Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord and a Senior Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow.
Russian leaders remain leery about prospects for improved U.S. relations despite the inauguration of President Trump, doubting that he can overcome the political pressures from Washington’s "deep state,” says Gilbert Doctorow.
Contradicting the U.S. mainstream media’s expectations, the reaction of Official Russia towards Donald Trump’s inauguration has been quite muted. To be sure, there was no Women’s March down the streets of Moscow to protest Trump’s accession to power, but neither were there fireworks celebrating the installation of Moscow’s "Manchurian Candidate” who will do the Kremlin’s bidding, the bitterly partisan narrative fabricated by the neoconservatives and liberal hawks who dominate Official Washington.
On Friday, as a guest on a top-rated Moscow talk show, I noted that the microphone was offered much more to the other American on the panel who represented the Russo-phobic point of view that your average Russian television viewer loves to hate on this and other talk shows produced by the country’s leading broadcasters: Pervy Kanal, Rossiya-1-Vesti 24 and NTV.
Afterwards, I was reassured by Russian political analysts that the fact that I got much less time to present a more nuanced view wasn’t meant as a personal snub. It was because I’m known to support Trump’s goal of more constructive relations between Washington and Moscow. In other words, the major Russian TV outlets prefer to have on Americans who are eager to bash Russia, presumably because that’s better for ratings but also fits with the Kremlin’s desire to lower the expectations of the Russian people.
The Kremlin’s communications office has the final word on what gets aired for domestic consumption and it is very hesitant to take a stand on the likelihood of a thaw in relations with Washington under Trump. Up to now, the Kremlin was skeptical that Trump was serious in his pronouncements of readiness for improved relations; now they are skeptical that he can prevail over America’s "deep state” and deliver the goods of détente.
There’s another factor in the Kremlin’s caution about possible warmer relations with the Trump administration. It is a persistent feature of Russian national character over centuries for there to be a surge of patriotic emotions and rally round the flag when the country comes under external threat. That tradition kicked in following America’s imposition of economic sanctions and application of heavy military pressure on Russia’s borders as punishment for Russia’s absorption of Crimea and assistance to the insurgency in the Ukraine’s southeastern provinces of Donbas.
President Vladimir Putin’s personal approval ratings shot up from the mid-60’s to the 85 percent level, where they stand today, largely on the crest of the patriotic wave of emotion and popular understanding that he and his administration are effectively defending Russian national interests, whatever the failings on the economy, on corruption and on political reform. However, this popularity is fragile and could suddenly collapse if President Putin were to be seen to sacrifice the defense assets of the nation by bargaining them away in deals that are not perceived as fool-proof and as ensuring equal if not better returns for the Russian side.
It was this consideration that dictated Putin’s prudence in responding to Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s peace offensive during Putin’s visit to Japan last December. Giving up sovereignty over any of the Kurile Islands is one of the red lines that Putin cannot cross lest he lose face domestically. Similarly, the Kremlin has to tread very carefully when responding to any olive branch from Washington.
Yet, Russia is carefully reading the signals from Trump, such as his suggestion at a press conference a week ago that the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions would hinge more on progress in curbing the nuclear arms race than on implementation of the Minsk Accords relating to Ukraine’s rebel provinces, provisions that really depend more on Kiev’s sincerity than on Moscow’s.
Trump’s suggestion added some substance to his promise to put America First when it comes to U.S. national security, rather than letting the desires of "allies” control Washington’s actions. Specifically, Trump’s foreign policy focus is expected to be the triangular relationship between the world’s most powerful military forces: Russia, China and the United States. Other countries will be of secondary importance. In effect, the tail will stop wagging the dog. The anti-Russian coalition of the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine will no longer be allowed to poison U.S.-Russian relations.
Trump’s suggestion on nuclear arms reduction also was not a spur-of-the-moment aside. It clearly came from his top current, if unofficial advisers on foreign policy, namely former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Sen. Sam Nunn, who was present at the start of the Senate confirmation hearings of Rex Tillerson for the post of Secretary of State.
But the suggestion turned out to be a non-starter for the Kremlin. Initial indications of surprise and skepticism by Russian officials quickly turned into a flat rejection by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov during an interview with the BBC this weekend. Russia knows well that its conventional armed forces are still no match for NATO, that its nuclear deterrent is its great leveler, and it absolutely refuses to reduce its nuclear arsenal until there are substantial changes in the European and global defense architecture that make any reduction in its nuclear arsenal possible.
Thus, the Kremlin is withholding its seal of approval on the incoming Trump administration and is managing the Russian mass media accordingly. The latest poll of Russian public opinion towards prospects for changed relations with Trump’s America just released by the news agency RIA Novosti shows that the Kremlin’s caution has been effectively conveyed to the people.
The question posed on Jan. 20 was: Do you expect changed relations between Russia and the U.S. following the inauguration of Trump? Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63.1 percent) said there will be changes, but it is still not clear in which direction; 19.8 percent said no, most likely the new administration will continue the previous course; and only 17.1 percent said yes, the President-elect spoke repeatedly of his desire for cooperation with Moscow.
In this context, I have no complaints against the producers of the Pervy Kanal talk show who invited me but then gave me little opportunity to speak. However, far beyond the experience of my visit, the evidence suggests that improving relations with Russia will require considerable creativity and persistence on the part of U.S. policy makers.
Meanwhile, the expectations of the American business community for improved relations are very high. In a meeting on Friday morning with the president of the largest association of U.S. corporations doing business in Russia, I was told that its Board expects the sectoral sanctions on Russia to be lifted quickly and no later than within one year. This optimism is founded on the primary attention that Trump gives to removing obstacles standing in the way of American businesses generally, removing the heavy hand of Washington from their operations domestically and abroad.
But the sanctions have been highly politicized and their removal, assuming proper metrics justifying such action can be agreed with the Russians, will come at a heavy cost in political capital for Trump. The U.S. mainstream media will surely cite such a move as proof of the unsubstantiated allegations that Trump is Putin’s "puppet,” as Hillary Clinton claimed during the final presidential debate.
Moreover, there are other things Trump could do, entirely within his powers as Commander-in-Chief and independent from Congress, that would dramatically lessen tensions with Russia and build confidence for future improved relations in all directions. Specifically, he could cease U.S. and NATO military exercises along Russian borders, remove the U.S. brigades introduced in Poland in the past few weeks and start dismantling U.S. bases surrounding Russia’s frontiers.
In today’s hyper-sensitive Moscow, which is literally gun-shy of America, the distance between micro-events, like my treatment a couple of days ago on Russian television, and macro-developments, like improving bilateral relations, is very small indeed.