There are still more than four months until the U.S. presidential elections, almost an eternity in these uneasy, constantly shifting and unpredictable times. That notwithstanding, many are already looking to what happens at the polling stations on November 3 as perhaps the main intrigue of this year. People across the world are captivated by the vicissitudes of the election campaign, the endless opinion polls and periodic scandals surrounding President Donald Trump and his rival Joseph Biden. The stakes in this fascinating political game are incredibly high, not only for citizens of the United States, but also for the rest of the world. Germany, Canada, China and Mexico clearly favour the Democratic Party nominee, while many in Israel, Poland, Brazil and India support the current resident of the White House.
The results of the November elections will have serious consequences for all of these countries, positive for some, not so much for others. As for Russia, the historical significance of the U.S. elections is up for debate. One gets the impression that Russia is the exception that proves the rule here, as is often the case. The results of the U.S. presidential election are unlikely to have any significant effect on relations between Washington and Moscow.
It is commonly believed that the Kremlin is rooting for Trump. The incumbent President of the United States is seen by many as Vladimir Putin’s main, if not his only, friend in Washington – and indeed, the entire Western world. And not only a friend, but a consistent lobbyist for Russian interests.
It is true that Trump has not hidden his admiration for the Russian leader in the past (he has done the same for the leaders of China and even North Korea). It is also true that he has not held back in his pointed criticisms of practically every ally of the United States, the European Union and even NATO (while at the same time continuing to increase U.S. funding of the latter, including its eastern flank). And it is true that Trump has caused significant harm to the unity of the West, although blaming it all on transatlantic problems would be rather unfair, to say the least.
But what has Trump’s friendship ever given Moscow? The list is plentiful! A litany of economic sanctions on all kinds of grounds – from the Ukrainian issue to Syria, from chemical weapons to Russia’s energy cooperation with Germany. An unprecedented diplomatic war that has turned the Russian embassy in Washington into a besieged fortress of sorts. The ousting of Moscow from its traditional arms markets. Increased pressure on Moscow’s strategic partners and allies, from Iran and Syria to Cuba and Venezuela.
Some will say that Trump wanted to establish dialogue with Russia, but was never allowed to do so. The senators and members of Congress on Capitol Hill would not allow it. Nor would Trump’s political opponents in the Democratic Party. Nor would those in his own administration, sabotaging any and every, even the most modest attempts to somehow try to come to an agreement with the Kremlin. In other words, Trump wanted the best, but things turned out as usual.
This logic, used by Trump fans in Russia and the United States, is rather unconvincing. If only for the fact that Donald Trump has rarely “wanted the best” during his term in office. Far too often, he has “run before the hounds,” as it were, and been not so much the reluctant executor of other people’s destructive decisions as the active initiator. For example, it was in the White House, and not on Capitol Hill, that the ridiculous idea to completely destroy the entire system of strategic arms control between the United States and Russia was dreamt up and took shape. It was the Commander-in-Chief who made the decision, not once but twice, to launch missile attacks on Syria’s infrastructure. It was the President who authorized the liquidation of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The list of such “initiatives” of the White House goes on… and on.
Second, in politics, the desires or attitudes of leaders matter little. Politics, as the saying goes, is the art of the possible. What is of value is the ability of leaders to achieve the goals they have set themselves. It does not really make any difference what Trump thinks of Putin. What is important is that relations between the United States and Russia have not improved in any area during his time as president. Quite the contrary, they have continued to deteriorate on all fronts. And, unfortunately, the low point is still not in sight.
The experience of the Trump administration confirms an old truth that anyone who has spent at least some time studying the history of relations between Washington and Moscow will know well. Only a strong U.S. president, with unwavering broad support at home, is capable of developing constructive relations with Russia. Only a strong president can hold a successful summit, win over Congress, shut down his opponents at home and take full responsibility for the commitments made. Donald Trump turned out to be a weak president. The American elite has remained divided these three and a half years, and it is precisely this divide that has had a devastating effect on U.S.–Russia relations.
Unfortunately, there is every reason to believe that Joe Biden, should he emerge victorious on November 3, will be another weak president. After all, the political, and indeed social, chasm that has split the United States in two will not be overcome by November. Additionally, the incumbent president’s supporters are unlikely to go down without a fight. In other words, we should not be expecting any fundamental shifts in bilateral relations any time soon. Unlike Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan before him, President Biden simply does not have the political capital to make such changes a reality.
This means that relations will continue to be built on the basis of the “lowest common denominator,” which effectively means the continuation of the current course of confrontation. All the more so because one thing that does unite the political and financial elites in the United States is their unwavering dislike for Russia. Even the sharp exacerbation of relations with China are unlikely to alter these feelings.
This is not to say that Trump and Biden are exactly the same. In some ways, Biden may be more convenient for the Kremlin, in others, less so. No doubt, he will try to increase support inside the United States for Ukraine and raise the issue of human rights in Russia more forcefully than ever. On the other hand, he will likely take a more constructive position on arms control and may very well ease the pressure on Iran. Biden, of course, will not lavish praise on Putin, but his approach to relations with Moscow may be more consistent and predictable.
Whatever happens, the possible changing of the guard in the White House is no reason for Kremlin strategists to lose sleep on the night of November 3–4 staring at their computer screens as the results of the election start rolling in. Such a result will be of crucial importance for many countries around the world, but not for Russia. Bilateral relations really cannot get much worse than they are now, and there are no indications that the situation will improve anytime soon.
From our partner RIAC