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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say they can get along. But what will the new American president do to end Russia’s shadow war against the United States and its allies?

The telegram was one of the first to arrive from a world leader. On the morning of November 9, the Kremlin announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin had sent a message to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump expressing “his hope they can work together toward the end of the crisis in Russian-American relations, as well as address the pressing issues of the international agenda and the search for effective responses to global security challenges.” Just minutes before, the Russian State Duma had erupted in applause when its members learned that Trump had won the election.

Putin appeared to be taking his lead from repeated comments Trump has made suggesting the two would get along: “I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly, but there’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly, as opposed to the way they are right now, so that we can go and knock out ISIS with other people,” the then-candidate of the Republican Party said on July 28, referring to the Islamic State militant group.

But the blossoming bromance between the two men may come to a sudden end when Trump becomes commander in chief on January 20, 2017. That’s when he will, on a daily basis, have to cope with a resentful former superpower engaged in an aggressive campaign of espionage and propaganda against the United States and its allies—one more intense and menacing than at any time since the Cold War. Trump will likely face a binary choice: continue to engage in that intensifying shadow war, as his predecessor chose to do, or end sanctions against Russia—essentially allowing Putin to expand his influence in Eastern Europe and beyond.

The pressure on Trump to come up with an answer will be considerable. In early November, Andrew Parker, head of Britain’s internal security service MI5, became the first leader of the agency in 107 years to give an interview; the focus of his conversation with The Guardian newspaper was Russia’s mobilization of “a whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways: propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyberattacks.” Russia’s secret war involves everything from criminal sabotage to espionage to influencing news cycles, as well as supporting disruptive political movements and deep penetration of cyberinfrastructure. That’s a lot for an American president who has never before held elected office to deal with on day one.

With Trump’s victory, Russia might feel that its potent mixture of hacking, propaganda and sowing distrust has worked spectacularly well. The temptation to continue spreading chaos by backing right-wingers in France, the Baltics, Germany and elsewhere is stronger than ever. “Putin has interfered in our elections and succeeded. Well done,” tweeted former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul after Trump’s victory. And Russia’s elite, while careful to deny involvement in the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential race, is openly jubilant about Trump’s win. “First was Brexit. Now Hillary,” says Russian parliamentarian Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Putin ally. “A while ago, America was saying that Russia is just a gas station, a regional power. Now, apparently, we’re so influential that we are determining the outcome of their presidential election. We follow the ancient Chinese policy—we sit on the riverbank and wait for our enemy’s body to float past.”

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25th November 2016