MOSCOW ― U.S. President Barack Obama’s term in office will soon be over, but he has yet to achieve one of his main goals: fixing the rapport with Russia. Soon after he was elected, Obama announced the beginning of a new era of relations with Russia, an era which would allow Moscow and Washington to not oppose one another, but to cooperate. And now, at the end of his presidency, the relationship between the two nations could easily again be referred to as a kind of “Cold War.” There are a number of events that have created this frosty climate between these two world powers. Just this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew from a nuclear security contract on the disposal of plutonium, for instance. The spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, John Kirby, also said that the U.S. stopped the use of “bilateral channels” with Russia created to maintain a cease-fire in Syria, an ongoing conflict in which both countries have a stake. And the situation in Ukraine has continued to sour ties.
The next American president, who will be elected on Nov. 8, will inherit all of these issues. And it will be interesting to see what sort of relationship the future leader creates with President Putin, whether it be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Both candidates have already had to grapple with public accusations that Russia may have meddled in the internal affairs of the Democratic National Committee, in an effort to swing the election in favor of the Republican candidate. Russia, for its part, maintains that it is not interfering in America’s decision.
‘She speaks very badly of Putin’
Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin have a long history of negative interactions. Although as secretary of state Clinton played a key role in “resetting” the U.S.- Russia relationship in 2009 and worked hard to be at the forefront of this effort, it seems that she was also quite skeptical about the possible results of the program. And she turned out to be right.
In the years 2009 and 2010, Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, who was the president of Russia at that time, signed a new treaty on the control of strategic nuclear weapons, cooperated on sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program and agreed on the transit of U.S. troops and equipment to Afghanistan through Russian territory. However, things changed in 2011, when the Arab Spring happened. The Russian government insinuated that this movement may have been the result of American influence. So, when in 2011 and 2012 the Russian people started a protest of their own (against the results of a parliamentary election), Putin accused Clinton of encouraging and sponsoring the demonstrations. In turn, Clinton compared Putin to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler when Russia started the conflict with Ukraine over Crimea, and argued for more sanctions against Russian companies in 2014.
Today Putin is talking about her much more discreetly, though Clinton is very actively using his image as an American enemy in her presidential campaign, and presenting Republican nominee Donald Trump’s connection to Putin as a sign of the real estate tycoon’s disloyalty to the United States.
The tense discussion of Russia in the American election process makes it easy to see the future relationships as quite taut. Some even speculate that the next president cannot just continue to invoke Russian aggression without following this up with some action. Former NATO general, Sir Richard Shirreff, warned of this in his recent novel, “2017 War with Russia.” Although the book is a novel, Shirreff said in the intro of the book that he wrote it to try and engage the public with the knowledge that a war with Russia is imminent under the current U.S.-Russia relationship. But one hardly needs to be a politician to be pessimistic about the U.S.-Russia relationship. Only 6 percent of Russians think the relationship would improve under a Clinton presidency, according to a poll by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion.
Only 6 percent of Russians think the relationship would improve under a Clinton presidency.
“According to her previous statements, she can argue for more sanctions against Russia and against our economy,” said Elena, 30, from Moscow. “It doesn’t matter what the politicians say, we were hurt by them much before.”
Other Russians associate Clinton with the policies of her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Under his administration, some Russians felt that actions by the U.S. to work with former Soviet Union states served as an aggressive push of U.S. power, a sentiment that is still felt today when some hear the name “Clinton.”
“We have already seen the Clinton family ruling in the ‘90s, and this period didn’t bring any good to anyone,” said Eugenie, 23, from Moscow.
Others still have been tough on the former secretary of state for what they worry will be a battle of dominance between her and Putin.
“She is going to be the first American woman president. Working with such a patriarchal leader as Putin, she will definitely want to show him who is who here,” Max, 27, from Moscow said.
So, in the case of Clinton, it seems likely that given her history with Putin, and her criticism of him during this race, the prognosis would be quite pessimistic.
A puppet of Putin?
Though Putin and his administration are claiming to be impartial, according to some Russian government officials, there still seem to be more positive statements from the Russian president about Donald Trump than about Clinton.
Last year, Putin complimented Trump, calling him “bright and talented” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race.” Trump, in return, said that Putin is a better leader for his country than Obama was for America.
This exchange of compliments between the two politicians, though any other connection between them, whether private or financial is still in question, led many in the media to report that the two were in a bromance of sorts. Trump’s alleged associations with Russia have ranged from rumors of the business ties of Trump’s former campaign manager, to Trump’s daughter’s association with Putin’s alleged girlfriend.
And while some are still calling into question Trump’s prompting of the DNC hacking that was allegedly Russian-backed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called the allegations, “flattering,” but unsubstantiated.
In the U.S., Trump’s praise of Putin, and the idea of such a close unity has horrified many people. In Russia, on the other hand, the perceived relationship between the two led Trump to get the higher rank, according to a poll done by Gallup International. Another poll conducted by the Levada Center stated that 35 percent here believe a Trump president would be better for Moscow.
'[Trump] seems to be much more eager to set better relationships with Russia.' Kate, 28, from Moscow.
Trump’s popularity in the country has only risen. Some Russians even reportedly made a website about him, while others reportedly sent him campaign donations. In one presidential debate, Clinton picked up on this “bromance,” saying that Trump was in fact a “puppet” of Putin. After indicating that he didn’t know Putin, Trump shot back, “you’re the puppet.”
For many Russians, Trump’s positive intentions for Russia seem to be quite clear ― and they aren’t necessarily what Clinton has suggested.
“He ... seems to be much more eager to set better relationships with Russia than Clinton, who doesn’t look like a peacemaker at all,” said Kate, 28, from Moscow.
Trump may see Putin as similar to him – as another self-made man ― and while some in the United States find that troubling, it can in fact create a more positive start in his rapport with Russia. In global political history, there are enough examples of sympathy between leaders of opposing countries. Take what happened with Putin and former U.S. President George W. Bush, who were often described by media outlets as maintaining a friendly personal relationship despite tensions between their two countries.
A war on the contour
So what does this all mean now, hours before we’ll find out who will rule the United States next? And what’s the view here, in Russia?
In the end, who wins this election may not be so important for the future relationship of the U.S. and Russia, but how Putin responds.
Though Russians have shown that they are interested in the results, this interest may come from a lack of understanding of the American political system, according to Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center.
“Because of the TV propaganda, Putin is presented as a national leader, defending his country’s interests, though for all the problems people can blame the prime minister, the parliament [and not the president],” he said of many Russians’ understanding of their own government. A study from the Levada Center also showed that during the last few years there has been anywhere from 29 to 46 percent of the the population that argued for the country’s need for a strong leader with centralized power.
A Clinton presidency may benefit Putin in some ways.
So, experiencing only the Russian type of power system, where the head figure acquires vast and unchecked powers and can thus completely change the life of the country, some Russians may think about America and this crossroads in terms of what they’re more familiar with, which, in many ways, is an obvious stretch from reality.
Unlike in Russia, the president does not hold the same level of unchallenged power, and regardless of who wins, the democratic institutions within the U.S. will allow the country to act in their national interest. Trump, if he loses, will have to accept the result of the election, for instance, despite arguing previously that he may not.
The race may also turn out to be not so important for Putin himself, despite his seemingly consistent support for Trump. In fact, a Clinton presidency may benefit Putin in some ways. In the same way that Clinton has used the image of Russia to scare voters in the U.S. election, a Clinton presidency may allow Putin to do the same thing during his own campaign in 2018.
Representing the U.S. as an aggressor could lead Russians again to vote for him for fear that they need a strong leader more than anything else to compete with America. So, according to that idea, Putin may want to demonstrate even more hostility towards America, making communication more complicated, thus enabling him to say, come Russian election time, that the West again is ignoring Russia.
But there is no chance of such an opposition becoming a tangible one like it was during the Cold War. President Putin is not driven by the realist ideology he first took office with, instead aiming to eliminate political opposition and consolidate power under himself and his party.
Alexander Baunov, chief editor of Carnegie Russia, called Putin’s type of rule “a tyranny, but just a contoured one,” in which there are more gestures than actual repressions. And that presents the idea that any attempt at creating a crisis in the U.S.-Russian relationship would turn out in the end to be just a shadow of the Cold War, and not an actual one.
Indeed, Igor, 34, from Moscow cautions those watching Putin and the election not to forget that, “all the people which are close to Putin send children to Western countries to study, they go on holidays and buy houses there ― and there is no war for which they would sacrifice all those things.”
In the end, I don’t think that we should expect any real action against the U.S. from Russia. Ultimately, Putin will continue to make dramatic political gestures, pretending more direct action is possible, and using distrust of the United States ― regardless of who wins the election ― to his advantage.