Russia's biggest question: what's Trump's next move?

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Keir Giles is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He is also a director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a group of subject matter experts in Eurasian security. The opinions in the article belong to the author.

(CNN)As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov prepared for a meeting Wednesday with President Donald Trump, the sacking of FBI Director James Comey must have caused both those in Moscow and Washington to wonder exactly what Trump's next move will be.

Russia's early optimism for a new kind relationship with the United States under Trump seemed entirely justified at the time.
His statements and actions both before and immediately after the election coincided with a wide range of policy objectives that Russia had sought to impose on the United States for decades.
These included reducing the US role in providing European security, establishing a post-truth information space while discrediting independent media, weakening the US intelligence community and seeing Russia treated as an equal partner to the United States -- with the eventual prospect of a grand bargain, agreed without the consent of America's European allies.
Even secondary objectives, such as presenting Russia as a better friend to the Islamic world than its implacable enemy the United States, were met by Trump's early executive orders.
It was entirely natural that this wholehearted endorsement of Russian aims should raise questions as to Trump's motivations, with or without the later appearance of allegations that both money and compromise played a role in inducing him to do the Kremlin's bidding.
Nevertheless, the question of whether Trump was implementing Russian policy consciously or unconsciously was at this point important, but irrelevant to the outcome. Either way, Russia appeared to be on the brink of achieving significant strategic reverses from the United States.
Then came the chemical attack in Syria and Trump's consequent decision to send a clear message through missile strikes. This was the first major indication he could not always be relied on to act in Russia's best interests.
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Comey's dismissal could provide another significant setback to this confidence. The conclusion being reached in Moscow must be that Trump will continue to be no less unpredictable in his dealings with Russia than he is when it comes to domestic politics.
In this atmosphere of suspicion, it was inevitable that Trump's sacking of Comey would be seen as an attempt once again to head off investigations into his own connections with Russia.
And it's true that Russia may approve of the interim result: sowing further discord and dismay in US government agencies that work hard to counter Russian hostile actions against the United States.
But the Kremlin might equally be dismayed at the style and timing of the dismissal since it could be seen both in Washington and Moscow as a clumsy move, suggesting panic and only drawing further attention to the investigation into Trump's Russian ties.
But then again, the underlying motivations make no real difference to the end result, which is to weaken further the US national security apparatus, already battered by a dysfunctional relationship with the commander in chief. Trump's distrust and disdain for his own intelligence services benefits all US adversaries, not just Russia.
Trump can do just as much damage to the security of the United States and its allies through misguided and intemperate action as through acting as a conscious agent of Russian policy. In the end, Russia will still be satisfied with the outcome.
Interference in the US and French presidential elections, and the language and rhetoric of Russia's leaders, directed both abroad and for domestic consumption, show plainly that Russia is now unconcerned as to its image and reputation and is more and more prepared to act as a rogue state.
Some argue that Russia's recent activity is carried out only to protect its own security against perceived threats from the West. It is certainly true this is always a factor that needs to be considered when seeking to understand Russian actions.
Nevertheless, once again, the underlying motivation is less important to Russia than the eventual outcome.
Anything Trump does to weaken the United States as Russia's main global competitor will be welcome news in Moscow.