A billboard by a pro-Serbian movement in the town of Danilovgrad, Montenegro, shows U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Boris Pejovic/EPA)

On the campaign trail and in his appointments, Donald Trump has been suggesting a very different U.S. policy toward Russia than his White House predecessors have had. Instead of attempts to contain Russia’s territorial ambitions, Trump has been suggesting much more accommodation, admiration and even possibly cooperation.

If that happens, we’ll find out which of several competing theories about Russian interventionism in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and the Middle East is accurate.

Here are the two primary theories. First, some observers — especially Russian policymakers but many in the West, as well — have explained Russia’s forays into Crimea, Syria and Georgia as reactions to discomfort with U.S.-led attempts to restrict its power. Russian policymakers accuse the United States and Europe of threatening Moscow by bringing NATO missiles ever closer and by secretly fomenting “color revolutions” among post-Soviet states in the hope of, eventually, replacing Putin and his backers.

Second, other observers — especially “liberal” Westerners — argue that Russia’s military adventures have been designed to distract its own citizens from such domestic and economic problems as reduced social spending because of the falling price of oil, systemic corruption, and a political system that provides the form but not the substance of political competition.

If, under Trump, the United States does create a benign international environment for Russia, we will be able to see from Putin’s reaction which of these theories is true. Let me explain.

Will the U.S. policy toward Russia change from containment to a new detente?

President-elect Trump has not specifically outlined a Russia policy. However, his campaign statements, selection of ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, and statements from Carter Page, his erstwhile adviser on Russia and energy, suggest a few areas where Trump’s doctrine will differ considerably from that of Obama.

Under Trump, we may well see an end to sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea from Ukraine and aiding the insurgency in Ukraine, and reduced support for human rights and democratization, which would mean fewer clashes with Russia over such issues as gay rights and free speech.

Further, Trump’s worldview appears to be in synch with Putin’s. Trump, like Putin, appears to value state sovereignty over efforts at global governance; economic nationalism over open markets and free trade; and conservative social values of order and tradition over liberal values of individual rights and freedoms.

As a candidate, Trump’s main foreign policy goals were the destruction of the Islamic State militant group and protection of the U.S. homeland. We can probably then expect that a less confrontational Russia policy would include partnering to fight the Islamic State and terrorism globally, as Putin has sought since a 2015 speech at the United Nations.

Here’s how the Russian government explains its foreign policy

The Russian government, both publicly and in journalistic accounts such as Mikhail Zygar’s “All the Kremlin’s Men,” argues that it has been pushing back against relentless Western expansion into Russian areas of interest, resisting the U.S.-European support for color revolutions and regime change.

Of course, this implies that the West is hypocritically professing high-minded ideals about rights and democracy as a way to hide its real interest: expanding the number of non-threatening states — and, eventually, prompting a color revolution that will overthrow Putin. If that’s true, Russia reasons, its only legitimate response is to use force to prevent regime change to defend itself and its allies, while also using force to challenge hostile governments.

Here’s how U.S. scholars and policymakers interpret Russian foreign policy

U.S. scholars and policymakers don’t agree that the United States is trying to overthrow Putin, but they differ about what has prompted Russian expansionism. Realists, such as John Mearsheimer, Jack Matlock and Stephen Cohen, essentially argue that Russia is reacting to excessive NATO expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. These scholars define Russia’s interventionism as a self-help reaction to the West’s inability to constrain itself when Russia was in a weak position. By unsettling Europe’s balance of power and challenging Russia’s sense of security, NATO countries are reaping what they’ve sown.

By contrast, liberal scholars, such as Michael McFaul, Kathryn Stoner and Steven Sestanovich, tie Russia’s expansionism to domestic origins: trying to distract Russians from their dissatisfaction with rigged elections, corruption and, more recently, declining economic performance. In addition, they suggest that the Kremlin felt threatened when Ukrainian politicians launched economic and institutional reforms that made kleptocratic Russian leaders look bad — and so launched its diversionary war.

A new detente would reveal Russia’s real motivations

Which is true? Trump’s proposed policy path — should he adopt something like unilateral detente — will test these theories.

  • If Russia’s aggressive interventionism is a response to U.S. support for color revolutions and NATO expansion, then Trump’s new policy should result in a less aggressive Russia because the source of danger will be removed.
  • If Russia’s interventionism comes from pursuing a larger role in the structure of international politics, then Trump’s new approach won’t change Russian policy unless the United States and NATO explicitly disavow security commitments, or come up with new security arrangements for areas surrounding Russia itself.
  • If Russia’s intervention abroad is an attempt to distract its citizens from the state of the economy or weariness with the illiberal and kleptocratic sistema, then Trump’s different approach won’t change interventionism — and Russian adventuring won’t stop until the Russian economy improves, or Russians give up hoping for change, or the Kremlin changes hands.

And what if the reason is all of the above? What if Russian leaders want to change the international power structure, putting Russia in a more powerful position, and are also trying to distract citizens from their dissatisfaction? Then a Trump presidency should lead to more Russian interventionism.

Why? Because the combination of a bad economy and no coordinated Western opposition will offer the Kremlin the perfect opportunity to build up its own power, changing the structure of international politics as a substitute for economic reforms while waiting for oil prices to rise.

As Trump’s Russia policy becomes clearer, relaxed tensions and a benign international environment will give Putin much more latitude to formulate and execute Russian foreign policy.

Scholars, policymakers and the general public will see for ourselves the real motives behind Russia’s foreign policy.

Yuval Weber is a visiting assistant professor of government and Kathryn W. and Shelby Davis Research Fellow in the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, as well as an assistant professor in the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the National Research University — Higher School of Economics in Moscow.