In a seemingly brazen, though on reflection not a very convincing move, outgoing US President Barack Obama surprised the world when, two days before New Year and 22 days before his successor’s inauguration, he sanctioned various Russian entities and individuals over their alleged interference in the recent presidential election. They included two key Russian intelligence services, the GRU (military intelligence) and the FSB (one of the successors to the KGB), four individual GRU officers, and three companies providing material support to the GRU’s operations. Two Russian individuals, Evgeniy Bogachev and Alexey Belan, both long sought by the FBI, were sanctioned for using cyber-enabled means to allegedly help misappropriate both funds and personal identifying information. The administration also expelled 35 Russian diplomats, among them the San Francisco general consulate’s cook, prompting the consul to apologise in a rare press conference for the lack of culinary hospitality at the forthcoming New Year event.
Moscow decided to treat the incident lightly. President Putin not only refrained from taking the usual countermeasures, stating that he first wanted to see how relations developed after 20 January. He also invited the children of US diplomats in Moscow to join him at the Kremlin’s New Year festivities, wished the Obama family a happy New Year and bid season’s greetings to “Donald Trump and the American people.”
“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!”, Trump tweeted on 30 December. His alleged admiration for his future colleague has long provoked critical remarks from fellow republicans, the leading voice being that of longtime Arizona senator and Russia hawk John McCain.
Between Christmas and New Year, McCain was in Europe with a bi-partisan senatorial delegation comprising fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat senator Amy Klobuchar. They spent three days in the Baltic states and planned to continue on to Ukraine, Georgia and Montenegro. At a press conference in Tallinn on 27 December McCain requested a change in the status of Western troops stationed locally from rotating to permanent, a move that would constitute a breach of the 1997 NATO-Russia treaty. Was he referring to a future bilateral US commitment, not a change of NATO policies?
Given the weight of the hawks’ faction in both Senate and Congress, it is clear that Donald Trump will have to compromise on his future Russia policy. The first indication will be the hearing of secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson at the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on 11 January. After a 30 minute preparatory conversation with Tillerson last week the committee chairman, Republican senator Bob Corker, stated that sanctions on Russia had been high on the agenda and that his impression was that Tillerson had no interest in ripping them up, although he had criticised them as Exxon’s CEO. Corker left no doubt about his own position: “That would be hugely problematic to this one senator, if I felt that was how we were going to begin the relations with Russia.” He noted the conversation had “alleviated some of the concerns” he harbored about Tillerson’s relationship with the Kremlin.
Predicting a U-turn in US-Russian relations under Donald Trump would be misleading, but the prevailing mood will be reset. Few doubt that the era of Bush- and Obama-style “value-oriented” foreign policy and external democracy promotion is coming to an end. Little is known about the new US administration’s Russia policies, but this much seems clear: this is just what the Kremlin, after so many years under the onslaught of Western regime change hawks, has been waiting for. Also true is that the Kremlin, now relieved of that Sword of Damocles, will be expected to offer something in return.
So far the present-elect’s behaviour has been rather signs maverick in form. He is not afraid of turning his back on time-honored protocols and traditions, whom to call and whom to brief, who to talk to, mix with, and avoid. Judging by the way he has sidelined the established media since his election, this president will bring a real digital age and post-democratic revolution to the White House. The rationale behind this is clear: you the people, my electorate, prefer social media over the printed press, so why should I have to deal with them? Let’s communicate on Twitter.
When it comes to political content, the world will still have to see. In fact Russia doesn’t rank that high on Trump’s priority list; first come jobs, migration, China, Iran and Islam. From the US isolationist’s point of view Moscow is primarily a bogeyman for Western Europe – rather than a rival of the US. That brings with it the danger that the future administration’s stance on Russia might become subject to deals with inner-party opponents when in fact something else, say free trade, is concerned. A wide margin of unpredictability remains.