In her farewell address, Samantha Power, outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, characterized the present Russian regime under Vladimir Putin as a “major threat,” adding:
Having defeated the forces of fascism and communism, we now confront the forces of authoritarianism and nihilism.
Given that Power will be leaving office as the Trump administration takes over, it is odd timing for her – and the Obama administration – to decide now that Russia is a threat which must be combated. They allowed Russia to annex the Crimea from Ukraine and exercise control over parts of eastern Ukraine (a region heavily populated by ethnic Russians). As Russia worked on expanding its power and influence over the past eight years, the Obama administration allowed it to happen. Now, just before Trump takes office they have cast Russia as the next great threat which the U.S. must counter and left the problem to the incoming administration to deal with.
Trump has nominated South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to succeed Power as the U.N. ambassador. In her confirmation hearings she expressed concern at Russia’s actions in Eastern Europe, but also the need to work with Russia on issues such as fighting ISIS. For the outgoing administration to cast Russia in the same light as fascism and communism puts Haley and Trump in a difficult position. They must attempt to work with Russia on problems which affect both countries (such as terrorism) while resisting Russian attempts at territorial expansion (particularly in the Ukraine) while also avoiding a direct conflict. At the same time, any attempt to work with Russia will be seen by Trump’s detractors as evidence of Russian influence over him.
It seems that the stage has been set for U.S. – Russian relations to assume increased importance over the next few years. It will be interesting to see how Trump’s foreign policy team navigates the hazards which await them.