Empathy Lessons: Why Donald Trump’s Presidency is Good for U.S.-Russia Relations


Trump’s presidency might teach Americans a good lesson: They will understand what Russia felt during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s. Trump for the U.S. is an American version of Yeltsin, who put Washington in an awkward position before the world.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 American elections “will have consequences” and Washington will undertake new measures “in response to Russian cyberattacks,” said The White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders during the Feb. 20 press briefing. U.S. President Donald Trump “has been tougher on Russia” than his predecessor Barack Obama, she added. Her statement came after Special Council Robert Mueller accused 13 Russians of meddling in the U.S. presidential elections within the U.S. Justice Department’s ongoing Russia probe.

“It’s very clear that Russia meddled in the election.  It’s also very clear that it didn’t have an impact on the election.  And it’s also very clear that the Trump campaign didn’t collude with the Russians in any way for this process to take place,” highlighted Sanders.

Indeed, unlike Obama, Trump conducted a tougher policy toward Russia despite his intentions to normalize the relations with Moscow. Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladinmir Putin succeeded in establishing personal chemistry during the G20 summit last summer, but it didn’t help.

“He [Trump] helped push through $700 billion to rebuild our military <…> He has helped export energy to Eastern Europe <…> He has put and upheld sanctions that the Obama administration put in place. He has upheld those. He has closed three diplomatic properties that were Russia’s, here in the United States. He has taken a number of actions against Russia and put pressure on them,” said Sanders.

Ironically, Russia’s political elites were happy with Trump’s victory at the presidential race, because they believed that the billionaire would be more pragmatic with Russia that his counterpart from the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton. Trump repeatedly called for a dialogue with the Kremlin and expressed a lot of kudos to President Putin during the presidential campaign and after it, when he moved to the White House.

No wonder, his victory was met with a big surprise and indignation by the American establishment. Trump is still facing the accusations of colluding with the Kremlin, with both democrats and republicans pointing fingers at Russian hackers, who are to be blame for having hacked the Democratic National Committee’s servers.

Although the question of the “hidden Russian hand” is far from being resolved, the fact that Trump, a non-systemic politician, won presidency may teach Americans a very important lesson.

Trump’s America vs. Yeltsin’s Russia

In 2003 well-known American diplomat Strobe Talbott, a former deputy State Secretary (1994-2001), released a book titled The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy. In this work, he remembers the times of the warm relations between former U.S. President and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin. However, he pays little attention to the Russian perception of the Clinton-Yeltsin friendship.

While American political establishment saw Yeltsin and his team as a positive force, which tried to build democracy in Russia, the Russian political elites and electorate were skeptical about him. They keep viewing him as a failure and don’t approve his pro-Western reforms. 56 percent of Russians believe that the Yeltsin era brought to Russia more problems, but in December 2000, 75 percent of respondents negatively assessed his presidency, according to a 2016 Levada center poll. Only 11 percent of Russians welcome the 1990s liberal reforms in Russia, with 58 percent denouncing them.

Today journalists also write about the Putin-Trump friendship, and the rankings of the American president are also low in the U.S. As a result of the first year of his tenure, his popularity is decreasing, according to recent polls. He has the lowest approval rankings in the U.S. modern history: Two-thirds of Americans believe that Trump’s presidency significantly divided the country, according to AP’s polls. He is supported by 35-37% of the U.S. population, according to the Gallup and CNN researches.

The similarities between the Trump era and the Yeltsin era go far beyond this. More broadly, today the positions of Moscow and Washington are changed: Previously, Russian political elites talked a lot about the U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic affairs, today the American establishment is obsessively concerned with the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the U.S. internal politics. In this situation, one should take into account several factors.

First, every country tries to influence the politics in other states, which are under the realm of its national interest. In this regard, neither Russia nor America can be the exception. Take the 1823 Monroe Doctrine: The U.S. announced both Americas as the continents under its influence. Washington referred to this document to justify its interference in the domestic affairs of those Latin American countries, which conducted unfriendly policy toward the U.S. It was a matter of defending U.S. national interests. And it is normal for Washington’s current policy.

Second, the alleged attempts of the Russian hackers to get into the American servers are not new: there are suspicions that American and Chinese IT specialists also do the hacking.  Even if Russians indeed hacked the U.S. electoral system, this interference could hardly have any impact on the results of the elections.

And this factor does matter, because the key difference between Yeltsin’s Russia and Trump’s America is clear: The Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. internal politics is not yet proven, while Washington’s interference in Russia’s 1996 presidential election is a matter of fact.

After the failure to implement effective economic reforms and the military defeat in the first Chechen war, Yeltsin approval rankings plummeted below 10% in February 1995. He was about to fail the presidential elections, while the communists were taking the lead: their party won 22 percent of votes as a result of the Dec. 17 parliamentary election in 1995, with the Yeltsin-led party having garnered no more than 10 percent. Thanks to Russian business and American spin-doctors, Yeltsin won the presidency for the second time, as Times wrote.

Bitter pill

Yeltsin’s presidency was not easy for Russia. Everybody ridiculed the country at that time. Today everyone mocks the United States because of Trump: his presidency is a big embarrassment for America. And this feeling is aggravated, because Moscow laughs at Washington and its ongoing Russia probe. The fact that Moscow overtly expressed its pleasure over Trump’s election fuels the anger within the American establishment, which develops fertile soil for new McCarthyism or another Witch Hunt: The American political elites are feeling their vulnerability and the lack of confidence [in the 1950s the U.S. went through the era of spying mania, with communists or those who allegedly had links with them having been prosecuted — Rethinking Russia].

Yet even though Trump is a nightmare for a liberal America, his presidency could be a bitter, yet healing pill, that allows Washington to put itself in Russia’s shoes in order to understand it and the origins of anti-Americanism in the country. Who knows, but in the long-term this will be good for U.S.-Russia relations. It remains to be seen.

The article was originally published by Rethinking Russia.

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The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Can Saakashvili bring together the Ukrainian opposition into a new Maidan?*


The campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia (two consecutive terms from January 2004 to November 2013) and the ex-governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region (2015-2016), against Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko reached its apex and now it is close to the end.

On Dec. 17, Saakashvili’s supporters made an attempt to seize the building of the October palace in Kiev: the campaigners broke the entrance doors, got through the National Guard into the building, but the police stopped them with fire-extinguishers. As a result of the failed seizure more than 30 police officers and protesters got injured. The Ukrainian authorities imposed criminal charges against those who tried to seize the palace, while Saakashvili described this incident as the orchestrated provocation.

The relations between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian president sharply declined in July 2017, when he was forcefully resigned from the position of the governor of the Odessa region. On Sept. 10, the former Georgian president illegally crossed the borders of Ukraine through Poland to bring together the Ukrainian opposition against President Petro Poroshenko. This is how the Georgian-Ukrainian saga has been developing. After Saakashvili’s direct calls for overthrowing the current regime in Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities have no choice, but keep him at bay from the domestic policymaking.

Amidst this background increasing number of experts are concerned with the repetition of the events of 2014 — a new revolution or the Saakashvili-initiated Maidan. However, many forget about the fact that numerous foreign politicians, including the Georgian ones, have been involved into Ukraine’s internal policymaking for years.

The Georgian trace in Kiev: A new old story

The very fact that Saakashvili has been participating in the Ukrainian political life since 2003 (and he makes no bones about it) is remarkable in its nature. It was the time when Georgian professional revolutionaries from the organization “Kmara” (in Georgian it means enough) trained their Ukrainian counterparts from the group “It is Time!” how to conduct protests and oust undesirable governments.

“Kmara” was very active during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, which toppled the government of President Eduard Shevarnadze. After these events a new government under Saakashvili actively supported political changes in Kiev both on grassroots and governmental levels.

It is not secret that the representatives of the organization “It is Time” used the same methods, which they learned from their Georgian colleagues. Moreover, Saakashvili personally knew ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who got power as a result of the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, and was an ardent supported of the latter’s government.

One could also remember the scandal between Tbilisi and Kiev in 2010, when almost 2,000 people were sent to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine as unofficial observers. Yet Ukraine’s central electoral commission denied them in registration: Viktor Yunukovich’s Party of Regions accused then-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko of using the Georgian observers to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. At the same time, the Georgian opposition accused Saakashvili’s government of attempting to interfere in the election of the friendly country, which could result in the crisis in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations.

The second wave of the Georgian interference in the domestic affairs of Ukraine started in 2014, with the Euromaidan movement: in the beginning of the protests the Saakashvili coalition, which lost both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, was actively engaged in the internal policy of Ukraine. The former Georgian president regularly took the floor before the protesters, with his calls for overthrowing the Yanukovich regime.

After the Euromaidan protests, his colleagues were appointed to the key positions in the post-revolutionary government of Ukraine. Saakashvili himself was promoted to the position of the governor of the Odessa region. But he failed to implement his reforms and apply the Georgian experience in Ukraine, because he could not come up with a compromise with the Ukrainian government.

Because Georgia required the extradition of Saakashvili, a political refugee, who faced criminal charges in his home country, the diplomatic ties between Tbilisi and Kiev were in decline.

Moreover, the deterioration in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations could be also explained with Kiev’s rhetoric:  Ukrainian politicians accused the Georgian Dream, a new ruling party, and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili of having close ties with Kremlin.

Will Saakashvili bring together the opposition for a new Maidan?

Despite Saakashvili’s perseverance, he and his supporters are hardly likely to orchestrate a new revolution.  There is no reason to expect another Maidan so far.

First, the revolutionary potential of the Ukrainian society is exhausted. One should remember that between the first revolution in 2004 and the second one in 2014 there were 10 peaceful years. So, the Ukrainians had enough time to weigh up all the pros and cons of the Orange revolution and prepare to a new one in 2014, which took place after ex-President Yanukovich didn’t sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Today the Ukrainian population is still recovering from the 2014 events and not ready to take to streets again. Moreover, the society cannot fight on two fronts — with its own authorities, on the one hand, and with Donbas, on the other hand. Now the Ukrainians are interested in maintaining the country’s territorial integrity, which could be easily undermined by another upheaval.

Second, the political diversity in Ukraine could prevent a new revolution: Today people interpret the domestic political events and the reasons of the revolutionary movement in different ways. Today there is no unifying idea, which could bring people together. During the Euromaidan people were inspired by the idea of the common European path, today there is no such trend. The rhetoric of Saakashvili, who seeks to organize another coup d’état, is too radical for most Ukrainians, who are fed up with these calls for overthrowing Ukraine’s current government. After all, any upheaval goes beyond the well-established democratic frames and might be met with criticism in the West.

The fight with corruption could not be an option as well: this campaign can’t bring people together and reinvigorate the revolutionary movement. Thus, Saakashvili’s unilateral attempts, supported by Yulia Timoshenko, produce the impression that we are witnessing nothing but another political rivalry within the country.

Finally, the possibility of a new revolution is very dim, because the Ukrainian government learned how to deal with emerging protests, became more sustainable and has a sort of immunity against a new upheaval. And the experience of the Euromaidan is helpful in this regard. Poroshenko takes into account the experience of his predecessor and is reforming the country’s law enforcement forces to be able to withstand any social unrest in future.

Foreign factors

Foreign factors are also not in favor of the Saakashvili-led Maidan in Ukraine. Yes, the former Georgian president enjoys the support of some representatives from the Western countries, for example, in the U.S.  Yet today he does get a free ride from his Western patrons. Yes, he could get some financial support and guarantees to launch the political activity in Ukraine, but it is the West that determines the limits of the allowable, and Saakashvili should know this.

That’s why his opportunities today are very limited.  Both Ukraine and the West are fed up with the perennial instability and internal conflicts.  All this means that the Saakashvili-led revolution is hardly likely to take place. The question of his political activity will be resolved depending on the level of his radicalism.

Yet if he is removed from the political rivalry, this will mark the end of the Georgian political influence on the Ukrainian policymaking. It will also raise the question about the future of the Georgian troops in eastern Ukraine, which are loyal to the ideals of the Saakashvili government.

Yes, Saakashvili contributed a lot to the post-Soviet space, but many stakeholders are tired with him and want his show to come to an end.

*In the Russian version, the author used the term “Mikhomaidan” which consists of two words — the first name of former Georgian President “Mikheil” and “Maidan”. This neologism means the capability of Saakashvili to organize a new revolution in Ukraine. The Russian headlines reads: “The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Is “Mikhomaidan” possible?

The article was originally published by Rethinking Russia.

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