RD Interview: Evgeny Minchenko, one of the independent observers during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, discusses Trump’s future team and the probable impact of his upcoming presidency on U.S.-Russia relations.
Felix, a male polar bear, holds the portrait of U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump in his mouth as it predicts the result of U.S. presidential election at a zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, Russia. Photo: Reuters
Evgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise (IIPE), visited the U.S. during the 2016 presidential campaign as an independent observer. During his trip, he got in touch with his American counterparts from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Minchenko talked to the political consultants of the U.S. presidential candidates and brought a Russian perspective to the election. Russia Direct sat down with Minchenko to discuss U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, his future team, the probable impact of his presidency on U.S.-Russia relations as well as the consequences of the possible vote recount in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Russia Direct: While The Cook Political Report argues that Clinton garnered two million votes more than Trump, some politicians have initiated a vote recount in three states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) due to technical errors and alleged hacking. In your view, what are the odds of Clinton changing the situation in her favor as a result of the recount and what are the implications of this?
Evgeny Minchenko: We have to take into account three aspects. First, the White House officially recognized the results of the elections as legitimate. The elections took place and Trump won. The process of transition to power has been already launched.
Second, I don’t understand what specific goals they are trying to reach by launching the recount in three states and how they are going to do it accurately if the computer has already processed the results. I have no clue how it could be implemented technically.
Finally, what are the implications of this recount for the legitimacy of the authorities in the country? Today the credibility of the establishment is undermined among the American population. So, if the vote recount takes place and reassesses the results in favor of Clinton, it might aggravate the political turbulence in the country and affect the legitimacy of the current authorities to a greater extent.
One also should understand that Trump’s supporters — angry and loweducated (and sometimes armed) white men — would not accept it. It might be dangerous for the stability of the country.
RD: Do you mean it could lead to direct confrontation between Clinton’s and Trump’s supporters?
E.M.: Yes. It is a dangerous scenario and U.S. President Barack Obama is doing his utmost to avoid it. In my view, it might be a big political mistake of the Clinton campaigners to support and participate in this recount. However, at the same time, such a situation creates uncertainty around Trump, with his legitimacy being in limbo.
RD: What do you mean?
E.M.: I mean that he became President at a time when most Americans didn’t support him. On the other hand, such an incident took place during the 2000 presidential elections, when Republican George W. Bush won the race despite the fact that the majority of the U.S. population voted for Democratic candidate Al Gore.
RD: What lessons should Trump learn from Bush’s experience?
E.M.: Bush launched a military operation abroad against terrorists. [After the Sept. 11 attack he announced the “War on Terror” — Editor’s note]. That’s why I suspect that Trump will follow the same path and reinvigorate his campaign against the terrorists in Syria. The Kremlin can benefit from this as well, because a U.S.-Russia joint military operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) might improve Trump’s approval rankings.
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TRUMP, HIS TEAM AND RUSSIA
RD: U.S.-Russia relations will depend on the composition of the Trump administration. In your opinion, what position in Trump’s team will be the most important for the future relations between Moscow and Washington?
E.M.: One of the most significant figures could be Michael Flynn as the President’s National Security Adviser, because his background is controversial from the point of view of relations with Russia. On the one hand, he attended the 10th anniversary of RT [Russia’s state-controlled English-language channel, which many Western experts see as the Kremlin’s propaganda — Editor’s note]; he was sitting close to Russian President Vladimir Putin; he looked at the problems in U.S.-Russia relations from the position of political realism. On the other hand, Flynn’s rhetoric is often harsh and militaristic. So, it would be too naive to see him as a gift.
The incoming U.S. Secretary of State is also a very important position if we are talking about U.S.-Russia relations. However, there is a lack of certainty about the figure that will be appointed. Recent news reports indicate that Trump might choose billionaire Mitt Romney. However, the U.S. President-elect is faced with very tough opposition within the Republican Party that doesn’t approve of Romney.
Specifically, Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul and many others don’t support the candidacy of Romney, because the latter didn’t support Trump’s political platform during his presidential campaign and hurt Trump’s support in Utah, for example. The question among the Republicans is to what extent it is reasonable to appoint Romney on such an important position if he sabotaged Trump’s presidential candidacy.
RD: No matter who is appointed, Trump’s team is going to consist of “hawks” that do not seem to be very friendly toward Russia.
E.M.: It is very difficult to predict. Yes, Romney took a comparably tough stance toward Russia during his 2012 presidential campaign [he described Russia as the No. 1 foe of America — Editor’s note]. In fact, he criticized Russia during the 2016 elections and, specifically, lambasted Trump’s approaches to Russia. However, Romney has not yet been appointed, so other players might fill the shoes of the U.S. Secretary of State.
RD: Do you mean John Bolton, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations under George Bush?
E.M.: He won’t be a gift for Russia either, given the fact that he is well known for his hawkish positions. But there are some other interesting candidates like Rudy Giuliani or Dana Rohrabacher.
RD: What do you think about James Mattis, a candidate for the position of Pentagon chief, and his role in determining Washington’s Russia agenda?
E.M.: He is a brave warrior. He represents a classic example of American patriotism, which puts the interest of the U.S. above all else: “Our army is always right.” Of course, for Russia, he is not easy to get along with.
RD: Trump appointed the controversial figure of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist in Washington. He is criticized for his radicalism, supremacist rhetoric and committed, if doctrinaire, conservatism. To what extent is this position important in framing U.S. foreign policy?
E.M.: Bannon’s role won’t be limited only to U.S. domestic policy, given the fact that he was one of the figures who put Trump in contact with European right-wing politicians. Of course, he will try to be more active in determining America’s foreign policy agenda.
RD: What does it mean for Russia?
E.M.: At any rate, Bannon sees Russia’s regime as kleptocratic. Yet, most importantly, he is an idea man, I mean, an ideologue. It might not be a good sign. On the other hand, as indicated by the love-hate relationship between Trump and the mainstream media, he is likely to create his own media empire and the key architect of this empire will be Bannon and his brainchild Breitbart News, a conservative media outlet. Moscow might benefit from it, because American mainstream media are very negative toward Russia. Trump’s new media empire might offer an alternative. Specifically, Bannon may accuse U.S. mainstream media of biased coverage of Russia and U.S.-Russia relations. He may diversify the agenda.
RD: So, should Moscow celebrate the victory of Trump?
E.M.: It is too early to celebrate his victory, even though at first glance there are some reasons for such optimism. Indeed, why can Russia celebrate? First, there won’t be ideological inertia under Trump: He doesn’t care about values, yet he does care about real interest. Such an approach is shared by Russia’s political elites.
Second, many Republicans promote conservative and religious (Christian) values, which could be a good reason to establish close ties with their Russian counterparts.
Third, Trump offers different approaches of how to cooperate with Russia as opposed to those advocated by the Democrats. He sees the policy of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton toward Russia as inadequate. He also accused them of being indecisive in their approaches toward Putin. And this is where we step into the zone of high risks. 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 affect Russia’s economy.
RD: Even though Trump promised to improve relations with Russia, it is hardly likely to be a game-changer, because the checks and balances system in the U.S. won’t allow him to make decisions unilaterally. So, Trump’s attempt to normalize U.S.-Russia relations might fail.
E.M.: First, the checks and balances system has been evolved since Bush’s presidency and, in fact, has been weakened. In particular, Bush expanded the president’s rights and role under the pretext of the anti-terrorism campaign after the Sept. 11 attack in 2001. Likewise, under Obama, the presidential mandate was expanded. And today the American president has many more opportunities to maneuver in the political environment than Bill Clinton had during his tenure. It remains to be seen how far Trump will go.
Second, the Republicans are dominating on all levels of power today. They are controlling the U.S. Senate and the House. After Trump nominates his representative to the Supreme Court, the Republicans will regain their positions there. In addition, about two-thirds of governors in the 50 states are also members of the Grand Old Party (GOP). Moreover, they control over two-thirds of the U.S. regional legislatures. Thus, the heft of the Republican Party is extremely high today.
RD: Yet there is no unanimity within the Republican camp, with many of them being hawkish toward Russia and reluctant to agree with Trump.
E.M.: Yes, numerous dierences within the party represent its key problem. And Trump is an outsider for the Republican Party. The majority of the Republican establishment was against him during the presidential campaign. During the first year of his presidency he might have a honeymoon with the Republicans, who may try to find common ground with him. Yet by the end of 2017, he might be faced with serious problems within his party.
RD: As indicated by Trump’s statements during and after the election, he is very whimsical, mercurial and quick to change his plans. Should the Kremlin believe in his pledges to normalize relations if his words don’t match his deeds?
E.M.: Yes, American media reported that Trump changed his positions about 15 times within 15 days of the elections taking place. The most important changes in his positions deal with domestic policy. Specifically, a further investigation into Clinton’s e-mail scandal and the Clinton Foundation activity. [In March 2015, it was revealed that Clinton, during her tenure as U.S Secretary of State, had exclusively used her personal email server for official communications, rather than official State Department email accounts. The Democratic candidate allegedly met with the Clinton Foundation’s big-dollar donors in an official capacity as Secretary of State on a regular basis — Editor’s note]. He changed his mind partly because of numerous public and media protests in support of Hillary. He just doesn’t want to drive the Clintons into the corner right now.
In addition, he modified his position toward climate change: Previously, he saw it as a hoax, now he is ready to admit there is some ground behind the misgivings of environmentalists.
Yes, Trump is quick to change his positions. So far, it is difficult to say whether it is a curse or a blessing for Russia.
THE US-RUSSIA-CHINA TRIANGLE
RD: However, within his plans to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump is very consistent. Can this move be seen as an additional advantage for Russia, given its suspicion of TPP?
E.M.: In fact, the TPP is more of a headache for China rather than for Russia, because it was seen as a geopolitical tool to decrease Beijing’s influence in the region amidst the U.S. attempts to create military cooperation with China’s neighbors across its coastline and the shipping routes in the South China Sea, which are strategically important for Beijing.
On the one hand, the Chinese should welcome this move first and foremost. On the other hand, the first foreign leader who Trump met with was the Prime Minister of Japan, China’s geopolitical rival. Together with dismantling the TPP, Trump is going to impose protectionist measures against China’s goods. That’s why this move is controversial for both Beijing and Washington.
This is how Trump’s logic works — the logic, to which he has been sticking for a long period of time. Yet such ambiguous measures should not contradict reality. Trump’s declared positions just added up to plans, which the U.S. has not dared to implement until recently [imposing protectionist measures]. The key question is: What are the implications of such protectionism for the U.S.? Will it really have a favorable eect on the U.S. economy?
At any rate, Washington’s pundits and decision-makers are divided on the role of the TPP, with even some Republicans (who basically oppose the ratification of the TPP) believing that Trump is too radical in his protectionist rigor and tenacity. The risk is that new problems that result from the withdrawal from the TPP might overshadow the benefits from this stance.
RD: During Obama’s tenure the U.S. pursued a tough approach toward Russia and pushed the Kremlin closer to China. How might the situation change under Trump?
E.M.: First and foremost, the Western-led sanctions against Russian failed to boost Russia’s turn to the East. In fact, the pivot to China has not been implemented, even though there were some attempts. Moreover, the turnover between Russia and China had been falling. Regarding the Russia-China-U.S. triangle and Washington’s alleged attempts at driving Moscow away from Beijing’s zone of influence and turning Russia into an ally of the United States, this is actually not the first attempt. I do remember that some representatives of the Bush administration came to Russia and called on Russia to be a partner of the West in its competition with China.
However, this is not what Russia’s elites are really seeking. Putin’s strategy is to maintain balance between these two players. Moreover, after Russia’s failure — during Putin’s first tenure — to become part of the bigger West and after the second attempt to be integrated in the Euro-Atlantic community — during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency — the Russian president is likely to raise his eyebrows at such kinds of ideas, especially, if military factors will be added to economic ones.
RD: Some observers predict confrontation between the U.S. and China. For example, Nassim Taleb, the prominent writer who coined the term “black swan” for a high-impact and lowprobability event, argues that the next black swan could emerge in Asia, with Washington and Beijing finding themselves at loggerheads. And Trump’s presidency seems to increase the odds of such a scenario. To what extent could Russia be interested in it, given that confrontation between China and the U.S. might distract Washington’s attention from Ukraine and Russia and shift the focus to Asia-Pacific?
E.M.: You know, tactically, it might be beneficial to Russia in the current environment. However, strategically, it is a very serious risk. The situation when two great powers find themselves in the state of harsh confrontation, with any third parties forced to take one of the sides despite their firm reluctance to be partisan, such a situation is very dangerous. In this case, Russia should stick to neutrality, although it will be very difficult. We should seek a tradeoff, but not the tradeoff, which draws us closer to one of the conflicting sides; instead we should make it clear “we won’t take the sides of your opponent anyway.”
ISIS, SYRIA AND UKRAINE
RD: Trump made it clear that he was going to fight with ISIS and cooperate with all possible stakeholders to achieve his goal, including Russia. What are the odds of Putin and Trump being able to come up with a compromise over Syria?
E.M.: The framework for compromise is almost clear. I discussed hypothetical scenarios for Syria with my colleagues in Washington. In fact, it could be U.S.- Russia joint military operation against ISIS and its following sweeping defeat. From the point of view of publicity — television footage describing American and Russian weapons destroying terrorists, Syrian children crying and expressing gratitude to their defenders, Russian and American soldiers fraternizing in Syria and celebrating their victory over ISIS — if implemented, this scenario could boost Trump’s approval ranking in the beginning of his presidency and make him more popular in the U.S. It is not ruled out that Moscow and Washington could come up with a compromise on the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad, because the latter is hardly likely to remain at the helm for long.
RD: What about the prospects of Trump-Putin cooperation over Ukraine?
E.M.: Given the fact that there is a great deal of disappointment in Ukraine’s president and his team within the country, the key challenge is how to deal with the Donbas rebels, who, in fact, can be seen as a parallel structure of power.
RD: During the political campaign, one of the representatives of Trump’s headquarters said that Trump doesn’t rule out the possibility of delivering military aid to Ukraine — definitely, it is not the move that the Kremlin welcomes. To what extent do you think this scenario is really possible?
E.M.: Currently, it is hardly likely. Yet in the future, it remains to be seen. Trump might be driven just by a pure pragmatic calculation as a deal maker: “If they seek to buy it, we will sell.”
RUSSIA AND THE SURGE OF POPULISM
RD: Trump’s presidency is a sign of the revival of populism in the world. To what extent is such populism viable in Russia given the fact that many media see Putin as a populist and argue that he is one those who wins most from the surge of populism?
E.M.: First, I don’t see Trump as a pure populist. He is more sophisticated and has certain values, principles. Yet he conveys these values in a very eccentric and flamboyant way. Is such populism possible in Russia? It has existed in Russia since the 1990s, when Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) of Vladimir Zhirinovsky was founded. Ideologically and from the point of view of popular support, Zhirinovsky and Trump are very close. By the way, Zhirinovsky is also not a pure populist, he is underestimated as a political thinker in Russia, I believe. After all, he also has a set of values and ideological principles.
Summing up, populism is commonplace in Russia; however, the authorities have been using it as a tool of manipulation since Putin’s 2012 presidential campaign, when he tried to exploit the topic of ordinary working people being put into opposition to the political elites. This agenda dominated Trump’s political platform during the election campaign, with impoverished workers and the middle class of Wisconsin being pitted against Washington’s brazen elites and the bohemia of the [East and West] coasts.
So, Trumpism is not foreign to Russia’s authorities at all. The Kremlin has already used it pretty successfully. Putin became a “Trumpist” long before the political emergence of Trump himself. Finally, the idea of defending national interests is parallel to Putin’s agenda. That’s why Trump easily recognized Putin’s approaches to Ukraine and Crimea’s incorporation.
RD: So, the Kremlin is the key winner from the surge of populism, right?
E.M.: Claiming that Russia is the key winner is an oversimplification, at least because the consequences from the trend are di¤cult to predict now. We also should keep in mind that politics is cyclical in its nature. One of the systemic factors of Trump’s victory is the fact that he grasped and conveyed accurately the current zeitgeist, or the spirit of the age. In 2011-2012, he tried to run for the presidency, but had to withdraw because he intuitively understood it was not his moment. Today, with the growth of people’s disappointment with the elites and their increasing concerns that the country is going in the wrong direction, Trump found himself in the right place at the right time.
OBAMA’S LEGACY AND LESSONS FOR TRUMP
RD: In his interview with CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, the former National Security Adviser under Richard Nixon’s presidency, Henry Kissinger, warned Trump against the blind projection of business culture and entrepreneurial approaches to politics and diplomacy. What should we expect from Trump in this regard — will he be a deal maker within politics or will he turn into a more cautious politician?
E.M.: Indeed, Dr. Kissinger outlined one of the key risks from Trump’s presidency. Based on my experience, I can say for sure that many former businessmen who turned into politicians in Russia and other post-Soviet countries tried to use corporative rules and principles in a political environment. And this is not the best tactic. Moreover, Trump’s specific style of talkshow politics is another risk, which adds to the personal impact factor. No wonder more than 60 percent of Americans believe that Trump should stop using Twitter after the presidential inauguration. Otherwise, his spontaneous tweets might have unpredictable consequences.
RD: Some pundits and historians try to find a certain logic in the impact of American elections on U.S.-Russia relations throughout history. The logic is very simple: the Republicans are good for the Kremlin — the Democrats are not; the business-minded Republicans are easy to get along with, the idealistic Democrats are not. Thus, Trump is a chance for Russia — Clinton is not. This oversimplified assumption is very popular among many Russian politicians and pundits. What is your take?
E.M.: Of course, it is an oversimplification. And many pundits are mindful of it. For example, a significant part of Russian elites expected Hillary Clinton to come to power. They were prepared for her presidency during the campaign. Moreover, some of politicians were looking forward to her presidency, because they had a certain history of relations with the Clintons. In fact, they saw Clinton as approachable, non-ideological, cynical and ready to come up with a compromise.
RD: The legacy of Barack Obama also indicates that he, or at least his team, tried to improve the relations with Russia. And the Russian-American reset, despite the criticism of this policy, was a good sign — it was an attempt to establish dialogue with Russia. In fact, the reset has its own advantages, which are not visible at first glance. After all, it didn’t promise the necessary improvement in U.S-Russia relations, but it revealed the goodwill of the Democrats and their aspirations to find common ground with Russia. Obviously, they pursued their own interests, yet the fact that they tried to see eye-to-eye with the Kremlin should not be underestimated. All this puts into question the oversimplified scheme “Good Republicans — Bad Democrats.”
E.M.: If we are talking about the reset, its key problem lay in a very narrow agenda, which focused primarily on military aspects such as nonproliferation and arms reduction. In reality, it didn’t oer systemic approaches for a broader cooperation. Basically, as indicated by opinions of some representatives of Obama’s team, he was not sincerely interested in the Russia agenda. He has tried to pay as little attention toward Russia as possible throughout his presidential tenure. His key interests were in Asia and Africa, if one looks at the schedule of his foreign trips.
RD: Well, what lessons should Trump learn from Obama’s experience?
E.M.: Less ideology. This is key. From my point of view, America’s ideological approach toward Russia is the major problem. It is necessary to collect more information, shy away from stereotypes and focus more on facts, not opinions.
RD: Do you think that Obama was really driven by ideology?
E.M.: I mean not Obama himself, but his political environment — the people surrounding him, including Clinton.
This interview was initially published in Russia Direct Report "The New Face of America." This report brings together the analysis from Victoria I. Zhuravleva of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Nicolai Petro from the University of Rhode Island, Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto, and Christopher Hartwell, president of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.