With the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the Kremlin is increasingly hopeful of creating a better relationship with the West. But is it really the case?
A friend of Russia? Pictured: A fragment of the cover of Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?" Photo: Russia Direct / Reuters
With less than a week left until the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, it’s now possible to put together a more comprehensive overview of what to expect in U.S.-Russian relations. After all, the future members of the Trump administration – including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson - have already passed through Senate hearings and have already given their assessment of key political and foreign policy problems that might impact Russia.
Russia is an avid watcher of these pre-inauguration procedures, at least because the state propaganda machine, together with leading politicians, are doing their utmost to present better relations with the Trump administration as the Kremlin’s key foreign policy goal in 2017. They pin a great deal of hope on Trump himself. However, if their expectations don’t come true about the U.S., the Kremlin has a back-up plan: search for other “friends” in Europe. For example, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon has good odds of winning the election in 2017. He is also seen as a friend of Russia. Moreover, Moscow is looking forward to the elections in Germany as well other European countries.
However, amidst this buzz about the so-called “friends of the Kremlin,” few in Russia are paying attention to one obvious, if important, problem: A really great power is supposed to be self-sufficient and not rely on political changes and new leaders in other countries. A really strong and successful nation should not really care about the future presidents of France, the U.S. or any other nation. Furthermore, for a great power, there is no reason to have a strong view on the Senate hearings of the future members of the Trump administration.
However, the Kremlin’s foreign policy amounts to the idea that the new leaders of foreign countries could determine the future of Russia, its failures and successes. In accordance with such logic, if Trump overcomes what Moscow sees as anti-Russian rhetoric in the Congress and the French people choose the pro-Russian Fillon, everything will be fine — economic and political sanctions will be lifted, and Russia will earn respect and be widely recognized as one of the greatest powers. By the same token, if Russia’s friends won’t defeat those whom the Kremlin sees as adversaries, there will be neither global success nor geopolitical recognition.
Also read: "The final endgame between Putin and Obama"
However, such a foreign policy approach is personality-driven and Russia might find itself trapped eventually. After all, some political nuances and unpredictable factors could a play a leading role if, for example, key political positions transfer over to the control of “undesirable” figures, such as hawks or those who prefer to be tough toward the Kremlin.
In this context, consider the example of Chrystia Freeland, appointed to become the new Canadian foreign minister. She is a former journalist for the Financial Times with Ukrainian origins, who is well known for her tough stance toward the Kremlin. The Russian Foreign Ministry blacklisted Freeland for her harsh criticism of Crimea’s annexation. Russia’s propagandists have already slammed this appointment, with the Kremlin at a loss for how to deal with Canada now.
The problems will increase like a snowball rolling down a mountain if such politicians with principles and political integrity will come to power in Germany, the United Kingdom and France. And what will happen if Trump fails to get along with his friend Putin and the confrontation with Russia increases? No response so far.
Unfortunately, the Russian authorities don’t seem to understand this harsh reality. Moreover, they have failed to get rid of their foreign policy illusions, with their continued focus on the role of personality in political processes and history. Therefore 2017 might be the year of hopes and disappointments for the Kremlin, at least because it eagerly expects friendly moves from the new political elites of Western countries. And, at the same time, it is concerned with the response the pro-Russia politicians will get from the “hawks.”
The Kremlin’s penchant for looking for conspiracies and enemies in the outside world is an attempt to explain the current domestic and foreign challenges, which, in fact, stem from objective reasons, not imagined. That’s why the only solution for these problems is the embrace of new politicians who might be able to find common ground with Russia.
In fact, this might be a distortion of reality by Russians. It is a matter of wishful thinking. And one of its key reasons is the effort of the state propagandists, who quite effectively fulfilled their task of discrediting outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration. They just scapegoated him, with many Russians seeing his policy as the reason for all of Russia’s woes in 2014-2016.
As a result of the Kremlin-led information campaign, this created firm convictions among Russians that only one man, with the help of a bunch of advisors, was supposedly able to create a crisis in Russia. And if that is the case, another man at the helm [i.e. Trump] will be able to resolve the crisis by reversing all previous mistakes, according to such logic.
No wonder, Russian media run vague reports and stories that focus primarily on Obama’s political flaws and foreign policy mistakes. Few point to Obama’s achievements. Moreover, Russian media and politicians pass over in silence the fact that his political opponents and rivals criticize him.
Also read Russia Direct's report: "The new face of America: How Donald Trump will chnage Russia-US relations?"
Such misperception results from ignorance about the American political reality and its nuances. In addition, any attempts to understand this reality will lead to cognitive dissonance among Russians with their deep-seated, if misguided, beliefs that Obama is the most aggressive and anti-Russian president in the history of the U.S.
But in reality, U.S. politicians, mostly from the Republican Party, criticize Obama for his alleged weakness and failure (or cautious reluctance) to respond more firmly to Putin, viewed by many Western media and politicians as a “Russian dictator” who bullies his neighbors with claims on their territorial integrity and sovereignty. According to this narrative, in fact, Obama turns out to have been one of the best American presidents for Russia.
After all, his response to Crimea’s annexation was relatively moderate and not at all aggressive in comparison with other alternatives, proposed by the “hawks.” Obama refused to provide military assistance to Ukraine regardless of the pressure from the hawkish Republicans. He also gave up attempts to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is supported by the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, those who are deemed to be friends of Russia might be much tougher and decisive in their response to the Kremlin’s foreign policy overtures. For example, Tillerson, the candidate to become the next U.S. Secretary of State and widely considered to be another “friend of Russia,” made it clear during the Senate hearings that Russia poses a threat to the United States. Moreover, in his view, Russia occupies a part of Ukrainian territory. Furthermore, he said that he would have supported Kiev with military aid in 2014 if he were Obama.
So far, many in the Russian media are analyzing how to frame the controversial statements of the Kremlin’s “friends.” They keep pushing the same agenda by positively assessing Trump’s odds of improving relations with Moscow. The Kremlin continues to express hopes the pragmatic Trump administration will bring a positive shift and lift sanctions, recognize Ukraine as a sphere of Russia’s geopolitical interests and treat the Kremlin as an equal partner in resolving the Syrian crisis and other international problems.
Putin, with his KGB origins, is used to betting on the agents of influence when he deals with domestic problems. And now he seems to be testing this approach in foreign policy. Although many Americans are seriously concerned with the U.S. President-elect being the Kremlin’s agent, it is hardly likely to be the case.
It is just the personality-driven approach of Russia in resolving international challenges. It hardly poses a threat to the U.S., yet does threaten Russia itself, because a country with its aspiration to reclaim its great power status finds itself trapped in a situation, in which its future depends on the domestic policy of foreign countries. Hopefully, the Kremlin will understand the flaws and risks of such an approach.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.