The hard truth is that the Kremlin hasn’t benefited from a Trump presidency as much as it had hoped — even after it sought to tip the electoral scales in Trump’s favor, as U.S. intelligence showed, with cyberattacks and fake news disseminated over social media. Putin has said Russia is a mere bystander, but it may be meddling even now: On Wednesday, U.S. security officials again said Russia, along with Iran, obtained voter registration data, which can be used to convey misinformation.
Certainly, the U.S. incumbent hasn’t condemned the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny or the alleged payment of bounties to Taliban fighters attacking U.S. soldiers. By turning a blind eye, Trump has given Russia plenty of room for maneuver among near-neighbors like Belarus and further afield. He’s also sowed discord internationally, weakening multilateral institutions that might have stepped in instead.
Yet the U.S. president’s stated admiration for Putin hasn’t been enough to help the Kremlin unconditionally.
In fact, U.S.-Russian relations are arguably at their most frayed since the Cold War. Washington under Trump has pursued a sanctions policy that’s hamstrung the Russian economy, worked against Moscow’s energy interests in Europe and dropped out of arms-control accords the Kremlin wants to preserve. The 2010 New START treaty, which caps the numbers of deployed nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers, expires on Feb. 5, 2021. If a one-year extension proposed by Putin isn’t agreed, there will be no established limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since the 1970s.
The headache for the Kremlin is that while Democratic candidate Joe Biden may be more consistent, he will be more inclined to rein Russia in. Yes, he’s eager to support arms control. But there’s no appetite to attempt to reset the countries’ relationship in a mutually beneficial way as President Barack Obama tried, unsuccessfully, when Biden was vice president and Dmitry Medvedev was in the top seat, during an interlude when Putin served as prime minister.
Bipartisan sentiment in the U.S. Congress, and the sheer number of outstanding sanctions would in any event hamper a de-escalation. Worse, as Nigel Gould-Davies of the International Institute for Strategic Studies points out, efforts to reverse Trump’s isolationist foreign policy won’t help either if it means reviving alliance relations, especially in Europe. The current complicated and unpredictable order serves Moscow better, and there are voices in Russia arguing that it’s time to stop trying to fit in.
Russia is also not coming from a position of strength. Putin is less popular than he was in 2016. The economy, though it has contracted less sharply than many rivals, is still feeling the pain of the pandemic and a concurrent crash in oil prices. Relative economic clout has been eroding for years. There’s significant uncertainty ahead too, with coronavirus infections hitting daily records. It’s a difficult place from which to project great-power status.
As a result, Putin has shown characteristic realism. In a televised interview earlier this month, he was clear-eyed about the benefits of the Trump administration for trade and energy, but also about its failures to follow through with promises. He tallied up the costs — Sanctions were imposed or expanded 46 times, he said. He then contorted himself to find common ground with Biden, even tapping into Christian values and his Communist Party past, a fact he rarely mentions. A display of Kremlin realpolitik. It’s tempting to think that the best outcome for Russia on Nov. 3 would in fact be a contested vote followed by a lengthy court battle. U.S. intelligence officials have suggested Trump’s allusions to rigged polls play into Russia’s hands by undermining belief in democratic systems. It’s likely Putin would revel in a challenge of that scale to the world’s most revered democracy, reinforcing his own claims that liberalism is obsolete. But it’s hard to see an interregnum lasting, or any benefit lingering long for Moscow.
So which is the least-poor option in the end? Sanctions aside, it may still be better to have more of the same. As political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya of R.Politik argues, Russia sees Trump as a casino gamble — so it’s worth continuing to play in order to win big eventually. Even if that takes time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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