue that the history of personal animosity between Obama and Putin probably doomed the chances of a thaw in icy relations between the U.S. and the Kremlin. They also say any deal Trump gets that might ease economic sanctions on Russia will still face opposition from Russian hawks in the Senate.

Then again, there are international policy experts skeptical Trump can turn things quickly with Moscow. The Iran deal made by the Obama administration, which included lifting international oil and economic sanctions against Tehran, was criticized by Trump during his campaign. Rescinding the nuclear deal could raise alarm in Russia and would also impact other countries that are part of the agreement.

"If the Trump administration attempts to reset with Russia, it will be the fourth administration in a row to try such a reset at the start," said Christopher Chivvis, associate director of the RAND's International Security and Defense Policy Center.

Chivvis, who worked as a Eurasian security policy officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the first term of the Obama administration, added: "Trump can try it too. But the reality at least in my analysis is that the U.S. and Russian interests are not aligned on most issues."