But it’s too soon for critics of Trump’s policy to celebrate, much as it was too soon for conservative Moscow to celebrate Trump’s election and swearing in.
Flynn’s resignation is certainly a setback for the Russians. “I think it’s a loss for Moscow in the sense that Flynn is a person who was in contact with the ambassador and maybe someone else, I don’t know, and so they had developed some kind of common language, which is very useful to starting negotiations,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, an independent political consultant in Moscow who once advised Putin. “He’s a firm person, and is that kind of conservative that is beloved in Moscow. He’s easy to understand.” With Flynn gone, it would appear that Moscow had lost an “in” to the Trump administration.
But that would overstate the case. “They have other entrees,” one senior State Department official told me. Flynn was just a messenger, in other words, and there are other people in the West Wing who are equally motivated to strike some kind of grand bargain with Putin, including White House adviser Steve Bannon and the president himself. And if Trump and Putin both want the deal done, it won’t be too hard to find another go-between. The one real problem, Pavlovsky points out, is timing. If the Kremlin and the White House don’t move quickly, “America and Russia could lose the opportunity to lower the pressure on the relationship,” he said. “If there’s no agreement in six months, then it will never be reached because then our presidential campaign begins”—Putin is up for reelection again in 2018—“and Putin won’t be able to be soft.” Otherwise, Pavlovsky added, “I don’t see a big loss in this.”
In a note to clients, Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group and head of its Eurasia practice, expressed a similar sentiment. While Flynn’s resignation will “increase short-term obstacles,” he wrote, it is “unlikely to yield major changes in the substance of US foreign policy. … [S]upport for a détente with Russia runs much deeper in this administration than Flynn. Exhibit A is President Donald Trump. He has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a desire to improve relations since at least the beginning of the campaign. Reset with Russia is one of Trump’s signature issues, and is very unlikely to evaporate.”
In the end, Flynn’s resignation didn’t even make the Russian evening news.
The larger issue here is that Putin has gotten a handful with Trump, and that his election has brought new and unforeseen problems for the Kremlin. Despite all the over-the-top pleasantries, sanctions against Russia haven’t been lifted and Trump has run into quite a bit of resistance on the Hill, even among fellow Republicans. Trump’s saber-rattling on Iran and occasional, though inconsistent, threats to cancel the Iran deal have apparently made the Russians nervous, according to American and Russian sources. Russia helped negotiate that deal and does not want to see it undone, with the Iranians then possibly hurtling toward a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran is an old ally of the Russians, and Trump’s bluster has put Putin in the awkward position of being stuck between a potential new partner maligning an old and trusted one.