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Tinatin Japaridze

M.A. student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, working on U.S.-Russian relations with a focus on cybersecurity and digital diplomacy

Column: Politics of the United States
Lincoln Mitchell

Ph.D, Adjunct associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies

Column: Politics of the United States

The current state of US-Russia relations is unprecedented. The American President boasts simultaneously of being as tough on Russia as any American President history, while also frequently mentioning his good personal relationship with the Russian leader. For his part, the Russian President continues to criticize “powerful sources” for hampering ties between Moscow and Washington by sacrificing bilateral relations “to promote their own ambitions amid the domestic political strife in America.”

It would be foolish for the Americans to ignore the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 election, but it is equally wrong to turn a blind eye to divisions, weak political institutions and economic problems that turned the American election into such fertile soil for an intervention that, at its core, relied on getting Americans to hate and distrust each other. Accordingly, the American people can decide to pass laws limiting the ability of foreign powers to intervene in elections, do some deep soul searching about their own actions around the world, and redouble the commitment to their own democracy. Or, alternatively, the US citizens can stand by as the country’s democracy continues to be rolled back by an administration that indeed benefited from Russian intervention, but also due to longstanding divisions among the American people and institutions that have atrophied over recent decades.


The current state of US-Russia relations is unprecedented. The American President boasts simultaneously of being as tough on Russia as any American President history, while also frequently mentioning his good personal relationship with the Russian leader. For his part, the Russian President continues to criticize “powerful sources” for hampering ties between Moscow and Washington by sacrificing bilateral relations “to promote their own ambitions amid the domestic political strife in America.”

Domestic American politics are rife with questions related to Russia’s role in the 2016 American election and in American politics more broadly, with a substantial proportion of the US population believing, with good reason, that without Kremlin interference, Donald Trump would never have become President. This has led to an unusual American political environment where the Democratic Party is emerging as more hawkish on Russia than the traditionally more anti-Russia Republican Party. Within the Republican Party, the leadership has remained firmly tough on Russia, but many rank and file are now much more sympathetic to Russia generally and Russian President Vladimir Putin specifically. As recently as 2015, this dynamic was very different. Then, the Republicans were the loudest voices opposing Russia, but the bipartisan foreign policy establishment shared this view. The strongest voices urging a less confrontational approach to Russia came from the Democratic left, a constituency that has now highly mobilized against Russia.

The most recent developments in the American political alignment are largely, though not solely, due to Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Although the Kremlin has denied any direct interference in American domestic politics, and will likely maintain this convenient if implausible position, Vladimir Putin has indeed conceded that “patriotic hackers” may have meddled in US elections, but by the same token insisted implausibly that these “hacktivists” were not sponsored by the Russian state. Therefore, the question of Russian meddling in US elections remains widely recognized, yet officially unresolved. This is a significant factor that continues to weigh heavily on both countries, particularly the United States, hindering meaningful progress in bilateral relations. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has already led to numerous indictments and guilty pleas, including at least 12 Russians who are likely to be tried in absentia with more to come, but the investigation’s findings are unlikely to change any minds in highly polarized US.

The American political context has shaken up the relationship between domestic American politics and US-Russia relations, but some fundamental dynamics of the relationship between the two powers remain unchanged. However, it is still clear that further escalation of conflict between the two countries serves nobody, yet, it is becoming increasingly apparent that neither country will allow the other to achieve all its foreign policy goals, let alone pursue its national interests unimpeded. While relations have been tumultuous in the past, the shadow cast by the 2016 election continues to be a barrier to complex negotiations and necessary compromise on both sides. Additionally, the odd relationship between Donald Trump and the Kremlin is creating headaches with some of most important alliances, complicating, if not undercutting U.S. leadership in the world, particularly with respect to Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Nonetheless, there is a way forward—one that, in some respects, is similar to what has long been the way forward. From the American side, it is essential to craft a Russia policy beyond, on the one hand, merely criticizing the Kremlin as a hostile and authoritarian force that has subverted its democracy, and on the other, promoting a peculiar personal diplomacy between the two leaders driven largely by Donald Trump’s personal admiration for his Russian counterpart. The combination of these juxtaposing dynamics makes it challenging for the more thoughtful American policy makers and analysts to think about how these two countries can minimize conflict globally through cooperation when possible while recognizing and respecting that the countries will continue to have strong disagreements on many questions. It is also becoming increasingly clear that constructive dialogue, impossible in the current American political climate, can only take place through a more rational understanding of both Russian and American interests as well as American limitations.

The Russian side is beginning to recognize that intervention in the American election has created at least as many problems for them as it has seemingly solved. In this regard, Russia is a bit like the dog that has finally caught the car. An increasingly chaotic and unstable United States is a double-edged sword for the Kremlin. While a weakened US may tip a degree of global power to Russia, a level of unpredictability and turmoil in both American foreign policy and domestic politics will, in turn, create problems and growing uncertainty for Russia. A rational Russian policy towards the US would recognize Moscow’s desire to contain American hegemony while also acknowledging the permanence of American power. Russia may be capable of addressing these questions internally, but turning this into a Kremlin-endorsed policy is difficult given the political tumult and greater potential for instability that Russia has helped create in the US.

Neither Russian actions nor the election of Donald Trump, which may have been a direct result of those actions, can be undone. For many Americans, Russia’s actions, despite denials from both the Kremlin and the White House cannot, and should not, be forgotten or ignored, but ultimately that is also a domestic American political issue. Before giving up entirely on US–Russia relations, we must remember that although there are no halcyon days to which we can return, reviving a constructive dialogue beyond closed one-on-one summits on matters of strategic importance would be a vital step forward. However, inflicting punishment on Russia through isolation is not only ineffective but also counterproductive and harmful, particularly for the United States.

It would be foolish for the Americans to ignore the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 election, but it is equally wrong to turn a blind eye to divisions, weak political institutions and economic problems that turned the American election into such fertile soil for an intervention that, at its core, relied on getting Americans to hate and distrust each other. Accordingly, the American people can decide to pass laws limiting the ability of foreign powers to intervene in elections, do some deep soul searching about their own actions around the world, and redouble the commitment to their own democracy. Or, alternatively, the US citizens can stand by as the country’s democracy continues to be rolled back by an administration that indeed benefited from Russian intervention, but also due to longstanding divisions among the American people and institutions that have atrophied over recent decades.

(votes: 16, rating: 4.94)
 (16 votes)
 
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