The US Elections and the Cold War 2.0: Implications and Prospects for Russia

Russian-US relations will be faced with new challenges in the near future. That future will bring either further escalation of the confrontation in the event of Clinton's victory and selective cooperation in the event Trump wins. However, this cooperation may quickly degrade due to disagreements between the two countries regarding China.

The presidential race in the United States entered its final stage in September. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party have already held their conventions. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been officially nominated as the presidential candidates and they have selected their running mates. Two decisive months lay ahead, including three rounds of formal direct debates between the candidates, which will likely determine the outcome of the vote.

What does this campaign mean for Russia and Russian-US relations? How will these relations change following the arrival of a new US administration in the White House in January 2017? Should Moscow take any actions now, before the vote on November 8 and the inauguration of a new president, with regard to its relations with Washington, including the outgoing Obama administration? Or should it, given the contrasting foreign policy approaches of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the as yet unpredictable election results, remain on the sidelines while it waits for the vote results and the formation of a foreign policy team by the winner?

Given the current confrontational nature of Russian-US relations, the consensus of the political elite, Congress and the US establishment with regard to containing Russia and creating conditions to change, in the long-term, Russia's political regime and get its foreign policy back on a pro-Western track, as well as the high probability of Hillary Clinton winning the race, Russia should, in the coming months, substantially invigorate its relations with the United States, and should do so both in the time left before the November 8 vote and in the period between the election and the inauguration of a new president. Otherwise, next year could see the beginning of a new round of escalation of confrontation between the two countries, including an arms race, aggravation of the hostilities in Ukraine, the imposition of new sanctions on Russia, the expansion of the geography of the Russia-US rivalry and even direct limited military confrontation between the two countries, for example, in Syria.

Work with the United States should focus on two key areas. The first is to minimize, or better yet prevent, further deterioration of Russian-US relations once the new administration takes office. The second is to form an agenda of bilateral relations for the coming years.

The current campaign in the United States has become a blaring reminder that the relations between the two countries are not just going through a crisis, but are in a state of a systemic confrontation – according to some experts, a new Cold War.

Many observers wonder why the theme of Russia seems to have suddenly taken such a disproportionately large place in the campaign, and why Russia was chosen to play the role of bogeyman in it. Indeed, the accusations against Donald Trump to the effect that he is allegedly "the Kremlin's candidate" seem strange. They not only accuse him of supporting cooperation with "Putin's Russia," but go as far as to say that he was possibly "bought" by it. The Russian President is being personally demonized, and has been made the target of grotesque allegations. The Democratic establishment and Hillary Clinton portray him as the epitome of universal evil. Her referring to President Putin as the "godfather of extreme global nationalism" which laid the path for the rise of Donald Trump, speaks volumes. No less absurd was the instantaneous accusation against Russia for hacking the Democratic National Committee servers and stealing emails shortly after the scandal erupted involving the collusion of the Democratic Party bosses in favor of Hillary Clinton to "drown" other candidates, primarily Bernie Sanders. Neither China, nor North Korea, nor any other foreign state that is traditionally regarded in the United States as a cyber threat, but precisely Russia was instantly fingered as the culprit.

The reason behind all this lies in the fact that this presidential campaign is the first since Russia-US relations took on a nature of systemic confrontation in 2014. The US establishment and foreign policy mainstream have now for two years been considering Russia not merely as a hostile state, but as an explicit enemy and a system error in the evolution of the post-Cold War international system. This error, by virtue of its domestic and foreign policy, poses a system-wide challenge to the US "global leadership" (as it is understood in the United States after its "victory" in the Cold War) and the model of international order promoted by Washington, and must therefore be corrected in order to shore up, at least partially, the American leadership, which has become shaky over the past few years. Furthermore, unlike during the previous Cold War, "correcting the error" now seems to them a much simpler and more manageable task.

Therefore, comparing the Russian factor in the current campaign to the developments of the past 25–30 years is simply incorrect. The situation was fundamentally different. Even in 2012 – after the failed attempt to reset Russia-US relations – then Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia is "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe" sounded ridiculous. Today, we can hear such claims from representatives of the American establishment and foreign policy mainstream everywhere, and such claims are widely perceived as a matter of course. In this regard, it is much more appropriate to compare the current campaign and the mindset of the American elite with the presidential campaigns of the 1950s–1960s, that is, the Cold War before the détente, and the early 1980s (the second surge in the Soviet-American confrontation after the collapse of the détente following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Although the famous cliché coined by Ronald Reagan describing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" was not created as part of the presidential race, it is quite consistent with the current pre-election rhetoric of the American elite and the establishment.

Since Russia has been perceived as a hostile state from the get-go, any constructive statements about it are instantly portrayed as foreign policy incompetence or betrayal, and any problems that the Democratic Party campaign runs into are immediately accounted for by the "hand of Moscow." Accordingly, the positive comment by Donald Trump about Vladimir Putin, and his call to cooperate more closely with Russia to combat ISIS and to be more sensitive regarding its interests and concerns within the former Soviet space, immediately led to the Democrats and the establishment in general accusing him of betraying American interests and values, as well as of complete incompetence in international affairs. As a result, the anti-Russia theme has become an important tool used by the Democrats and the establishment in general against Donald Trump.

Of course, the challenge presented by present-day Russia to the political elite of the United States, which is committed to globalism and global leadership, is incomparable in scale and nature to that posed in its time by the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the degree of anti-Russian rhetoric contained in the current presidential campaign in the United States also does not reach the level of McCarthyism of the 1940s–1950s (although occasionally it gets pretty close). But this has little effect on the underlying system-wide confrontational nature of Russian-US relations, which, since 2014, has predetermined the role of Russia as a bogeyman in the current presidential campaign, an enemy who can be made accountable for any number of things.

This perception of Russia by the US elite and its role in the US presidential race does not bode well for Russia’s relations with the United States under the new administration. Any new reset of relations, or an improvement in the quality of their relations, or building a sustainable partnership between the two countries are out of question no matter the outcome of the vote on November 8. The choice is, in fact, between a deeper, guaranteed and deliberate, on the part of the US, deterioration of relations and tapering off of cooperation in the event of a Clinton victory, and, perhaps, a less dramatic deterioration of relations and a somewhat greater level of cooperation in the event of a win by Trump.

The Russian expert community is becoming increasingly confident that Russia will be better off with Hillary Clinton as president. Arguably, despite her hard-line approach to Russia's current domestic and foreign policy, she is a foreign policy professional, she is surrounded by professionals, and will, therefore, be forced to sort out issues with Moscow on many international issues. Also arguably, predictability and professionalism – even of an anti-Russian politician, and a member of the elite and the establishment – are better than complete unpredictability of a temperamental populist, ignorant of international relations, with God knows who in his retinue.

This statement is true only to the extent to which the Clinton administration will have the political will to cooperate with Russia and to negotiate with it on matters beyond the scope of those in which a dialogue is unavoidable and is dictated by the fact of guaranteed Russia-US mutual destruction (control over strategic nuclear arms). This is likely to pose problems in the future. With the exception of the obvious theme of arms control (which is marked in the Democratic Party election platform as a priority in the dialogue with Moscow), Russia, for Hillary Clinton and the vast majority of the establishment and the elite that have rallied around her, looks like a problem, not a way to deal with problems. This also applies to Ukraine, European security in general, Syria and the Greater Middle East, and even fighting international terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the broad sense.

Clinton was one of the key proponents of Russia’s containment in the post-Soviet space when she was Secretary of State, and was the first to announce in 2012 – a year before Euromaidan broke out – Moscow's focus on "re-Sovietizing" that region. Today, this Democratic nominee speaks in favor of US supplies of lethal weapons to Kiev and more active containment of Russia in Ukraine. In the Obama administration, Clinton headed a group advocating the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya using military force, and eventually persuaded the White House to conduct a military strike in conjunction with France and Great Britain. She also was one of the most ardent supporters of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria during her tenure as Secretary of State in the Obama administration, and for two years (2011–2012) she desperately tried to impose UN sanctions on Damascus, a broad interpretation of which would, as in the case of Libya, lead to the use of military force and regime change. Tough Russian opposition to these attempts then severely annoyed Clinton and exacerbated her consistent perception of Russia as an obstacle to settling the situation in the Middle East and realizing American interests in general. Today, she advocates more hard-line policies in order to topple Bashar al-Assad, including through the use of military force, does not support a policy aimed at achieving a compromise and a political settlement of the conflict and calls for the unilateral introduction of a no-fly zone in Syria, which, in the current circumstances, would automatically mean a military confrontation with Russia.

Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisers and entourage hold similar views. Early on during the presidential race, the most belligerent liberal interventionists, disillusioned by what they saw as the insufficient toughness of the Obama administration and of the president himself with regard to Ukraine and Syria, as well as the policy toward Russia in general, huddled around Clinton. When Donald Trump was nominated as a candidate, most neo-conservatives, who have traditionally supported the Republicans, fled to her camp. Both are sticking to the most ideology-driven and tough foreign policy views, including on relations with Russia, which they do not see as a partner in addressing issues that are important for the United States.

Many of Clinton’s key foreign policy advisors are in this vein, including former National Security Advisor to the Vice President and former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State Jake Sullivan, and former State Department and the White House staff member Laura Rosenberger, as well as Clinton’s closest advisors and teammates from among former high-ranking foreign policy makers, such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy.

Key Clinton advisor on Russia and former US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and Clinton’s advisors on Europe, including former Assistant Secretary of State and Special Assistant to the President of the United States Phil Gordon and former Deputy Advisor to the Vice-President for National Security Julie Smith have the most ideological – to a grotesque degree – approach to Russia, considering it a security threat and a problem for the United States in Europe and the Middle East, rather than a partner.

The likelihood that these people will be looking for opportunities to cooperate with Moscow on whatever issue is infinitesimal. They see Russia as a systemic challenge on the path to the US-backed "liberal international order" and believe that it consistently pursues an aggressive, revisionist and anti-American policy, which builds on Russia’s domestic policies, according to their deep-rooted convictions. In other words, as McFaul pointed out many times in his pieces, cooperation with Russia will remain a problem as long as it continues to be run by the current government, which keeps pushing Russia away from such cooperation. So, these advisors will most likely focus on ways to accelerate regime change in Russia and re-direct its domestic and foreign policy. Especially so, since they are convinced of the inevitability of the collapse of the current model of Russia’s development, which, in turn, also rules out the likelihood of maintaining a serious dialogue, let alone a partnership.

Finally, selective cooperation between Russia and the United States during the Clinton administration will, most likely, be a challenge due to the further deterioration of relations between the two countries in general. It will make even a no-frills and highly selective form of cooperation politically untenable, even with regard to issues where it is imperative due to the transnational nature of the challenges and threats facing both states. The probability of such deterioration is extremely high and is predicated on several factors.

First, the Clinton administration will conduct a strategic policy that is even less acceptable to Russia, based on the paradigm of American exceptionalism and aimed at restoring its global leadership. The re-assertion of leadership will involve more decisive and tougher actions than the ones taken by the current administration. This will affect both the rhetoric and the specific steps taken with regard to Russia, China, Europe, Iran, and the Middle East. In doing so, Hillary Clinton will get the full support of Congress and the foreign policy establishment in the United States in general, which will make carrying out a more expansionary policy in the early stages a much simpler proposition.

Second, the Clinton administration will try to step up the political and military-political containment of Russia and speed up the transformation of Russia’s political system and foreign policy, which the majority of Clinton’s fellow travelers believe is inevitable. To this end, based on its deep-seated habit, the United States will increase its support for Ukraine and will possibly set up new fronts of active containment of Russia in the post-Soviet space (for example, in Central Asia and the Caucasus). There will be attempts to destabilize and degrade EurAsEC and the CSTO, especially in the context of the forthcoming change in Kazakhstan’s government in the near future.

Third, the clearly poor personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton will have a major negative impact on cooperation between the two countries. Then Secretary of State Clinton decision to support protesters in major Russian cities in 2011-2012, who, among other things, were against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, marked the point of no return in their relationship. Since then, Hillary Clinton has become a personal enemy of the Russian leader, as can be seen from Vladimir Putin directly accusing her of "sending a signal" to the Russian "fifth column." Clinton comparing Putin to Hitler shortly after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis was the low point of their personal animosity. People in Russia don’t forgive such things. By the way, Clinton was one of the few top US politicians to come out with this comparison, followed by a flurry of offensive remarks about the Russian President during the election campaign.

Tactically, further confrontation between the two countries may be triggered by an escalation of the face-off in Ukraine and Syria. Clinton and most of her team are staunch supporters of supplying lethal offensive weapons to Kiev and supporting it in general. The Ukrainian authorities are objectively interested in seeing the current Minsk Agreements fail because they are bad for Kiev. They may well take advantage of this approach within Clinton’s entourage and start a new war in Donbass shortly after the inauguration of Hillary Clinton. This would not only obliterate Kiev’s current obligations with regard to the constitutional reform and the Donbass elections "upon agreement" with Donetsk and Lugansk authorities, but would also trigger more US sanctions on Russia, a sharp increase in US aid to Kiev and the end of Washington’s pressure on Kiev to make greater internal reforms in the country.

It is possible that a new war in Donbass could be started by Kiev before the new US administration takes office, or even before the presidential election on November 8. By doing so, the Ukrainian authorities may attempt to influence their outcome: Given the constructive statements by Donald Trump about Russia and its leadership and Clinton’s tough stance, a new war in Donbass will guarantee the election of the Democratic candidate and virtually assure more assistance will go to Ukraine. Kiev’s recent provocations in Crimea, the ongoing fomenting of hysteria regarding Donbass and the looming introduction of the martial law may be the first steps in starting a new war. 

The Clinton administration is also likely to toughen US policy in Syria, especially if, by that time, the Russian-US cooperation on a political settlement based on compromise and joint efforts against Islamic radicals does not yield tangible results, or fails completely. The US attempts to establish a no-fly zone in Syria at a time when Russian S-400 ADMS are deployed there will make direct military confrontation between the two countries almost inevitable.

Russia's expectations from Trump’s presidency range from excessive optimism to excessive fear caused by his unpredictable nature. The excessive optimism is ungrounded because Trump will simply not be allowed to implement his foreign policy initiatives – unless he drops them before the election or shortly after, if elected. Attempts to implement them will be met with obstruction on the part of Congress, the government bureaucracy and the establishment in general. Trump, or anyone else in his place, will be forced to make a trade-off. The fact that Trump’s running mate Mike Pence adheres to the tough line on Russia that is widely accepted in the Republican Party shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Moreover, the implementation of some of the key foreign policy priorities of Trump's team may further complicate Russian-US relations. This applies primarily to the anti-Chinese approach taken by the Republican nominee. He and his advisors believe that China poses much greater threat to the United States than Russia. Most likely, Trump will attempt to establish relations with Moscow and make it part of the system to contain China. This is unacceptable for Russia. It is very unlikely to trade its independent foreign policy, its position as one of the poles in a multipolar world and the idea to build, in conjunction with China, a "Greater Eurasia" for a vague and shaky position as one of the US junior partners. If Trump wins, China could become a source of major tensions between the two countries.

In this regard, a miracle in Russian-US relations in the event Trump wins is unlikely. But the degree of hostility will still be much lower than if Hillary Clinton wins the race, and there will be more opportunities for cooperation (on combating Islamist terrorism, and the Middle East). The confrontation in Ukraine and Syria will likely not escalate.

With regard to Trump’s unpredictability as it applies to resolving numerous problems plaguing Russian-US relations, many of these issues will disappear by themselves if Trump gets elected.

The vast majority of problems in Russian-US relations do not concern individual issues or territories, but the international order in general. Precisely the lack of a common understanding of the basic rules and norms of the international order has caused the current confrontation. It is not a product of the Ukraine crisis. Rather, the crisis was a product of the fact that Russia and the United States have fundamentally different approaches to what is good and what is bad, what is allowed or not allowed, the nature of "legitimate interests," and so on. Accordingly, if the US approach to the international order under President Trump changes at least a bit and moves even just one step closer to the Russian notion of order, many of the current problems in relations between the two countries, such as regime change, the forced spread of democracy and the containment of Russia in the former Soviet space, will vanish. There will be new opportunities for Russian-US cooperation on common challenges and threats. However, new challenges will move to the forefront, especially with regard to China.

So, under any circumstances, Russian-US relations will be faced with new challenges in the near future. That future will bring either further escalation of the confrontation in the event of Clinton's victory and selective cooperation in the event Trump wins. However, this cooperation may quickly degrade due to disagreements between the two countries regarding China. However, this does not mean that Russia can sit back and brace itself for one of the two evils coming its way. On the contrary, it is imperative to continue to work in order to improve the prospects for Russian-US relations. To do this, it is necessary to act now in the remaining two months before the election on November 8, and four months before the January inauguration. Future relations between the two countries in early 2017 and the decisions that the new administration will or will not take largely depend on progress that Moscow can achieve with the Obama administration during these few short remaining months. 

It’s important to focus on three main areas.

First, it is imperative to prevent a new war in Donbass in September - December 2016, and to prevent Russian-US cooperation on Syria from failing during that period.

Second, it is important to show some progress on Syria and Ukraine by January 2017, and thereby reduce the likelihood that the new US administration will choose to supply lethal weapons to Kiev and redouble efforts to achieve the fall of the Assad regime in Syria.

Third, an impartial analysis of Russian and US interests and a confidential dialogue between experts should be used to develop a plan for Russian-US cooperation over the next four years, which would be acceptable for both sides. It should cover both checks on the systemic confrontation between the two countries (the arms control problem), and cooperation on common challenges and threats, as well as the principles of interaction in the regions of the world that are critical to both countries.

An upcoming paper by the Valdai Club will focus on ways to attain these goals and analyze items that may be part of such an agenda.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.