Even though it is too early to predict the winner of the 2016 presidential election, it’s not too early to reflect on the impact that this election will have on U.S.-Russia relations.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton waits to be introduced before speaking about rural issues at the Des Moines Area Community College, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Ankeny, Iowa. Photo: AP

In recent weeks, developments in the U.S. presidential race have started attracting more and more attention, and not only from experts, but also from people who are usually not interested in politics. That’s true both in the U.S. and in Russia, where the choice of the next U.S. president could go a long way in determining the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

Beyond the Cold War: Changes in the U.S. foreign policy landscape

To understand what’s happening now in 2015, it’s first necessary to consider the changed foreign policy landscape over the past 25 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Democrats, under the slogan of defending universal human values, started to be internationally active, often turning to the open use of armed forces abroad.

This trend, combined with the historical willingness of Republicans during the Cold War to intervene abroad, merged into a symbiotic relationship during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The Bush presidency aimed at the forceful removal of unwanted dictatorial regimes and the formation of pro-Western governments in their place (which were expected to be more “democratic” and “peace loving”).

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President Barack Obama inherited the need to disentangle the U.S. from the unpleasant legacy of his predecessors, including the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deterioration of relations with Russia and China, as well as coming face-to-face with new crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

All of this has strengthened the perceptions of Obama as a weak and uncommitted leader, an image intensely cultivated by his opponents, especially in the ranks of the Republican Party. In many ways, such a perception is completely false – in many situations, Obama has shown himself to be a hard realist and a very cynical politician, dramatically changing U.S. strategies towards Cuba, Iran, Israel and the Middle East as a whole, as well as pushing through comprehensive immigration reforms.

Nevertheless, this intentionally created image of a “weakling” will no doubt lead to fierce criticism of his foreign policy stances, and become one of the characteristic features of the Republican primaries, and then during the official national election campaign.

Impact of U.S. presidential elections on U.S.-Russia relations

What impact will this have on the future development of Russian-American relations? It’s hard to see much positive here. It is already clear that the Republicans, as was the case during the Cold War, will try to outshout each other, talking about the weaknesses of Obama and promising to “teach Russia a lesson.”

Democrats like Hillary Clinton, and another potential candidate from the Democratic elite – Vice President Joe Biden – do not hide their personal hostilities towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, and hold a “hawkish” stance on the Ukrainian crisis. At the same time, many people in their entourage, for various reasons, consider the “punishment” of Russia as a personal vendetta.

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And yet, things are not so bad. It is already becoming clear that Hillary is facing serious difficulties, many of them associated with the “skeletons in her closet,” including potential violations of ethics and laws. In addition, Hillary’s strong connections with big monopolies and pro-corporate position, as well as those of Bill Clinton, have led to considerable distrust and dislike of her in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, addresses the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: AP

An expression of this sentiment was the emergence of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders – the most left-wing member of the U.S. Congress, who has received considerable support from party activists and young voters. Although Sanders has no chances of winning the nomination, or of becoming elected as the president, he is now playing a role similar to that of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, being able to point out the weakness and hypocrisy in the positions of the establishment candidates.

Therefore, in the long term, it is possible we will see a repetition of the situation in 2008, when, seeing the weakness of Hillary as a candidate, both activists and top members of the party, suddenly gave their support to the little-known Senator Barack Obama. At the same time, Joe Biden can hardly be considered as a serious candidate to replace Hillary – for many in the country, he does not yet look like a potential Commander-in-Chief.

And then there is still the possibility for the appearance of a completely unexpected figure on the Democratic horizon, as happened in 1992, with the young governor from the state of Arkansas – Bill Clinton. From the point of view of Russian-American relations, the arrival of such a leader, not overburdened with Cold War stereotypes, and having no personal animosity towards foreign partners, would be a very beneficial occurrence.

The Grand Old Party tragicomedy

Meanwhile, the situation in the Republican Party can be considered as downright tragicomic. The relative political weakness of Obama and a literal hatred of him by the conservatives, has led to the formation of an unprecedentedly large (16 people) pool of applicants for the official nomination as candidate for the Republican Party.

Among them there are candidates from the establishment (first of all – Jeb Bush), the plainly weak figures, and colorful right-wing populist leaders who appeal to the conservative activists in the party (Ted Cruz). These candidates, while unable to win the primaries, with their criticism could seriously weaken the leaders in this race, and move the party’s program further to the right from the center, to the edge of the political spectrum.

However, all this carefully build structure was scattered literally overnight, when the real estate mogul, TV celebrity, and billionaire Donald Trump entered the Republican Party race.

Smug and self-reliant, Trump – in contrast to the professional politicians - does not depend on sponsors and speaks in normal human language, not in political clichés, mocking his Republican rivals. He is not afraid to discuss topics that are politically dangerous in America, including the position of racial minorities and women.

The fact that about thirty percent of surveyed Republicans support him, shows, even more than the success of Sanders among the Democrats, the extent to which the American electorate has become tired of the cautious, politically correct, and very monotonous professional politicians in Washington.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign stop at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire. Photo: AP

The top brass of the Republican Party has been thrown into confusion. On the one hand, Trump has spoiled all their well laid plans, has turned the attention of the media onto his campaign, and is working on discrediting a number of influential candidates. At the same time, ideologically, he is not conservative enough, and thus outside the party’s mentality.

Especially frightening for the top brass of the party are his statements on racial issues and immigration policy. Here again, Trump has upset the house of cards – he has not only pushed aside candidates such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, he has also radically changed the tone of the election campaign, giving it a clear anti-immigration profile. He has even proposed to resume construction of a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

Thus far, the Republican Party leadership has taken a wait-and-see position, in the hope that some scandal involving Trump will appear, some serious compromise involving him will be discovered, or the electorate will simply get tired of his antics. Indeed, if we go by the standards of American election campaigns, Trump “came out” too early – usually such figures do not reach the finish line.

However, everything in this current cycle is unusual, and therefore the Republican Party leaders are beginning to look closely at things and think: Perhaps, this will be our big chance?  

What does Trump’s presidential bid mean for Russia?

What does all this promise in terms of U.S.-Russian relations? In some sense, there are some positive aspects here, because, at least for now, the focus has shifted to an entirely different topic. Despite Trump’s eccentricity, and his love of theatrical gestures, the appearance at the helm of a man that is not overburdened with Cold War stereotypes (by the way, his first wife was Czech, and his current wife is from Slovenia) and who looks at the world as a technocratic realist, might be a plus.

And what will happen if Trump “burns out”? Among other Republican candidates, there are very few with adequate foreign policy expertise, and what is more, there are quite a few demagogues. Only one – Rand Paul – believes that the U.S, should go about its own business, and not get involved in other people’s conflicts. However, his chances are minimal.

The chances are also small among the more military aggressive ones, who are demanding a sharp aggravation of relations with Russia – Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham, for example.

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Then again, among the really strong candidates – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio – Bush, of course, appears as the most competent and the most balanced politician. Even though he would surely inherit some of the “hawkish” advisers from his older brother, his policies, in general, would very likely be the most realistic.

For now, Jeb seems to have been somewhat stunned from the pressure applied by Trump, and appears to be conducting his campaign in the style of his father, rather than that of his brother – he finds it quite difficult to create an emotional connection with the audience during his speeches.

However, we are still at the very beginning – more than a year remains before the elections. And as the saying goes – time will tell. Perhaps over the long slog of an election cycle, candidates will begin to shift their positions on Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.