Firewood and Coal: U.S.–Russia Relations without Mueller

The completion of the Mueller investigation ended with the deafening defeat of the opponents of the incumbent President of the United States. A supposed grand conspiracy lay at the heart of the “intervention theory” — the assumption that the Kremlin had coordinated a large-scale plan to support Trump and undermine democracy. The formerly respectable U.S. media stoked the flames to the very last. Collusion was seen by many as a self-evident fact. The conclusion drawn by the Mueller report should only have confirmed the obvious. Newspapers printed caricatures of those involved in the “conspiracy,” plotted the schedules of meetings and contacts, cited the opinions of retired intelligence officers that there was no smoke without fire, and pieced together the intricacies of the relations of the “conspirators.” The Mueller investigation out an end to this wanton disorder.

The entire affair revealed two important things for the United States. First, that the leading media outlets, which are supposed to protect democracy (which, according to some, is in crisis), have descended to the level of gutter press. Second, that the law enforcement system has avoided domestic political battles and steadied the political ship, doing more for democracy that those who vow to protect it. The American political regime has shown strength and resilience.

The investigation did not put the question of Russian intervention to be entirely, however. Mueller accused the Russian side of hacker attacks and “trolling” on social networks. Even if we accept that this is the case, however, we are talking about isolated cases that can hardly be characterized as a system. Last autumn, Trump instructed the intelligence services to find evidence of interference in the congressional elections. The investigation revealed nothing. It is unlikely that Russia has heard the last of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, however. The coals will continue to burn for a long time to come, although it would seem that there is no more fresh wood for the fire.

We should not expect any changes in Washington’s stance on Moscow. Trump and his administration have set the tone for the sanctions policy. The notions of “hostile politics” and “interference in the affairs of allies” are gaining momentum. Mueller will not be there. This means that the facts can be interpreted in a number of ways, replacing the American plotlines with other issues — from Venezuela to the Middle East, from the Skripal case to European populists. The sanctions will continue to come in thick and fast. Perhaps the new circumstances will lead to a revision of some of the provisions of the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKAA) with new restrictions. But even without it, the U.S. administration has sufficient resources to impose a wide range of restrictive measures on Moscow if it so desires.

Russia continues to be a competitor of the United States, and there are a huge number of political contradictions between the two sides. Moscow will continue to assert its positions in spite of the sanctions. That notwithstanding, the conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents certain opportunities. Washington and Moscow have a number of questions that need to be addressed in order to reduce the costs of competition. The two sides need to search for solutions and take small steps towards more stable relations. They need to tackle the most pressing issues so that populists on both sides cannot use them to their own advantage, thus reducing the risk of escalation. The priorities include the “rules of the game” for the digital space and the norms of behaviour in the cyber environment, for it is here that the most serious crisis in U.S.–Russia relations became possible. And this is where the problem needs to be dealt with. Back in the day, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought about the realization that arms control is an absolute necessity. The digital environment needs to be regulated.

First published in our partner RIAC

Ivan Timofeev
Ivan Timofeev
RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.