Recent events have given Moscow hope for a break in its impasse with the West. In Donald Trump's election as the next U.S. president, Moscow perceives an administration that will be more sympathetic to its interests. During his campaign, Trump promised to improve ties with Russia and suggested that the United States may not help NATO allies that fail to meet the alliance's defense spending targets. While these comments may have been merely campaign rhetoric, Moscow has not missed the chance to begin building relationships with members of the incoming administration. In the media, Russia has characterized the election results as an opportunity for better ties with the United States.
Wide-ranging media campaigns directed by Moscow have fueled Europe's questions about its future and Washington's continued support, too. Russia has also provided financial and political aid (both overt and covert) to some of the more divisive political forces on the Continent. EU members have spoken out against persistently poor relations with Russia, but none have been willing to block decisions to extend Russian sanctions. In the past, the United States has pressured those countries to vote in favor of keeping the sanctions in place. As 2017 progresses, the issue will come up again. If U.S. pressure abates and Continental fissures deepen, the outcome of that vote could be different.
Should sanctions against Russia be lifted, the more vulnerable states on its borderlands will turn to other powers or alliances to guard against Moscow's potential aggression. Germany is the most obvious Western heavyweight that could maintain pressure on Russia. Traditionally, Berlin's stance toward Russia has been more moderate. But as Europe's most influential power, Germany cannot afford to let Russia expand its influence into borderland states — many of which are now part of the European Union. Germany is also increasingly concerned with what it sees as Russian meddling in EU politics and its growing influence over member states' media — including its own. But Germany's ability to take a more aggressive approach to countering Russian influence is limited.
As Western unity weakens, Poland will be the most likely candidate to lead the charge against Russia's spreading influence. Poland has enjoyed the backing of NATO and the United States in its anti-Russian attitude. But there are limits to Poland's influence. Its political heft cannot compare to that of EU giants like France, Italy and Germany that are less hostile to Russia. Warsaw cannot rally bloc-wide initiatives or sway foreign policies. Moreover, plans for future military buildups through NATO could be curtailed, should relations between Russia and the United States thaw. Though a more consolidated Polish-led regional effort to counter Russia is likely to coalesce in 2017, Warsaw's efforts will only widen the divides within Europe, ultimately benefitting Moscow.