Saturday, December 31, 2016

The latest inflection in US-Russia relations

Aljazeera hosts a discussion on How will a Trump presidency impact sanctions on Russia? 12/30/2016:

Aljazeera also presents a column by Luke Coffey of the conservative Heritage Foundation, though the Aljazeera website identifies him only as "a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think tank." Coffey flags a majority-Armenian region of the nation of Georgia as a possible upcoming point of contention between Russia and the West:

It is no secret that Russia views the South Caucasus as being in its natural sphere of influence. In light of Russia's annexation of Crimea, and on the back of Moscow's recent treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgians have legitimate reasons to believe that Russian activity in their country will only increase in 2015.

Consequently, many are keeping a close eye on the Georgian province of Samtskhe-Javakheti - a majority ethnically Armenian region located just three hours' drive from the nation's capital city of Tbilisi.
And he is want to see this treated as an important Western priority, "The West can make it clear to Russia that further meddling in Georgia's domestic affairs could lead to additional sanctions."

Stefan Meister in a piece from mid-December rejects the idea that the Russian intervention in the US election, whatever that may actually have been in reality, was decisive in electing Trump President in the Electoral College, Russland hat Trump nicht zum Präsidenten gemacht Die Zeit 13.12.2016. He notes that there were public signs that the Russian government was assuming that Hillary Clinton would become President:

Die russische Führung hat Trump unterstützt, sowohl in ihrer offiziellen Rhetorik im Wahlkampf als auch mit den Attacken auf die E-Mail-Konten von Hillary Clinton und ihren Mitarbeitern. Ob die Regierung in Moskau wirklich geglaubt hat, damit den Wahlausgang zugunsten Trumps beeinflussen zu können, ist fraglich. Im Gegenteil: Die Rede von Wladimir Putin auf dem internationalen Waldai-Forum Ende Oktober war eindeutig an Hillary Clinton als neue Präsidentin gerichtet.

Weder die russischen Medien noch Parlamentarier waren auf Trump vorbereitet. Russland musste nach dessen überraschendem Sieg sehr schnell die Stoßrichtung ändern: Im Wahlkampf war Donald Trump noch der Underdog, der keine Chance gegen das Establishment hatte. Jetzt steht er nach Ansicht Russlands für einen grundlegenden Wandel in der US-Politik, für mehr Pragmatismus in der Außenpolitik. Kurz gesagt: Russlands Mann sitzt jetzt im Weißen Haus.

[The Russian leadership supported Trump in its offial rhetoric in the campaign as wells as with the attacks on the e-mail accounts of Hillary and her colleagues. Whether the regime in Moscow really believed it could influence the election result for Trump is questionable. Quite the opposite: Vladimir Putin's speech at the international Waldai Forum at the end of October was clearly assuming Hillary Clinton as the new President.

Neither the Russian media nor parliamentarian were prepared for Trump. After his surprising win, Russia had to quickly change its orientation: [In the new position,] Trump had still been the underdog in the campaign who had no chance against the Establishment. Now he stands in Russia's view for a fundamental change in US politics, for more pragmatism in foreign policy. Briefly put: Russia's man is now in the White House.]
In other words, the Russians are promoting the line that they have their man in the White House. Which is, uh, pretty much what the Democrats and a large part of the progressive movement are saying! Which means they are agreeing with Russians and, well, this is going to give me a headache.

Masha Gessen (The Most Powerful Men in the World NYR Daily 12/28/2016) observes, "If Americans perceive Putin as the ultimate winner of the presidential race, then that is what he is." At least in Putin's view of how he wants to appear to Russians and the world.

I think the Democrats needs to take a deep breath on this thing. The fundamental processes of international relations did come to a grinding halt on American Election Day. The United States and Russia will continue to have common interests with Russia and also differences. And both sides have nuclear weapons and it is in the vital interest of both nations to make sure those weapons are never used. How well Trump will manage US interests in his Family Business Administration's dealings with Russia is anybody's guess - though it surely will be a mess.

But being simple-minded about it is not a good idea. For the Democrats or anybody else. There are differences among the various factions of Russian oligarchs and not all of them are pro-Putin. The Russian mobsters aren't a monolithic body either and their connections to various oligarchs and the government are complicated. And the Russian intelligence services, the military and the Russian version of the military-industrial complex more broadly have their own priorities. Even a Trump desperate to have smooth relations with Russia will have a hard time pleasing them all.

Meister also writes:

Die russische Führung braucht ein Feindbild Westen-Nato-USA, um von der eigenen inneren Krise abzulenken. Clinton wäre dafür perfekt gewesen, die russische Politik und die Medien hatten sich auch bereits auf sie eingeschossen. Trump aber will den internationalen Terrorismus und insbesondere den "Islamischen Staat" bekämpfen und braucht dafür Partner. Putin hat jedoch kein Interesse daran, tiefer in den Konflikt mit dem IS hineingezogen zu werden. Dazu fehlen ihm auch die militärischen Mittel. Er versucht vor allem, mit so viel Landgewinn wie möglich vor der Amtseinführung Trumps seine Verhandlungsposition in Syrien zu stärken.

[The Russian leadership needs an image of the enemy, The West/NATO/USA, in order to detract from their own internal crisis. Clinton would have been perfect for that; Russian politicians and the media had already fixed on her. But Trump wants to fight international terrorism and especially the "Islamic State," and needs partners for that. Putin, however, has not interest in being pulled further into the conflict with the IS. He lacks the military means for it. Above all, he is trying to win as much territory as possible before Trump takes office in order to strengthen his position in Syria.]
Nikolas Gvosdev writes in Russia Sanctions: What Will Congress Do? The National Interest 12/31/2016:

Overriding the Kremlin's normal automatic bureaucratic response to immediately respond to Western actions with equivalent "tit for tat" reactions, Vladimir Putin apparently decided against any public reaction. But while round one may be over, the story is far from over—and what happens in the next three weeks between New Year's and the Inauguration may determine the fate of Donald Trump's proposed outreach to Russia even before his administration takes office.
Gvosdev discusses the possibility of a bipartisan majority in Congress overriding some of Trump's (possible) efforts to have better relations with Russia:

If Congress locks in new sanctions on Russia, declines to give the President either the ability to waive them on national security grounds or to determine when the conditions for lifting them has been met, and requires that lifting sanctions will occur only on the basis of a new Congressional vote, then it doesn't really matter what Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, Michael Flynn or anyone else thinks about the utility of sanctions or even using the prospect of lifting them as a bargaining chip in future dealings with the Kremlin—because the power to do so will not be in their hands but in that of Congress. The Trump administration would then be fighting a two-front struggle: trying to negotiate deals with Russia (say, on the future of Ukraine) while at the same time seeing whether such bargains would be supported by Congress for sanctions to be lifted or at least modified.
Masha Gessen provides the transcript of a public appearance by Putin of December 23, in which he claims to have been confident in Trump's being elected:

Journalist: 37 percent of Republican voters like you.

Putin: Really?

Journalist: Yes, and if Ronald Reagan knew, he’d be turning over in his grave. By the way, we as your voters are very pleased that you have such power, that you could even reach Ronald Reagan. Our Western colleagues often tell us that you can manipulate the world, pick presidents of your choosing, intervene in elections wherever you want. How does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world? Thank you.

Putin: I have addressed this issue on numerous occasions. But if you think that I need to do it one more time, fine, I will say it one more time. The current US government and the leadership of the Democratic Party are trying to blame all their failures on outside forces. I have some questions and a few ideas regarding this.

The Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election but also the election to the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, and to Congress, where Republicans have the majority. I wonder if that’s my accomplishment too. [Here Putin cracks a joke with a reference to a Soviet-era film about a hapless college student who gets in trouble and takes the blame for things he did as well as things he didn’t do.] None of this is true. All of it is testament to the fact that the current administration is facing systemic problems. I have talked about this before.

I think there is a gap between the elites and the broad masses, as we used to say in Soviet times, regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. The fact that a significant portion of, let’s say, Republican voters are supporting the Russian president is not something I take personal credit for. You want to know what I think? I think a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like, what we should be doing, where we face common dangers and problems. It’s good that there are people who share our understanding of traditional values, because it’s a good start for building relations between two countries as powerful as Russia and the United States, on this basis, the basis of mutual admiration of the people.

I wish they wouldn’t dredge up the names of their former leaders. I don’t know who would be turning over in his grave. I think Reagan would rejoice in the victory of his party and would be happy for the newly elected president, who had a fine understanding of societal mood and worked in that paradigm and went to the very end even though no one, except you and me, believed that he would win.
Gessen adds, "One suspects that having two men who believe themselves to be the most powerful in the world can’t go well." And she elaborates on the factor emphasized by Meister, the importance of the US and NATO as an image of The Enemy for Putin's and Russia's military-industrial complex:

The specter of the American military has been essential to Putin’s domestic rhetoric. Throughout his seventeen years as the Russian leader, Putin has relied on the constant if sometimes vague idea of existential danger to shore up his popularity. This has been especially important during his current term as president, when he has responded to protests and a tanking economy by launching wars at home and abroad. All of these wars—against the “fifth column” inside the country, in Ukraine, and in Syria—have been framed by Russian media as wars against the United States. The wars have been good for Putin’s popularity rating, which has stayed above 80 percent ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014—in spite of a precipitous economic downturn. But Ukraine and Syria would not produce those kinds of numbers on their own: it is the framing of these wars as proxy conflicts with America that make them important.
She predicts of Trump and Putin, "Both men share a primitive idea of power as something that is based on superior strength asserted and acknowledged publicly. Trump will tweet nuclear policy again, and Putin will not be as accommodating in the future."