November 10, 2016
By Pavel Felgenhauer
The news of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton conceding the race to Donald Trump was met with spontaneous applause by the Kremlin-controlled State Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament) during a plenary session. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Kremlin-linked flamboyant nationalist politician and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, invited deputies and Duma-accredited journalists to join him in uncorking bottles of Champaign to celebrate President-elect Trump’s victory (Interfax, November 9). Russian President Vladimir Putin swiftly congratulated Trump and expressed hope of improvement in relations (Interfax, November 9). Zhirinovsky called on Trump to recall from Moscow the present United States ambassador, John Tefft, who, according to Zhirinovsky, “hates Russia.” A Trump presidency could change everything in US-Russian relations, continued Zhirinovsky: “The problems in Syria and in Ukraine will be solved and everything would be fine. Forget Hillary—the American people do not want foreign commitments” (RIA Novosti, November 9).
Tefft shall automatically render his resignation next month. But since he is a career diplomat and not a political appointee, his replacement in Moscow by Trump is not obligatory. Zhirinovsky is known to be an unofficial mouthpiece of the Kremlin and could be privy to some alleged backdoor understandings (TVN24, November 10) between team Trump and the Russian authorities. If, after taking office, Trump promptly replaces Ambassador Tefft in Moscow with someone of his liking, this could be a signal that the new administration is prepared to engage in all kinds of dealmaking with the Kremlin.
Trump’s rhetoric and the Kremlin agitprop frequently looked synchronized during the US presidential campaign: In recent weeks, Trump had been insisting the Iraqi army’s assault on the Islamic State’s northern Iraqi stronghold of Mosul—assisted by Kurdish militias, Iran, and the US-led coalition—was unfolding as a “disaster’; and Russian propaganda sources forcefully concurred. The Russian state news agency TASS quoted an unnamed “military-diplomatic source” that “during the first two weeks of the Mosul offensive, 16 US servicemen were killed in action and 27 wounded.” TASS’s source stated that some of the US casualties were the result of “friendly fire” by B-52s carpet bombing Mosul. The source implied the US military was pressing the Mosul attack while disregarding casualties (which are being kept secret) to help Clinton win the November 8 elections (TASS, November 8). In Russia, military casualties are a state secret as a matter of course, and are practically never fully disclosed publicly. The Russian military apparently believe the same applies to the US.
In a recent article, the top-circulating pro-Kremlin daily Komsomolskaya Pravda compared the Russian-led siege of Aleppo with the US-led Mosul offensive. The Syrian government forces with their Russian, Iranian and Lebanese allies are a “legitimate, well-organized coalition that is methodically cleansing Aleppo of unruly terrorist gangs, while providing aid to innocent civilians.” The disorganized US-led coalition, on the other hand, is desperately and ineffectively bombing Mosul and disregarding human life, the paper asserts. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, the eventual Russian victory in Aleppo will dramatically alter the situation in the Middle East and worldwide. And while the US continues to fail in Mosul, Russia will become the dominant power in the region. The regime of Bashar al-Assad will be triumphant, while the “moderate” Syrian opposition and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) will be wiped out. The West will stop financing and supporting the discredited FSA, while Russia may acquire such outstanding international stamina that it will be able to “seriously take on the Fascist State on its borders [meaning Ukraine],” the newspaper alleges (Komsomolskaya Pravda, November 4).
Iranian-backed and financed Shia fighters are an integral part of the forces besieging both Aleppo and Mosul. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government in Bagdad is a close partner of Moscow, and the latter has provided weapons for the Iraqi armed forces leading the Mosul assault. The joint Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi-Russian military coordinating committee, formed in September 2015 as Russia began its Syrian campaign, sits in Bagdad. It seems strange that the Russian authorities are aggressively criticizing the Mosul anti–Islamic State offensive being carried out by their own allies. But apparently, this propaganda narrative was designed to paint the Mosul offensive as a cynical Democratic Party election ploy to promote Hillary Clinton.
Seemingly emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory, Russia is ready to bolster its military attacks on the Syrian opposition. According to defense ministry officials, the Russian naval task force assembled off the Syrian coast and led by the aging carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is ready to attack targets close to Aleppo (Militarynews.ru, November 9). The first deputy chair of the Duma defense committee, Frantz Klintsevich, noted, “To assist Trump’s victory, a massive assault on Aleppo could have been somewhat postponed; but now attacks on the Syrian fighters will commence 100 percent, and the US military will cooperate” (Militarynews.ru, November 9).
Putin’s economic adviser Sergei Glazyev believes Trump will dismantle the United States’ anti-Russian economic sanctions imposed over Ukraine, “because the aggressively anti-Russian policies of the [Barack] Obama administration, aimed at maintaining US world hegemony, have utterly failed” (Kommersant, November 10). The Russian ruling elite hopes Trump will run a nationalistic and isolationist administration that would give Moscow a free hand to suppress Syria and Ukraine. Hopes are also high that Trump will be ready to sit down with Putin and negotiate a large-scale agreement akin to the “Big Three” accord in Yalta, in 1945, to delimitate spheres of influence—with Syria and Ukraine, along other post-Soviet areas like Moldova, Belarus and the South Caucasus, recognized by Washington as essentially “Russian.” In such a scenario, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) could be substantially weakened, and European countries may decide to reorient and agree to some kind of continental security treaty with Russia. This is especially likely if xenophobic-nationalistic parties that have also welcomed Trump’s victory in the US (The Guardian, November 9) themselves win elections in other Western countries.
For Moscow, the most important pressing concern is regime change in Kyiv. Many Russian experts believe that, as President, Trump will effectively abandon Ukraine to its fate (Mk.ru, November 9). Russia’s first tangible reaction to Trump’s victory may be a renewed massive onslaught against the Syrian opposition; but the next move may be against Ukraine. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has arrested three Ukrainians in Crimea, accused of being members of a “diversionary-terrorist group” sent by Ukrainian military intelligence to organize explosions and terrorist attacks. A cache of arms and explosives was also allegedly seized. The Ukrainian defense ministry has denied any involvement (Interfax, November 10). Moscow might be preparing to seize the opportunity to brand the regime in Kyiv a terrorist organization, which must be destroyed by all means.