The Cold War might have ended with the Soviet Union’s disintegration and disappearance from the global political map over two-and-a-half decades back. But this has hardly affected Russia’s status in the American establishment as a major adversary threatening US interests around the world.For years, Moscow’s ‘assertive tendencies’ and attempt to expand its influence beyond its borders have worried American policy-planners. The annexation of Crimea, aiding and bolstering separatists in eastern Ukraine and a ruthless bombing campaign in aid of Bashar al-Assad’s government troops in Syria have lent factual basis to those fears. Yet, not until recently, did the US try to blame Russia for either meddling in its democratic process or helping defeat one of its presidential candidates.
If claims made by the CIA and the US’s National Intelligence Agency officials are to be believed, there is credible evidence to establish that it was Russia-backed hackers who broke into the computer system of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters and released a series of embarrassing e-mails to Wikileaks. This, as the insinuation goes, could have ensured the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Whether or not Russia managed to influence the outcome of the presidential polls is being hotly debated in the US. But a strongly perceived threat from Russia seems to be dominating mainstream American narrative at a time when the president-elect has stated that he wants to “get along with Russia” by lowering tension.
“During the campaign Trump made comments in support of Putin and emphasised Putin’s respect for him (in supposed contrast with his alleged attitude towards Obama and Hillary) as the basis of a good working relationship,” says Margarita Balmaceda, professor of School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, US. But, she adds quickly, “I do not, however, expect a smooth relationship to last more than a few months.”
For now, Trump is keen to send out strong signals about his sincere intentions towards Russia. On Tuesday, he appointed Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a man with close ties to Vladimir Putin, as his secretary of state. Praising the 64-year-old’s appointment, Trump stated that Tillerson was among the “most accomplished business leaders and international dealmakers” in the world. But does that qualify him to be the country’s top diplomat?
Vladimir Putin with Rex Tillerson
“Cutting business deals and running efficient diplomacy for a country is not quite the same thing,” points out strategic affairs commentator Srinath Raghavan. He thinks Tillerson’s appointment, coming in the wake of a series of controversial cabinet appointments, could further rile many Republican leaders. The fact that the Exxon Mobil CEO is also the recipient of Russia’s Award of Friendship—one of its highest awards for foreigners—and has called for normalcy in ties after Exxon suffered losses of $1 billion when its business was hit by US sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, could be an issue as his appointment comes up for approval at the Senate.
Interestingly, it was Hillary and former President Bill Clinton who was under fire some years back for receiving sizeable donations to the Clinton Foundation from Russian government agencies. Now, Trump’s upset victory seems to have turned him into Moscow’s favourite American.
Reports of Russian subversion aren’t new in the US. But what seems to have given it a fresh lease of life comes from reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post about senior Congressmen being briefed by the CIA about Russia’s role not only in undermining American democracy but also in actively seeking the defeat of Hillary Clinton.
“This is another manifestation of how the US establishment has been trying to keep suspicion about Russia alive in the American mind,” says Raghavan.
Even though many US Congressmen are sceptical on the CIA’s claim, President Barack Obama has already ordered a thorough investigation into this sordid charge and wants the findings to be made public before January 20—the day on which Trump would formally be anointed president.
For obvious reasons, Trump has decided to play down the charges. Asked by Time magazine about the hacking controversy, he observed, “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
His transition team went a step further in assaulting the credibility behind the charge. “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” it stated.
The controversy seems to have put the Republican Party in a bind. Many known hawks in the GOP, which has a known anti-Russian position, are unwilling to dismiss the charges outright and have instead asked for an urgent hearing. Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a Republican representative from Texas, Michael McCaul struck a worried note: “We cannot allow foreign governments to interfere in our democracy.” Another Republican senator, John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters, “Everybody that I know, unclassified, has said that the Russians interfered in this election.” He claimed the Russians had also hacked into his campaign in 2008.
But Republicans are aware that if the charges are allowed to fester it could raise doubts about the legitimacy of Trump’s victory. This, in turn, could not only jeopardise his term in office, it could also threaten the Republican dream of a rare trinity of power—a majority in both Houses of the US Congress along with a Republican in the White House. For the moment, many senior party Congressmen who had attended the CIA briefing have decided to question its conclusion that points at a Russian complicity in Hillary’s defeat.
However, the millions of middle America who swept Trump to victory blame the media for doing a huge disservice in propagating a campaign against Trump emanating from the Hillary camp without seriously probing either the charges against Russia or Trump’s plans to recast US ties with Moscow and NATO. “That reckless branding of Trump as a Russian agent, most of it is coming from the Clinton campaign. And they really need to stop,” Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University told CNN recently. He warned, “We’re approaching a Cuban Missile Crisis level nuclear confrontation with Russia and there is absolutely no discussion, no debate about this in the American media.”
Cohen also found enough merit in Trump’s attempt to end the ‘New Cold War’ with Russia and by relooking at NATO’s role after 60 years. “Trump wanted to know, 60 years after its foundation, what NATO’s mission was today.” According to him, since the end of the Cold War hundreds of policy wonks had also been asking the same question: “Is NATO an organisation in search of a mission?”
But Balmaceda is sceptical about how things would transpire between Trump and Putin. She says, “On the basis of Trump’s behaviour during the election campaign, I believe we need to brace ourselves for a potentially highly volatile relationship between these two personalities.”
Others agree with this assessment, and point to some other proposals of the president-elect, particularly his threat to discard the ‘One China’ policy that had been put in place and honoured by successive US presidents since 1979. There are grave concerns about the hard-fought nuclear deal with Iran too.
“Trump’s penchant for unilateralism could create serious misgivings in Putin’s mind if a durable and working relationship could be developed with the US under a Trump presidency,” says Raghavan. In addition, the end of a ‘One China’ policy could not only terminate Sino-American diplomatic ties but could also drive China and Russia into each other’s arms.
These are but early days and one will have to wait and see how Trump ends up conducting business with America’s allies and its adversaries. However, the next four years are expected to be full of obstacles—grave challenges not only for the US, but for the world that does business with it too.