American-Russian relations are about to take a sharp turn for the worse.
President Donald Trump, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before him, hoped to “reset” Washington’s dismal relationship with Moscow, but that was always the longest of long shots. Vladimir Putin’s ideology and perceived national interests require the West as an enemy, and no matter how many times Trump tweets that he respects Putin’s “strength” and says it would be “a good thing” if we could get along with Russia and unite against ISIS, neither the Kremlin nor permanent Washington will allow it.
To be sure, Russians initially swooned when Trump beat Clinton in the election last November.
“It turns out that the United Russia [Vladimir Putin’s party] has won the elections in the United States!” Omsk governor Viktor Nazaro said. “Tonight we can use the slogan with Mr. Trump; Yes We Did,” said Boris Chernyshev, a member of the Russian parliament’s ultranationalist faction. “I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag,” said Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Putin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today). Alexander Dugin, former professor and fascistic Putinism philosopher, gushed that Trump’s inauguration was “incredibly beautiful—one of the best moments of my life.”
According to international public opinion surveys, Russia is the only country in the entire world where more people rooted for Trump than for Clinton. (He “beat” her in Russia by 21 points.)
He’s one of us, the Russians thought, sort of. A rising leader of the ragtag nationalist anti-globalist movements. Trump’s antipathy toward the European Union, NATO, and the bipartisan political class in the United States imperfectly mirrors their own attitudes and prejudices.
Russian dolls adorned with Trump’s face are available in stores all over Moscow and beyond. Putin even told the state-run media to provide non-stop friendly coverage to the new administration in Washington for a while. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Russian media mentioned Trump more often in January than it mentioned Putin.
That’s over now. The media swooning has cooled. The Russian ruler has again eclipsed Trump. It’s not hard to understand why.
Having even a potentially innocuous meeting with Russian officials has rapidly turned into a new third rail in American politics. National Security Advisor Mike Flynn lost his job for lying about discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself for saying under oath at a Senate hearing that he had no contacts with Russian officials even though he too had met with Kislyak in his office. Congress is investigating Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year, and even Republican members of Congress are wondering aloud if the Trump campaign had anything to do with it.
There is virtually no chance after all this that the Trump administration will be able to get away with lifting sanctions against Russia or anything else that looks chummy or even blandly cooperative without triggering a spectacular backlash that includes members of his own party and possibly even his cabinet.
Don’t think for a moment that Russians haven’t noticed this either. Of course they’ve noticed, and they have every reason to be anxious about it. Before long, anti-Russian sentiment in the United States could eclipse anti-Americanism is Russia. The only reason that hasn’t happened already is because so many Americans hoped for so long against hope that Russia shorn of totalitarian communism would eventually return “home” to the West like the prodigal son.
Russia, though, hasn’t been fully European since the Mongol invasion of Rus in the year 1240. Its forcible incorporation into the Golden Horde Empire endured for more than 200 years. Sure, Russia’s capital is on the European continent, but Russians see themselves as Eurasian. (North Korea and China, don’t forget, border Russia.)
Putin crafted the Eurasian Economic Union—which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia—as an authoritarian crony state-capitalist competitor to the liberal democratic West that he detests. There isn’t a damn thing anybody in Washington can say or do to convince him to dump that project and align himself as a junior partner with the European Union and NATO, not when he’s the undisputed one-man boss of an entire continent-spanning alternative.
Alexander Dugin, philosophical architect of Vladimir Putin's "Eurasianism"
Understand something here. Both the European Union and Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union sent out feelers to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia for possible future membership. Rather than joining Putin’s Union like Belarus and the others, all three signed association agreements with the European Union. And all three have been dismembered and occupied in part by the Russians, indefinitely preventing them from joining the Western alliance. Neither the European Union nor NATO will even consider accepting a member state that has a disputed territorial conflict with Moscow.
If Russian and American national interests are so at odds then, why on earth did the Kremlin bother interfering in our election in order to get Donald Trump elected? I don’t believe that it did, at least not if you put it that way.
Think about it. Almost everybody thought Trump would lose, including the president himself. His win last November surprised everybody. Vladimir Putin is a smart man, but he can’t see the future better than anyone else. Like the rest of us, he assumed Hillary Clinton would win.
So when his cyberagents hacked the Democratic National Committee and released what it found to WikiLeaks, Putin was attacking the presumed incoming president of the United States. He didn’t go after Clinton per se. Rather, he pre-emptively struck against the next White House. He would have done the same thing if Joe Biden or Tim Kaine or any other Democrat were at the top of the ticket. And he would have done the same thing to the Republican Party if, say, Marco Rubio were the GOP nominee and the presumed winner of the general election.
The fact that Trump actually won was a surprise and a bonus.
Trump said last September that he loves WikiLeaks, forgetting everything he ever knew about the rogue outfit. (Someone should ask him what he thinks of WikiLeaks dumping a trove of classified material onto the Internet supposedly revealing how the CIA spies on people all over the world through their smart phones.) Its founder Julian Assange is emphatically not a Republican operative. WikiLeaks has spent its entire existence waging geopolitical warfare against the United States, mostly on behalf of itself, but partly on behalf of the Russians and everyone else in the world who wants to pull down the American “empire.” Like the Russians, Assange trained his fire on Clinton not because he likes the Republicans but because the Democratic Party includes roughly half the elected officials in the United States and presumably would have included the next president of the United States.
Assange and Putin hoped to kneecap the incoming president before she could even get started.
Their hostility toward the United States in general isn’t obvious to everyone in this country. Putin’s approval rating actually increased during the last year among Trump’s most die-hard supporters. The rest of us, though—and the rest of us still includes most Republicans—are reacting against Russian malfeasance more strongly than we have at any time since the Berlin Wall fell.
That reaction is blowing up in the Trump administration’s face, but the president can turn it around by taking an unambiguously hawkish stance against Russia. Putin, meanwhile, can’t do anything to recover his reputation in the United States.
Trump has already started to reverse himself and isn’t as rhetorically kind to Putin as he was even recently. “Even in the way he talks you can now hear notes of Obama,” said Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. “And you can hear in his address [to Congress]: the military budget will be increased by over $50 billion.”
During last year’s campaign, Trump openly considered recognizing Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, joining just a handful of rogue states like North Korea and Venezuela. A couple of weeks ago, though, he backtracked and tweeted, “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”
Russian soldiers in Crimea
Many of the president’s pro-Putin aides and staff—Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Mike Flynn to a lesser extent—are out now while many of his current cabinet members—in particular United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary James Mattis—are as staunchly hawkish on Russia as John McCain and Mitt Romney. Trump hasn’t stuck a sock in their mouths and probably never will. “There's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively,” Mattis said recently, “and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.”
There are other reasons Putin and his claque are unhappy. “With Trump in the White House,” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes write in Foreign Policy magazine, “Putin has lost his monopoly over geopolitical unpredictability. The Kremlin’s ability to shock the world by taking the initiative and trashing ordinary international rules and customs has allowed Russia to play an oversized international role and to punch above its weight. Putin now has to share the capacity to keep the world off balance with a new American president vastly more powerful than himself. More world leaders are watching anxiously to discover what Trump will do next than are worrying about what Putin will do next.”
So after all this, the Kremlin has ordered Russia’s state-run media to stop writing about Trump as if he’s some kind of hero.
There’s a lot more going on, though, than a cooling of the Trump euphoria in Moscow. The Russians have plenty of reasons to fear the emergence, if not sooner then at least later, of a sustained bipartisan American hostility to Russia and Putin, with Donald Trump himself as its champion, that dwarfs anything the world has seen since Ronald Reagan engaged with détente with the Soviet Union’s last premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Kremlin reportedly fears that Trump will be removed from office—either by Congress or a military coup and possibly even assassinated—and that a venomous anti-Russian consensus will unite Americans, finally bringing about at least a partial end to our debilitating political polarization that Russia has been crowing about for a year now. They are most likely wrong about the first part of that equation. An American president hasn’t been assassinated for more than a half-century, no American president has ever been forcibly removed from power against his will internally, and the very idea of a military coup is absurd. The Russians are probably right, though, about the second part. A venomous anti-Russian consensus in America is already rising.
Whatever else happens, at some point Vladimir Putin will inevitably infuriate Trump. The American president is notoriously thin-skinned and couldn’t even get through a phone call with Australia’s friendly Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull without losing his cool. Even leaving all that aside, Trump may soon realize that the most effective way to retire the ongoing controversy surrounding his staff’s real and alleged dodgy ties to Russia is to fulminate against Putin the way he does against Barack Obama and Rosie O'Donnell.
Donald Trump hasn’t even been president for two months yet. His bizarre pro-Russian bumbling could easily turn out to be a mere blip at the start of his presidency. And if a galvanizing anti-Russian consensus does end up emerging, it’s likely to be much more intense than it would have been had Vladimir Putin left us alone.