How long will Trump's Russian honeymoon last?

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Vladimir Putin Donald Trump split T1

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Story highlights

  • In the 25 years since the Cold War, the US-Russia relationship has faced several frosty periods
  • Will President-elect Trump herald a new era in relations between the White House and the Kremlin?

(CNN)In the 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US-Russia relationship has waxed and waned.

With incoming US president-elect Donald Trump vowing to once again reset diplomatic ties, the stage is being set for a very different bilateral relationship between the two nations.
Among some who've dealt with Russian President Vladimir Putin before, there is little optimism that it could turn out any better this time.
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    Bill Browder, a successful multi-millionaire who made his cash in the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, predicts that similar characteristics in the two men will lead simply to a face-off.
    "We'll end up in a position where both these guys will be thumping their chests and staring each other down," Browder warns.
    Browder has had his own run-ins with Putin, and to say there is no love lost between them is an understatement.
    He blames Putin and those around him for the death of one his Moscow lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, who blew the whistle when Browder's Russian business was getting a $100 million dollar shakedown by state employees.
    "Many people consider me to be Putin's number one foreign enemy; as such my life is at risk," he tells CNN.
    Pictured: The tombstone of Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow. The Russian lawyer uncovered the largest tax fraud in the country's history. He died in 2009 after a year in a Moscow detention center, apparently beaten to death.

    Putin's approach to diplomacy

    Putin denies it all, but Browder is scathing in his criticism, comparing Putin to a mafia boss.
    "There is no diplomacy coming from Putin. He looks at how he can use his power to maximize his wealth, to stay in power and to oppress and steal from people around him," he says.
    The longer people know Putin, Browder says, the better they get to understand him. He gives the example of former President George W. Bush who famously said he'd looked into Putin's eyes and believed he could do business with him. The Obama administration tried their own reset when Hilary Clinton, then-secretary of state, gave Sergei Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, a symbolic red reset button.
    In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gifted Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, with a symbolic reset button, pictured.
    Yet look where we are today, with a new cold war, where a slightly smaller East faces off against a slightly larger West.
    When Andrew Wood's posting as British Ambassador to Russia ended, Putin had just come to power; it was 2000. He had witnessed the free-for-all under Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically-elected president. Wood heard the Russian calls for a more authoritarian leader and he hoped for the best.
    He says: "I thought when I left, there was at least a chance (that) there would be an evolution towards a more liberal sort of Russia."

    The long arm of the Kremlin

    Wood soon realized Putin wasn't about to deliver that evolution. "He chose not economic reform and political progress, but a relapse into what amounts to, sort of, (a) form of narcissistic xenophobia," Wood says. "It is now a country which is very much driven by a small group of people, according to a very intolerant internal logic."
    People attend a rally against Russia at Kiev's Independence square in the Ukraine capital on March 2, 2014.
    It's a logic that has led to intervention in Ukraine and Syria and the annexation of Crimea and to the untimely death of a number of Putin's louder critics. And Wood no longer trusts Putin's denials of involvement.
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    "He has a proven record for murder for a start -- either directly or indirectly encouraged," he says.
    It all begs the question: What will Trump, and for that matter his secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson, do when they have to choose which Putin to believe? The one they are talking to or the one whose actions drown out his words?
    Right now Wood worries that like previous President-elect's, Trump has yet to fully grasp what he is up against in Putin. "The future president of the US, it seems, admires what he's done in Syria as an expression of strength. But it isn't really. What he has created is what I would have thought (is) ultimately a trap"
    Instead, the former diplomat says Syria is no success for Putin but rather "bloodstained stones -- not actually a thriving country that's now under his control."
    US President Barack Obama, left, with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Novo-Ogarevo on July 7, 2009 -- the first time the two leaders met.

    A thawing of relations?

    Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, is already spinning the strongman narrative that Putin and Trump are on a par.
    "Russia and United States are serious world powers who are certainly coherent in their policies and in upholding of their interests," he said at a press conference on Wednesday.
    A billboard of Trump and Putin placed by pro-Serbian movement in the Montenegrin town of Danilovgrad on November 16, 2016.
    And as for the idea of talks with any give and take, Trump may find Putin is only on the take. "What Putin wants is acceptance of his rule in Crimea. And what he is offering, I don't think, is anything at all. Nice words, perhaps," says Wood.
    Browder, too, sees the relationship turning sour when campaign rhetoric gives way to serious talks. "Putin doesn't keep to his word; Putin always betrays deals. He takes what's on offer and then tries to take some more."
    None of which will play well with Trump who, he says, "wants to be seen as a great dealmaker and a winner" meaning the new president is going to "feel ripped off by Putin at some stage of the game."
    Browder says the only option then is for Trump to double down on existing US policy to Russia. He says Trump will need "to become, probably, much tougher than any head of US state before him."
    Too many variables, too soon to say for sure, but no honeymoon lasts forever.