So what would the preference be? Russia and the United States staring one another down in a new Cold War, a game of chicken? Or better to have Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the planet's two most outsized egos, working together, forging a geopolitical realignment? A deal in which Washington forgives some sins of the dictator, lets him spread his claws in his so-called spheres of influence in return for peace and co-operation on a number of fronts.
The latter is indeed possible. The two leaders are nativists and narcissists set on making their countries exceptional again. Mr. Trump fancies himself as a great deal maker. His victory – a fine deal in itself in that he lost the popular vote – was greeted by sustained applause in the Russian state Duma. Czar Putin, widely believed to have abetted the Trump triumph via Clinton campaign cyber-hacking exploits, said relations could now be "normalized."
In Ottawa, the Russian ambassador called the Trump win, "a victory of common sense and pragmatism." As many as a half-dozen people in the nation's capital are said to have agreed with the assessment.
A soft line toward the Kremlin was a hallmark of the Trump campaign, one in which he sometimes sounded like a Kremlin quisling. Proof that he is serious, that this doesn't rank with some of his other P.T. Barnum hokum, came last week when he appointed Michael Flynn, a military guy with close ties to Russia, as his national security adviser.
Lieutenant General Flynn, who is viewed by some in the American foreign policy establishment as a dangerous anti-Muslim wing-nut, wants to end what he calls "the bully game" between Russia and Washington and have them work together to defeat the Islamic State and end the war in Syria. Russia's national security strategy has to be "respected," he has said and, "We have to try to figure out how do we combine the United States' national security strategy along with Russia's national security strategy."
That sounds entirely far-fetched, although when Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 no one would have believed he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would have ended the Cold War. As correspondent for this newspaper in Washington and in Moscow during those years, it was remarkable to watch.
But Mr. Putin's reverting to authoritarianism put all that progress at risk and the world back on a Cold War course. It's what makes the possibility of a new accommodation with Washington appealing if one can be worked out on reasonable terms.
As part of a new deal the Kremlin would likely want the U.S. to drop sanctions imposed for President Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. It would want Washington to drop its insistence that President Bashar al-Assad abandon power in Syria. It would want NATO to back off from areas Mr. Putin considers Russia's legitimate spheres of interest.
That's a heavy price. But the potential benefits of an alliance of sorts can hardly be discounted. An end to mounting hostilities. Russian-American co-operation against the Islamic State; on the civil war in Syria; on disarmament as opposed to rearmament; on ending ongoing tensions between Moscow and NATO in areas like the Baltics, where 450 Canadian soldiers are set to deploy in early 2017 as part of an allied force in Latvia.
Mr. Trump has many business entanglements with Russia. There is suspicion that his courting of Mr. Putin has other motives. There has been speculation about big debts to Russian sources and talk that what Russian spy agencies know could pose difficulties for him.
With any Trump-Putin pact would come major doubts over survivability. How could these two headstrong leaders trust one another? How could anyone trust them?
But the alternative to trying to work out an entente of some kind is ominous. The two sides have been on a collision course over Ukraine, over NATO, over Syria. If something isn't done we're likely headed back to the years of bone-chilling superpower standoffs.
A tune comes to mind. "Hello darkness, my old friend …"