February 25, 2020 REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
With the US election campaign gaining speed, political opponents of the incumbent President are getting back to their old mantras of Vladimir Putin standing by his old friend and partner—if not his puppet—Donald Trump. This belief remains one of the very few issues on which there appears to be a strong consensus among such different people as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Charles Schumer, and even Bernie Sanders. All of them seem to be convinced that Trump is “Putin’s best friend” in Washington and therefore, the Kremlin will be supporting Trump’s reelection in 2020 with the same vigor and with the same disrespect of the US sovereignty, as it allegedly supported his presidential race back in 2016.
Let me put aside an important question about whether the Kremlin can indeed exercise a significant influence on the course of the US elections or even define its outcome. I personally tend to believe that no external player has the resources, the skills, and the infrastructure needed to do that. Maybe, I have a higher opinion on the resilience of US political institutions and procedures than leaders of the Democratic Party have these days. However, let us imagine for a second that Vladimir Putin has all the needed resources, skills and infrastructure to define who is going to reside in the White House after January 20, 2021. Should he really support Donald Trump as his best bet for better relations between the two nations?
Nobody can question the apparent reality that since Donald Trump got to power three years ago, the US-Russian relations have not become any better. In fact, they have further significantly deteriorated. There was only one bilateral summit in Helsinki, which turned into a complete fiasco; the US government continues to throw restlessly multiple sanctions at Moscow; bilateral strategic arms control is more dead than alive, and the US and Russian Embassies respectively in Moscow and in DC look more like besieged castles than like full-fledged diplomatic missions.
A Trump’s opponent would probably argue that all this is not an outcome of Trump’s policies, but a result of successful attempts by the Deep State and the opposition on the Hill to prevent the President from reckless and potentially very dangerous moves to reach out to Vladimir Putin and to appease the Kremlin. In fact, the current deterioration of the relationship between Moscow and Washington looks like a dubious accomplishment no matter who claims it. Still, it would be unfair to argue that in this relationship, Congress has always been the bad cop, and the White House — the good one.
For instance, it was the White House, not Congress, to take the initiative in getting the United States out of the INF Treaty with Russia and in questioning the value of the New Start Agreement for the US side. It was the White House to start a fierce war against the North Stream – 2 pipeline and to launch a ‘maximum pressure’ policy on the Islamic Republic of Iran, which happens to be Russia’s strategic partner in the Middle East region. On many issues, the Trump administration went much further in challenging the Kremlin than many experienced and prudent politicians on the Hill would like it to do.
Moreover, what Democrats often label as ‘Trump’s presents to Putin,’ from a closer range do not look like valuable gifts. For example, can Russia really benefit a lot from the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan or even from Syria? I doubt it very much. In both cases, we are likely to see the strategic vacuum left by the United States more likely to be filled by forces hostile to Moscow than by Russia’s allies or friends.
Donald Trump might personally like Vladimir Putin, and this feeling might be truly mutual. The two men share many views on the world and on how to conduct foreign policy. Both stand for sovereignty, both put specific national interests above abstract global commons. Both like transactional approaches and are not particularly fond of multilateralism. However, the commonality or similarity of views do not make Trump and Putin natural allies; they simply do not have much of offer to each other. Donald Trump cannot convince Vladimir Putin to break his alliances with Beijing, Tehran or Damascus and to move to the ‘right side of history,’ while Putin cannot expect Trump to dismantle the deep anti-Russian consensus existing today in Washington and to put the bilateral relationship back on track.
The outcome of the 2020 Presidential election in the United States will affect not only America but the rest of the world as well, including Europe, China, the Middle East, and so on. Russia is no exception. Nevertheless, for Russia, this election in relative terms will mean less than for many other international players.
Unfortunately, the US-Russian relationship will remain adversarial no matter who gets to the White House in 2021. At this juncture, the best we can do is to try managing this adversity by reducing risks and avoiding prohibitively high costs of an uncontrolled confrontation. And let us hope that the next Presidential election of 2024, which will take place the same year in both the US and Russia, will give us reasons to aim higher than that.
Comment by Global Review
Dr. Kortunov is right if he questions the capacities of Russian meddling in US elections. Putin´s propaganda and cyberwar are not the main factors. He can try to influence social media by bots, but the main influential media and social media are still not influenced by Putin, be it Fox News. Breitbart News, etc. or the outlets of the media which are more with the Democrats. Putin may have a margin of 10%. However Dr, Kurtonov understates the benefits Putin-Russia has from Trump. The questioning of NATO, security treaties, the withdrawal from multilateral agreements, his hate against Germany and the EU that give Putin new geopolitical power space. Trump as a neo-mercantilist sees even the EU and especially its core state and world export champion Germany as bad as China, but not that much Russia or North Korea because of their limited economic capacities to challenge the US hegemony. And while the US-Russian relations might have worsened, Russia also partly welcomes Trump´s weakening of NATO, the EU or his withdrawal from Syria and the Greater Middle East. And Putin also knows that the relations under another Republican or Democrat president wouldn´t get much better, even worse. And he Europeans won´t forget Putin´s main meddling in European affairs when a befriended oligarch gave a 40 million Euro credit to the bankrupt Front National in order to destroy the EU. And we will see in the next French presidential elections if Putin stays neutral or supports Macron or Marine Le Pen. However: Putin might not be so influential in US elections, even if Democrats speculate about Trump´s bankruptcy and salvation by a joint credit by the Deutsche Bank and a Russian oligarch or an alleged porno video showing Trump with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel in a not favorable style. But the 40 million credit for the Front National and the destruction of the EU we Europeans will not forgive Putin. However Putin as all right-winged parties in Europe can only be influential if the existing politicians make major mistakes or crises of globalization occur–financial crisis, refugee crisis, climate crisis, Corona, etc and if the politicians in power have no solutions or answers to them or if on the other sides Americans are fed up with the regime change wars and globalization policy since Bush jr. which caused only chaos in the world order and explosive state debts. The Republican party and the Democrats or Hillary Clinton try to make their own political and strategic mistakes forget by Putin-bashing.