“Trump would probably like to have some kind of partnership with Putin”
How the presidency of Trump has affected Russian-American relations and what result of the US election will be more beneficial for Russia
Following the Democratic candidate, the current principal tenant of the White House, Republican Donald Trump, has also agreed to run for presidency this week. Realnoe Vremya decided to sum up some of the results of the presidency of Trump for Russian-American relations together with Vladimir Vasilyev, lead researcher at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies.
“The opinion that Trump is a Moscow agent prevails in the US”
Mr Vasilyev, when Donald Trump won the last presidential election, this victory was warmly welcomed in our country. There were hopes for the lifting of sanctions, and for improving relations in general. Four years have passed — the US periodically imposes sanctions against Russia. So the relationship hasn't improved, has it? If so, why?
We can say that relations have deteriorated because in the United States the line of curtailment of Russian-American relations and the line of sanctions have prevailed. Thus, I do not see any changes in easing the regime, and if there were any easing, they would be purely cosmetic.
What is the main problem here? It's not about Trump or some geopolitical calculations. It's just that the opinion that Trump is a Moscow agent has finally triumphed in America. At the beginning of the 2016 election campaign, rumours were spreading around the country that he had been “recruited” back in 2013 during his trip to Moscow. And after the election, all the anti-Trump forces decided to “paralyze” him — to arrange impeachment and so on.
The idea that Trump acts in the interests of Moscow has predetermined the attitude of the US ruling class, the “Washington swamp” — they were sure that he would act in the interests of Russia. Any steps that the president took to improve Russian-American relations were seen by the ruling class as “paying his debts”. All this has confused the picture of Russian-American relations. And while Trump is in the White house, the picture will remain just as confusing.
It's not about Trump or some geopolitical calculations. It's just that the opinion that Trump is a Moscow agent has finally triumphed in America.
What “Washington swamp” are you talking about?
It is a number of groups. These are certainly Democrats from Congress and the US Supreme Court. This includes a large number of members of the Republican Party, the most prominent of whom is former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. More importantly, Trump was opposed by the “deep” part of the state — the permanent Washington bureaucracy and the intelligence community — the FBI, NSA, and Department of Homeland Security. These groups show a clear hostility to him. If you remember, the version that Trump is a foreign agent lay in the actions of former CIA Director Comey, Mueller's commission, and so on. In general, he was opposed by the whole of Washington, Trump for it — a foreign body.
But he came to the White House for a reason, and with a certain mandate for himself to shake up the Washington bureaucracy, change the American political elite.
In the United States, since World War II, Washington has been involved in politics, and New York — in economy. But before the war, it was New York that “appointed” the country's leaders, and Trump wanted to bring back the practice of having the business world run the country. Look at his advisers — it is a financial and business elite of the United States.
Yes, Trump's approach to managing meant the intention to remove professional politicians and replace them with wealthy non-professionals. He believes that if a person has made a fortune — they can effectively serve society. Besides, Trump believes that the bureaucracy in federal ministries and departments should be formed and work in both medium and large corporations. In his opinion, many politicians have lost touch with reality, the state apparatus is ineffective in some cases, and everything in the world, like in business, is driven by competition. Therefore, it is very bad when an official is protected by laws, feels safe and works calmly — then he brings less benefit.
Trump believed that the State Department must also earn money, which is why he appointed Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State in 2017.
All these approaches gave rise to a very serious conflict with the bureaucracy — he ran into serious resistance from officials. He had his own truth — he believed that officials can work more effectively. And they have their own truth — they quite sensibly believed that it was necessary not to act rashly but to reform the system.
Trump believed that the State Department must also earn money, which is why he appointed Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State in 2017
“The task was simple — to pull Russia away from China”
Did Trump himself want a radical change in relations with Russia, or it wasn't his priority, so it is not surprising that they deteriorated?
He was given the opportunity to normalise relations with Russia, but this did not happen. Trump approached the issue instrumentally from the very beginning. His position was not just that it was necessary to radically improve Russian-American relations. Since 2017, there has been visible concern of the US about China becoming a global superpower, which could eventually challenge America and the world. Therefore, the task was simple — to pull Russia away from China, “pull” it to the West, to the United States and not allow a strategic, military or economic union between Russia and China to develop.
Trump's goal was clear and pragmatic, and he never hid it, so he offered Russia, for example, to develop trade relations.
By the way, now the deterioration of relations between the United States and China has put the role of Russia even more on the agenda. In the United States, many believe that a serious sanctions policy will lead to an alliance between Russia and China against the United States, and Washington does not want to allow this. Because in this case, both Russia and China can strengthen at the same time.
Nevertheless, schizophrenia about Moscow in the history of the election of Trump, internal American showdowns related to the same bureaucracy, prevented him from doing such work.
Besides, in America there is a rational reason to interfere with Trump — they believe that the Union of Russia and China will not develop so quickly, that such a rapprochement has certain limits, and moreover, America will allegedly be able to win over China faster than Russia.
In December 2019, the United States imposed sanctions on European companies that were building Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and it threatens to expand these sanctions. Trump here was also powerless to prevent it?
The confrontational model was not laid down by Trump — it came later. Of course, the US oil and gas monopolies always were sponsors of the Republican Party, but in 2017, the US energy strategy was announced. It was about the global redistribution of markets. Americans have always been energy importers, not exporters, protecting their resources, they say, for future generations. Under the influence of Obama, the “shale revolution”, and Trump, too, who allowed oil to be extracted in Alaska, the US are becoming an energy exporting country. This means that the struggle for the redistribution of markets has begun, and here we see an objective moment in Russian-American relations. I don't know if Trump introduced it, but I think that if Hillary Clinton were president, our contradictions in the global energy market would still manifest themselves.
But this fight for the redistribution of energy markets has stumbled on that this year oil prices have fallen significantly. This has hit the energy industry, shale industry, and the Americans are objectively interested in keeping the price of oil at a high level.
But in this case, it will be problematic to oust Russia from the markets and to its own detriment. After all, opponents are simply kicked out: first they drop prices, and then the one who rises will rise. But today, the Russian energy sector is such that we can be dropped, but we can also rise.
Besides, when Tillerson was appointed, they recalled projects to drill the shelves near Novorossiysk and in the Kara Sea — that project was estimated at almost $500 million, and the administration wanted to solve these problems. But all this did not take place, the situation is changed dramatically.
I think that if Hillary Clinton were president, our contradictions in the global energy market would still manifest themselves
“Syria was a strategic initiative for Trump”
“At the same time, the United States helped the Russian and Syrian armed forces in the fight against radical Islamists in Syria. Can we say that Trump is a reliable ally of Russia in the fight against global terrorism?
Syria was a strategic initiative for him — it was important for him to defeat ISIL (terrorist organization banned in Russia) from the very moment he took office as president. And today this has already happened: in Syria, you can no longer hear about these terrorists, but you can hear about the Syrian opposition that opposes Assad, you can hear about the Kurds and the interests of Turkey.
Obama and Clinton believed that they would fight terrorists for a very long time, and Trump cooperated with Russia — and at the end of 2017, the issue was resolved. He achieved the political goal and could say: “I promised you to end ISIL — and I did!”
But then the problems with the “Washington swamp” began. Trump said: “ISIL is defeated, we are leaving Syria”, but then a scandal arose. The thing is that Obama and Clinton dreamed of putting an end to Assad — this was their official line, as they once did with Gaddafi. But Trump said hell with him, with this Assad, our task was different, and I promised that I would not engage in regime change.
Another important point is related to the change in the American “aid policy”. Trump also thought about what would happen if Assad was overthrown, and who would rebuild the devastated country. Everyone would look at America and say: “You!” But the president, even after coming to the White House, announced a sharp curtailment of monetary assistance to other countries.
And another thing: the flow of refugees from Syria also turned out to be beneficial to him as a form of pressure on Europe. When Trump's relations with the Europeans deteriorated and the Americans set a course for the collapse of the European Union, the lever of migration pressure was very important.
Nevertheless, some of the US military had to stay in Syria.
Trump does not have a strategy and there are no people who would develop this strategy.
Can we say that Trump is not an anti-Russian president?
Pay attention to one thing. Recently, there has been a story that Russia allegedly paid for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan, but the US did not impose any sanctions. Trump said that this information was unreliable, and on its basis he could not make a decision. Although it was about two dozen soldiers!
Intelligence agencies believed that Russia has some compromising evidence on Trump. Then everyone gave up and put it down to some kind of obsession with Eastern Europe. His second wife was Czech, the third and current Melania — Slovenes, and it is clear that to Eastern Europe, to the Slavs, to Russia, Trump has some feelings.
Probably, Trump would like to have some kind of partnership with Putin, but the American elite all this time interfered with these relations. In early 2017, Senator McConnell said: “Well, let him build bridges with Moscow — we'll see how far it goes!”
But the traditional system of checks and balances in the United States did not work — in August 2017, a law was passed in the United States. According to it, if the president wants to change his policy towards Russia, he must apply to Congress and justify his desire. Without the permission of Congress, nothing can be changed — and Trump's intentions were quickly rejected. As you can see, the vector of American policy towards Russia has not changed at all over the years.
Probably, Trump would like to have some kind of partnership with Putin, but the American elite all this time interfered with these relations
“Trump in this situation will be preferable”
How much does Russia lose from the fact that relations with the United States have deteriorated? Economists often mention that the sanctions depriving Russian oil workers of American oil production technologies will hit the economy very hard in the future, but what else does it threaten us?
Since the time of Gorbachev, we have wanted to have good relations with the United States. This is an insurance policy for our security and stability in the international arena. Maybe there is a simple truth in that “it is better to have Americans as enemies than as friends”. But no one today particularly try to quarrel with America — why make unnecessary enemies?
Moscow understands that no one in the world will quarrel with Russia in particular, and only the United States can be the main troublemaker. So the principle of good relations, so as not to wait for some trick from the Americans, has dominated since the mid-80s. Yes, and to be in the “Big Eight” — it was a huge recognition. Yes, you may not be the first one there, but you are also a member of this elite club.
It is important to note the moment that has already appeared under Putin. Starting in 1995, Russia started asking to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). It wasn't a loud knock at the time, but in the early 2000s it was decided that WTO membership was a way to improve the country's economic development. For example, China took advantage of this very well — it has grown by leaps and bounds due to its membership in this organisation. But the road there lay through the United States. We were admitted to the WTO when Washington gave the go-ahead in 2012-2013.
So when you ask about the Russian interest, for example, it was like this: the country needed development engines, and the relations were pragmatic.
Now, when the agreements began to break, they started talking about a cold war, arms race, and even the danger of a military clash. Do we want this? No. It's better not to have any relations than to return to the state of cold war again.
And now that the Americans have withdrawn from the Treaty on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles and there is a danger of placing these missiles directly in Eastern Europe, with a flight time of 5-10 minutes to Russia — here, of course, Russia will avoid a new cold war.
What are the prospects, whose victory for Russia in the American elections will be more profitable?
Trump in this situation will be preferable. Yes, now we see that a world policeman has come who says: “We'll have the first stable at nine o'clock, the second at ten, and the third at eleven.” So Trump ruined relations with everyone — with Iran, China, with Germany, with both Koreas. And as long as it fights the whole world, it is profitable for Russia. But if Biden comes, as he said, he will make peace with everyone — with Iran, Cuba, China — except Russia.
But if Biden comes, as he said, he will make peace with everyone — with Iran, Cuba, China — except Russia
There is also a psychological point — the relationship between Trump and President Putin is now such that Trump values them. He does not have the factor of rejection and psychological rejection of the Russian leader. But in the case of Biden, the situation is different — because of the 2016 election, Biden has a sense of personal dislike for Putin. Hence the sanctions against Nord Stream and even the Russian coronavirus vaccine, and besides, back in 2011, Biden persuaded Putin not to run for presidency again and offered him the post of president of the IOC.
Yes, there are hotheads in America who believe that a simultaneous US confrontation with Russia and China is possible under Trump. But I would say that Bolivar can't carry double — America will have to either confront Russia or China, but not simultaneously.
Today, America under Trump has decided that it will confront China, although it will not be able to do it fully.