international analysis and commentary

Russia cherishes its role in the US election, and plays with fire


Speaking at the opening session of the newly-elected State Duma on Oct. 5, President Vladimir Putin quoted Russia’s famed pre-revolutionary Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin who said that Russia has a “historically supreme right to be strong”. With regard to the ongoing presidential campaign in the United States, Putin sees this right being realized. While the West interprets Russia’s meddling into the US election as proof that the Kremlin is close to becoming a rogue state, Russian state-run media portrays the accusations against it as more evidence of the country’s growing might.

The accusations that Russia has hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee and released information that undermined Hilary Clinton’s campaign are rejected as nonsense in the press. Meanwhile, emphasis is given to the fact that Russia is constantly targeted by the US. This feeds into a confirmation of the belief that the Kremlin has transformed d itself from what was an almost failed state in the 1990s into a worthy enemy.

Putin himself said that he is positive about Russia’s omnipresence in the US presidential campaign. At a an investment forum in Moscow Oct. 12, Putin told a crowd of foreign and Russian executives that Russia relishes its role in the US election because it is a testament that the country has become a solid international player. However, it does so only in part, Putin added, because “all participants of this process misuse the anti-Russian rhetoric and thus poison our bilateral relations.”

Since Russia and the US quarreled bitterly over Ukraine, relations have reached a point where even Donald Trump wouldn’t be able to fix them quickly. Russia clearly sees Trump as a preferred candidate, but  the assessment is that the propaganda machines on both sides cannot make U-turns and will take time to adjust to the new reality.

l. Trump has offered some simple answers to complex issues and the Russian elites have quickly bought it all, though they are also tired of the ongoing confrontation and seek some relief from the tension. Nevertheless, any possible recovery will be gradual and dreary. 

The Republican candidate has said that he can make a deal with Russia and this is exactly what the Kremlin wants: to have an all-encompassing arrangement with the US and the West in general that would divide spheres of influence. For instance, the Kremlin realizes that Ukraine is much more important to Moscow than to Washington, therefore Trump might be willing to give up on the issue in order to receive concessions elsewhere, for instance on Syria. At the same time, it is clear that no new President would be capable of pulling off such a deal single-handedly. Many in Europe would object and Ukrainian leaders would loudly protest.

Meanwhile, in the scenario of a Hillary Clinton White House, such an arrangement would be unimaginable. Putin’s personal relations with Clinton are already sour and her values-laden approach to foreign policy would not leave Russia much room to maneuver. The Kremlin would be pressured on all fronts, meaning that the ongoing confrontation would continue. With its recent anti-American approach that brought Moscow-Washington relations to their lowest level since the Soviet times, the Kremlin demonstrated that even a direct military confrontation is not unimaginable.

It is possible that Trump’s more positive comments about Putin and his policies  are just plain rhetoric. Meanwhile, his recent statements have been much more reserved when it comes to Russia and its role in Syria. Overall, Trump has been willing to adjust his views in order to suit public expectations. This willingness to change on cue  has been repeatedly mocked by the state media in Russia.

Apart from priding Russia as the number one enemy for Washington, the propaganda machine portrays the US election as a circus that has little to do with the basic needs of the American people. Both candidates are caricatured as entertainers, who would do anything to earn more points with the voters. Naturally, this undermines Russia’s respect for American democracy and democracy in general. Russians are told that the American system is a sham that is designed to cover up the rule of the establishment.

In this context, the Russian model looks superior, being more honest and legitimate. It is ruled by one man, who is supported by the vast majority of the population, instead of a vague clique of rulers, who essentially nominate their representatives to the White House. The Democratic candidate is shown as a downright hypocrite and Russophobe, while her Republican opponent is depicted as eccentric, but more honest. Trump is also presented as rational: he wants to move away from American ideological interventionism and let other states basically do as they wish.

Members of the conservative Russian elite believe that the Western elites do not represent their people. The Western politicians and mainstream media that support them are detached from the problems of ordinary citizens, whose values are much more traditional. There is hope that due to the ongoing economic difficulties and the refugee crisis, these ordinary people will come out and vote for Trump. Brexit and the increased support for the nationalists in European countries are interpreted as part of the same chain of events that confirms these beliefs.

Overall, the Russian government now has a more granular understanding of how US politics work. When the Russian economy is contracting and the prospects of growth are fuzzy, the Russian government feels compelled to both explain why people get poorer (due to sanctions) and give them new sources of pride (an assertive foreign policy and the awareness that Russia matters so much in the US election). The problem is that every step means an escalation in the already tense relationship with the West; at some point this dynamic may become too expensive and spiral out of control.

This situation looks similar to the Soviet times, when the USSR lost a direct confrontation with the West due to its weak economy. Russia has already more than doubled its military spending over the past decade, while cutting expenditures on human capital and economic modernization. In the long term, Russia will no longer be able to afford the great power status it craves to retain at all cost now.