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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Scapegoating Russia


For the West, Russia is the best candidate to criticize and blame for all its woes.

Twenty years ago, when the Russian economy was in tatters during the turbulent presidency of Boris Yeltsin, few could imagine that within a period of just two decades, Russia would be in the media spotlight as one of the West’s key troublemakers. Today, many opponents criticize Russia for its perennial human right abuses, assertive foreign policy and authoritarian regime. It is natural, at least because they can score political points: Russia has become a global player that is worthwhile and politically expedient to lambast.   

Without doubt, Russia’s domestic and foreign policy is very controversial, but this is not the only reason why the West has seemingly launched a crusade against the Kremlin. Some experts and politicians tend to point their fingers at Russia no matter what has happened: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hidden machinations are everywhere, his influence is omnipresent.

It remains to be seen whether it is true or not, yet this should be addressed via thorough and competent investigation and the court, not through allegations. No matter what, but one thing is clear: behind this campaign against Russia is the West’s natural need to find a real adversary who might pose an existential threat.

It is no secret that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western free and liberal world came up with the idea of “the end of history,” promoted by Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama. NATO members started believing that they were invincible, with their values and views becoming more viable with every passing day. Thus, the West rigorously encouraged other countries to accept its system of values and sometimes tried to impose its rules.

The military operation in Afghanistan was only the beginning; when that was completed, it turned into another campaign – in Iraq. The West’s attempt to expand its influence in the post-Soviet space was interpreted by the Kremlin and its like-minded supporters as attempts to orchestrate a “color revolution,” be it in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) or Kyrgyzstan (2005). The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen in 2011 was another stage of the West’s endeavor to spread its values abroad. Finally, the apex of the Western crusade became the attempts to overthrow the political regimes in Syria and Libya, both of which turned into bloody and never-ending civil wars.

Ironically, the West didn’t achieve its results and plans in most cases, and all its noble attempts to “export” democracy abroad only backfired. Far from becoming more democratic and stable, the countries and the region was faced with a severe crisis. It became obvious that the Western scenario could not keep up with the harsh reality. Naturally, this discredited democratic values and democracy itself (as a tool of foreign policy).

When Barack Obama came into the Oval Office, the image of the United States had been already tainted and the new president had to shoulder this burden. Yet he was not able to deal with it — he didn’t fulfill his pre-election pledges to close the notorious prison in Guantanamo or withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, regardless of his plan to shy away from an assertive foreign policy, he didn’t stop U.S. attempts to interfere into the domestic policy of other countries. This also hampered America’s reputation as well as the image of Obama’s Democratic Party in general. This created a fertile ground for the emergence of populist forces and the rise of flamboyant billionaire Donald Trump, who finally won the U.S. presidency. He promised to stop the democratic crusade abroad and focus more on domestic problems.

In this situation, oddly enough, Russia might play a very important role in returning the Western liberal forces back to power. Paradoxically, Russia has already started bringing the West’s politicians together — but not as a positive factor, but rather, as a threat. As indicated by the 2017 Munich Security Conference, the West does understand the need to unite and refute anti-democratic and populist forces.

The mainstream narrative, which is actively circulated in America, is crystal clear: Putin and, specifically, Russia’s hackers, contributed to Trump’s victory in the presidential election and Brexit; Russia’s intelligence rigged the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia to bring to power pro-Russian parties. This narrative is consistent even in the context of the upcoming elections in France and Germany: the media and pundits are mulling over a possible victory of pro-Russian candidates Francois Fillon or Marine Le Pen; they speculate about the possible failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, well-known for her tough and intransigent approach toward the Kremlin.

However, one relevant question comes to one’s mind: Did Russia really have such an impact on all these political processes? Why Russia, not China or some other country, let’s say? If Russia is so powerful and omnipresent that means that the U.S. is no longer a superpower — it has been replaced by Russia, as Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Derek Averre of the University of Birmingham ironically implied during one of the 2016 meetings with Georgian pundits, who warned about Russia’s increasing influence.

To follow such logic, only a country that is economically, politically and militarily equal to the U.S. might have an impact on America’s domestic policy. But Russia is far from this level at the moment. The hacking attacks were commonplace, they have been undertaken and they will be carried out from both sides in future. And this is natural.

Regarding Brexit and the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, these events indicated that the local political elites and their strategic partners were not able to recognize the indignation of voters as reality. In the case of Georgia, the authorities were reluctant to admit that its former President was authoritarian in his nature.       

Likewise, if the liberal and politically correct forces in France and Germany fail, their defeat will be a result of the domestic political processes in these countries. For example, the refugee crisis might play a significant role: Merkel’s noble, if utopian, plan to shelter many refugees in Germany and immediately integrate them into society might backfire.

Naturally, in such an environment it is politically beneficial to lambast and point fingers at Russia. By the same token, the Kremlin is the best candidate to blame for all Western woes. The choice is rational for a good reason: It fell on Russia because the Kremlin annexed Crimea, intervened in Georgia and now is reported to be conducting subversive activity against the Western world.

Moreover, historical memory of why the West scapegoated Moscow is also important: Everybody remembers the Red Scare. Thus, it is quite easy to nurture mistrust toward Russia in such an environment by dredging up old memories. Furthermore, the West can criticize Russia without expecting serious implications for its long-term interests, because the list of its key strategic partners includes Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, Israel and Turkey — but not Russia.

In other words, criticizing the Kremlin doesn’t necessarily undermine the West’s strategic interests. That might be the reason why Riyadh and Doha can keep bombing civilians in Yemen without expecting sanctions from the West. That might be why Israel continued to build settlements in Palestine despite the large-scale Muslim protests. That might be why Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan feels impunity when he lawlessly imprisons thousands of Turkish citizens throughout the entire country.

Finally, Russia is powerful enough to be a bogeyman. It can pose a threat to the West, yet it is possible to deal with. That’s why the West chooses the Kremlin, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia (which allegedly finances terrorists and has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks against America), not Hungary with Victor Orban, not Ukraine with its political disorder, not even China with its global economic clout. However, Russia is big enough and, at first glance, very strong. With its weak economy and oil addiction, it is a good target to contain.   

Summing up, the West needs to criticize Russia to find explanations for its geopolitical recession and woes. At the same time, this tactic is quite safe, at least because the West’s strategic partners won’t be disappointed, with little or no threat posed to their own national interests.

The article was originally published by Russia Direct.

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