Russia Direct came up with top 5 events in U.S.-Russia relations which highlighted increasing confrontation between the countries in 2016.

 

2016 aggravated U.S.-Russia confrontation. Photo: RIA Novosti 

In 2016, the relationship between Russia and the U.S. continued its downward spiral, marking nearly three years of steady deterioration. Throughout the year, Russia was described as the number one threat facing America during the U.S. presidential campaign. Moreover, the Kremlin was accused by the White House of hacking the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which damaged the reputation of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and allegedly led to her failure in the 2016 election.

At the same time, 2016 was very challenging for Moscow-Washington cooperation in the Middle East, with the failure of two attempts to reach ceasefire in war-torn Syria. The possible collaboration in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) turned into a tug of war, with Russia having supported the Syrian troops to seize Aleppo and the U.S. having launched the international military operation in Mosul.

With the Ukraine crisis still unresolved, the problems in U.S.-Russia relations have been aggravated by the ongoing informational confrontation and sanction war between Moscow and Washington. Far from alleviating the sanctions, the U.S. extended them and brought about a response from the Kremlin. Finally, the Kremlin’s move to suspend cooperation with the U.S. on the joint disposal of weapons-grade plutonium contributed to deteriorating relations between the two countries.

However, with the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the race, the Kremlin hopes to reset U.S.-Russia relations or at least alleviate the tensions. Keeping this in mind, Russia Direct came up with the list of top five events in Moscow-Washington relations in 2016.  

1. Trump's victory in the presidential race

Trump’s  election was the top story of 2016. Despite forecasts of many political experts, the flamboyant and controversial tycoon won the U.S. presidential election. This event dramatically divided the whole country and was met with an outcry by many supporters of Democrats, who were too reluctant to recognize Trump as the next American president. However, the Kremlin seems to have been satisfied, if suprised, by the results of the election.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"

There are some reasons behind such optimism. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump have repeatedly expressed kudos about each other. For example, during his election campaign, Trump said that he admired how Putin governed his country, and even suggested that Putin was a better leader than U.S. President Barack Obama. Many pundits argue that Putin and Trump do have personal chemistry. This could lead to a robust cooperation between Russia and U.S. in Syria in 2017.

At the same time, Trump is not driven by ideology, which is seen by experts as a good sign. He doesn’t care about values and ideals, but he does care about real interest, pundits argue.

Moreover, the appointment of Exxon Mobil head Rex Tillerson as the U.S. Secretary of State might also improve relations between the countries, according to some experts. As the head of the biggest private oil company, Tillerson has a “Russian Friendship” medal from Putin for his contribution to the economic collaboration between the U.S. and Russia. Tillerson participated in some projects with Rosneft, and now is well-known for his personal ties with the Russian president.

However, given the fact that the future Trump administration might include "hawks" and those poliitcians who see Russia as a challenge for the U.S., it remains to be seen if Trump's presidency will be a blessing or a curse for Russia. And most Russian and foreign experts are mindful about it. Among them is Evgeny Minchenko, one of the independent observers during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise (IIPE).

"It is too early to celebrate his victory, even though at first glance there are some reasons for such optimism," he told Russia Direct in a recent interview. "In reality, even though Trump claims to pursue isolationist policy, he puts stakes on increasing the U.S. military potential. He puts stakes on more assertive negotiations with other global actors. In addition, Trump’s economic policy envisions lifting the ban on hydrocarbons extraction and shifting focus on the development of the coal industry, and the reindustrialization of the country. This creates more risks of decreasing prices on energy resources throughout the world as well as strengthening the dollar. Both of these trends will aŒffect Russia’s economy."

Another problem is Trump's whimsical and mercurial nature. Carnegie Moscow Center's Director Dmitri Trenin describes the U.S.-President-elect as "unpredictable" and expresses concerns about the impact it will have on U.S.-Russia relations.

"It is impossible to outline the Trump administration’s policy," he told Russia Direct in a November interview. "And today this aspect should be taken into account, given the fact that the current agenda of U.S.-Russia relations adds up to one key question, just like it was during the Cold War: How to prevent a hot war? I hope the U.S. and Russia will cooperate and be able to prevent the escalation from spinning out of control and turning into a conflict at the nuclear level. I hope we will avoid such a catastrophe."

2. Russian hacking scandal

The alleged hacking of the DNC servers by Russians is the second most important event in U.S.-Russia relations in 2016. Hackers from the so-called groups “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” publicly revealed the email correspondence between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the head of her election campaign, John Podesta. This shedded light on the Clinton team’s views of Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders, and might have indirectly influenced the outcome of the presidential election in 2016.

In fact, Russian hackers were blamed for Trump’s victory. Recently, the U.S. intelligence services reported that there was evidence of cyber interference in voter data. Now the U.S. will launch another series of probes into Russia's alleged cyberattacks to figure out if the Kremlin really meddled in the U.S. domestic policy or not. If Moscow is found guilty, the U.S. will toughly respond to the Kremlin, according to American media.

Also read: "Should Russia be punished for alleged cyber attacks on America?"

The CIA referred to the guilt of the Russian hackers for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s email server as an established fact. Most importantly, the key U.S. intelligence agency alleges that Russia’s objective was not only to undermine confidence in the American electoral system but also to directly support Trump. Even U.S. President Barack Obama was very puzzled by supposed cyberattacks from Russia during his annual press conference and ordered the intelligence to conduct a detailed probe into the problem.

Likewise, on Dec. 15, Clinton called for establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the Russian alleged interference in the American election on the model of the commission that had investigated the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

However, the Kremlin sees such accusations as pure speculations, which are not based on the facts, with some experts describing Russia's alleged involvement in the hacking scandal as another conspiracy theory. Minchenko argues that Democrats try to divert the attention of Americans from their pre-election dubious schemes by pointing fingers to the Kremlin. Instead of admitting their failure in the presidential race and learn the lessons, Democrats shift responsibility to the Kremlin for their defeat, he wrote on his facebook page.  

At the same time, Russia Direct's regular contributor Ivan Tsvetkov, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, argues that any attempt of the U.S. to launch a probe into Russia's hacking scandal will be a gift for the Kremlin's propagandists and politicians.

"The fact that Russia has managed, if allegedly, to cause trouble to the U.S. exactly in the high-tech area is rapidly growing into a source of pride for many Russians," Tsvetkov explains in his column for Russia Direct. "The more the theme is inflated in the mass media, the higher is the support for Putin among the Russians who see that their President not only 'beat America' another time but did it in its own field of high tech'.”

"By launching a large-scale investigation, the members of the U.S. Congress may not so much punish the Russian President, but instead boost his publicity and create a great deal of buzz about him," he added.

3. Failure to implement the Syrian ceasefire agreement

U.S.-Russia attempts to find common ground in Syria and resolve the civil war in the country through diplomatic means failed in 2016. Moscow and Washington tried to implement two ceasefire agreements throughout the year, yet hopelessly failed due to differences over the future of the Syrian President Bashar Assad and the lack of understanding of which opposition groups in Syria should be deemed terrorist organizations. 

On Oct. 3, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby announced that Washington has suspended diplomatic talks with Russia over Syria. This meant the death of the second U.S.-Russia Syria ceasefire deal signed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry on Sept. 9. The first February deal also failed to bring about any tangible results. "Unfortunately, Russia failed to live up to its own commitments," Kirby said in a statement.

 Recommended: "Aleppo bombing: A lost opportunity for Russian statesmanship at the UN"

In turn, Moscow accused Washington of collaborating with radical Islamists to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to the official statement of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the U.S. is “ready to cut a deal with the devil” in its attempts to change the official Syrian regime. The Kremlin saw the refusal of the U.S. to cooperate with Russia in Syria as Washington’s reluctance to separate the moderate opposition from radical Islamists belonging to Jabhat Al-Nusra, a terrorist group in Syria affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

In fact, the large-scale bombing of Aleppo and its hospitals by Syrian and Russian air forces also contributed to the failure of the second Syrian ceasefire deal, with the West lambasting the Kremlin for the Aleppo bombings and being ready to impose a new set of sanctions.

"True, Russia managed to unleash hell from the air in supporting Iran’s Syria policy," Stephen Holmes, Walter E. Meyer professor at New York University School of Law, told Russia Direct in a December interview. "It destroyed hospitals, killing many civilians as well as “terrorists” in Aleppo. But does Moscow have an endgame? ... Russia has been taking sides to poke a finger in America’s eye and regain 'a place at the table.' This is strategically misguided and dangerous."

A soldier of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) near the town of Mhin, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

As a result of these disagreements over Syria, the attempts of the Kremlin and the White House to boost anti-terrorism cooperation and fight ISIS also failed. Moreover, their declared cooperation turned into a rivalry, with Russia supporting Assad in the Aleppo bombings and the U.S. conducting the anti-terrorism international campaign in Mosul. In fact, Moscow and Washington found themselves in the situation, when none of the sides was ready to give up their claims to the status of being an international terrorism fighter, some experts imply.

4. Russia's withdrawal from the plutonium deal

On Oct. 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended cooperation with the U.S. on the joint disposal of weapons-grade plutonium, an agreement that has regulated Moscow-Washington collaboration in the sphere since 2000. This stance marked a new low in Russia-U.S. relations and came as a result of what the Kremlin sees as U.S. unfriendly policy toward Russia. It was immediately followed by the U.S. State Department’s announcement on the suspension of bilateral U.S.-Russia negotiations on the Syrian conflict.

As a condition for its further participation in the agreement, the Kremlin came up with a list of demands for Washington – including a reduction of the U.S. military presence in NATO countries and the cancelation of sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its policy in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Moscow insists on lifting the Magnitsky Act, the law, enacted in 2012 and intended to hold accountable Russian officials for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009.

More about the Kremlin's withdrawal from the deal read here: "Why Russia's withdrawal from the plutonium deal is worrying"

“U.S.-Russian tensions have reached the most dangerous point since the height of the Ukraine conflict in 2014-2015. [They] need to step away from the brink,” Carnegie Moscow Center's Dmitri Trenin wrote in his Facebook post in response to the suspension of the plutonium deal.

Likewise, many other pundits expressed a great deal of concern over the Kremlin's move. Petr Topychkanov, associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, said that the suspension could affect the process of arms control, because Washington would see Moscow’s decision as a desire to introduce the nuclear factor into the political confrontation between Russia and the West.

5. Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul blacklisted by the Kremlin

Shortly after the victory of Trump in the presidential race, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Stanford professor Michael McFaul announced that the Kremlin had banned him from visiting Russia and denied him a visa. Amidst the victory of the Republican candidate who seeks to normalize the relations with Putin, the ban of McFaul attracted a great deal of attention.

When asked about the reasons for banning McFaul from entering the country, Russia’s Foreign Ministry bluntly responded by explaining that McFaul is persona non grata due to what the Kremlin sees as “active participation in the destruction of the bilateral relationship and relentless lobbying in favor of a campaign to pressure Russia." Russia Direct's contributor Ivan Tsvetkov found such arguments bizarre.

"Although during his diplomatic tenure he [McFaul] preferred communication with the representatives of Russian civil society and liberal opposition to the Kremlin, it could not be the reason of the deterioration in the Moscow-Washington bilateral relations," Tsvetkov wrote in his column. "After all, communication with the opposition is a diplomatic routine in other countries. And if the Kremlin found McFaul’s contacts with opposition suspicious, it means the relations were not in good shape because of another reason - a more fundamental reason, not because of McFaul."

Also read: "Banning ex-US Ambassador McFaul won't solve anything for the Kremlin"

"The failure of the reset results not from the activity of McFaul, but from the incompatible interests of Russia and the U.S.," Tsvetkov concluded describing the ban of McFaul as "symbolic in such an environment."

According to his logic, the Kremlin sees the Stanford professor as the embodiment of Washington’s old approaches toward Russia "and by openly denying him a visa, the Russian authorities seem to be carrying out a sort of mystical ritual."

Propaganda war continues

U.S.-Russia confrontation in 2016 was accompanied by a very tough information war between the countries, with the emergence of “black lists” for media. In fact, “media hostility” and “propaganda” became buzzwords or a tool of stigmatizing and discrediting one’s opponents.   

In May, Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist, and Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist, started a counter-disinformation initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Its mission is clear: monitoring, collecting, analyzing, rebutting and exposing what they see as the Kremlin’s propaganda in Europe. Likewise, in March, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), a pro-Kremlin think tank, presented its new report, which included a very evocative and controversial title: “Foreign Media in 2015: Anti-Russian Vector.”

Recommended: "Propaganda or not?"

Finally, in the wake of U.S. presidential campaign, a team of anonymous journalists and experts initiated the so-called PropOrNot project, a website that has created yet another black list, containing the names of about 200 online media outlets, labeled as “sites that reliably echo Russian propaganda” or are just “bona fide ‘useful idiots’ of the Russian intelligence services.” The list contains both English-language media outlets based in Russia and their American counterparts.

All this indicates that such a hostile environment hampers dialogue and aggravates mistrust between Russia and the U.S. Will Trump's presidency reverse or strengthen this trend in 2017? It remains to be seen.