November 13, 2016
By Pavel K. Baev
The outcome of the presidential election in the United States was celebrated in Moscow with such joy and triumphalism as if Russia had scored a major political victory (see EDM, November 10). Mainstream commentators gloated; the public forgot to reflect on the 99th anniversary of the (October) Russian Communist Revolution; and a joke made the rounds across social media alleging that the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (famous for its dark exhaust fumes—see EDM, October 27) emitted white smoke from its chimney ahead of the announcement that Donald Trump was elected the next US President. Russian political elites had good reason to worry about the expected victory of the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, knowing her as tough, competent and infuriated by Russia’s cyber-attacks on her campaign (Republic, November 9). Now they expect gratitude from the incoming Trump administration for feeding the e-mail scandal, eagerness to join forces in Syria in order to defeat terrorists of various persuasions, and, at the very least, a readiness by the next White House to cancel sanctions on Russia, which are bad for business (Gazeta.ru, November 9). Knowledgeable experts warn, however, that a new course in US foreign policy will not necessarily be good for Russia (Grani.ru, November 9).
The key issue will be the personal relationship between the two leaders—Russian President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Trump. For now, however, there are few reasons to expect another “look-in-the-eye” moment that could succeed in convincing the incoming US leader that Putin is a man he can do business with. The Kremlin confirmed it had contacts with the Republican campaign during the course of the elections (RBC, November 12). And Putin wrote Trump a “beautiful” letter of congratulations and hopes for a new détente after their first telephone conversation this week (Newsru.com, November 12). However, for the US President-elect, it will be important to demonstrate that he is not Putin’s “puppet”—an accusation the Clinton campaign tarred him with. Putin considers it crucially important to be treated as an “equal”; but Trump, it seems, cannot possibly consider anyone his equal, so it is rather improbable that these two oversized egos will be able to develop a beautiful friendship (Moscow Echo, November 11).
One change the Russian leadership would warmly welcome would be decreased US attention to violations of human rights and democratic freedoms in Russia. As a candidate, Trump notably expressed indifference to this liberal agenda (Novaya Gazeta, November 9). The Kremlin might, therefore, relax its obsessive concern about US sponsorship of “color revolutions,” and that could open up space for pragmatic bargaining on several matters of practical importance (Carnegie.ru, November 9). Russian liberals may be in dismay about this prospect, but it is essential to remember that US protestations never had any real impact on Putin’s policies of suppressing domestic dissent. Flourishing corruption in the law enforcement structures is, in fact, the main obstacle to Russia becoming a full on “police state.” And in this regard, as Alexei Navalny argues, nothing has changed with Trump’s surprising victory (Navalny.com, November 9). While the new US administration will almost certainly not entertain any ideas about “regime change” in Russia, this fact will not reduce the Kremlin’s continued need to pin the blame for Russia’s deepening economic disaster on external “enemies” (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, November 10).
Interpreting Trump’s victory as proof positive of the unfolding crisis of the West, Putin’s courtiers now expect a further erosion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) unity and, in particular, of the Alliance’s united position on the war in eastern Ukraine (see EDM, November 10). Russian media describes in rich detail the disappointment and worries in Kyiv, where a decline of attention from Washington is reasonably anticipated (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 9). The Russian special services have been quick to test this indifference by staging an operation against a group of Ukrainian “terrorists” in Crimea (Kommersant, November 11). Moscow may indeed feel free to increase pressure on Ukraine, but the fundamentals of the Minsk ceasefire deadlock are unlikely to change because the Russian Armed Forces are not ready for a large-scale winter offensive, while budget cuts are aggravating Russia’s military over-stretch (RBC, October 28). As for NATO cohesion, the European member states have discovered an urgent need to uphold it, and increasing their defense budgets appears to be the best pre-emptive measure against US “unilateralism” (RBC, November 13). Recovering from the initial shock, many European politicians conclude that the newly uncertain US leadership makes it imperative to take greater responsibility for the future of their collective project, and that is hardly good news for Moscow (Novaya Gazeta, November 12).
Russia might also encounter new problems in its “pivot” to China, which—unlike Moscow—had expected a more stable and predictable US course (Carnegie.ru, November 8). Now, the Chinese leadership has to assess and address the risks of a series of trade wars with the United States, and Russia is generally irrelevant in such geo-economic maneuvering (Kommersant, November 10). Putin and President Xi Jinping may find it useful to demonstrate perfect personal rapport. But the contraction of their bilateral trade is set to continue as Russia’s economic stagnation proceeds and Beijing has to prioritize its relations with Washington in order to avoid an aggravation of the economic slowdown. The net value of Russian oil and natural gas resources could depreciate further as US exporters feel encouraged to expand their entry into global markets, while China’s demand slackens (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 8).
In a world becoming less sentimental and more competitive, Russia might find its space for maneuver narrowing and interests squeezed. Putin has learned to enjoy the position of producer of uncertainty, but now the US has become the major source of uncertainly in the global system. Putin’s propensity for surprise initiatives and interventions is going to be reduced to insignificance by the new mercurial quality of US leadership in world affairs, and Russia is just not ready for the surprises that Washington may soon begin to throw around. Economic growth and modernization could become the key criteria for success, and the degradation of the economic foundation of Putin’s policies will likely undercut all his ambitions for a central role in the world arena. Attempts to compensate for this weakness by the use of “hybrid” military force as an instrument of policy could present opportunities for Washington to demonstrate toughness and determination to cut troublemakers down to size. Moscow’s habit of punching above its weight and bluffing with no trump cards can bring trouble, which it has no stomach to absorb.