What US election could mean to US-Russia tensions

Image: A Russian attack aircraft makes an extremely close pass by a US destroyer in the Baltic Sea in April this year

Relations between Russia and the US (considered the world’s two strongest military powers) have deteriorated sharply recently, even raising concerns about a new Cold War. Today, both countries are engaged in the war in Syria with different stances and an estimated 4,000 Nato troops (with more and more being deployed at every moment) and some 330,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in Eastern Europe near the Russian border.

Increased tensions follow pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine (and Russia’s annexation of Crimea) back in 2014 and subsequent economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its Western allies, who condemned what they considered an invasion by Russia. Amid evidence of involvement, Russia’s President Putin has admitted the presence of “Russian individuals” in the battlefield and has also acknowledged that “we never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere”, but utterly denies any involvement by Russian regular troops.

Russia blames the US for the tensions, pointing out that it failed to take the opportunity of building a more constructive relation after the Cold War. It sees a direct threat in Nato’s expansion towards the East and moves such as the launch of a missile shield in Romania, which Putin says “is not a defence system” and can easily reach Russian cities.

Image: US forces take part in a joint exercise with Nato ally Poland’s forces last January

Since ties between Russia and the US deteriorated, the leaderships of both countries have accused each other of trying to interfere with their domestic politics. Did economic sanctions imposed on Russia have among its intentions weakening Putin’s power by generating economic discontent in his country? If they did, they do not appear to have had this result so far. Despite events in Ukraine and economic sanctions (or perhaps because of them), Putin’s approval rating in Russia climbed to 89% in 2015, making him the most popular national leader in the world. Last August his popularity remained very high, at 82%.

In the US, both President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have said Russia is behind a series of politically damaging disclosures that have come out about Clinton. Firstly, WikiLeaks has been releasing emails from the DNC (Democratic National Committee). They apparently confirm Democratic Party bias towards Clinton and against Bernie Sanders, her rival at the presidential primaries, among other significant revelations such us favours to big donors. Moreover, an audio has emerged in which Clinton seems to suggest that an election in Palestine should have been rigged, criticising the US for not trying to “determine” the outcome. However, mainstream media in the US have entirely ignored this and have not covered it so far.

Clinton’s campaign insists that the leaks are part of a scheme from the Kremlin to favour presidential candidate Donald Trump. Indeed, Clinton has even described him as a “puppet” of Putin. Her campaign has pointed at a report linking Russia to Trump’s former campaign manager, which the latter has dismissed as a “smear”.

Besides that, it has been reported that the FBI has investigated possible links between a Russian bank and The Trump Organization (an international conglomerate company comprising Trump’s investments of which he is president and chairman) but has found nothing conclusive, nor has it discovered any clear ties between Trump and Russia, although it is still investigating. According to the same report, the FBI and intelligence officials are under the impression that Russia’s implication, if there is any, is intended, rather than to favour Trump, to disrupt the election and the integrity of the political system.

Putin has faced backlash due to alleged generalised electoral fraud before, so it is not unthinkable that, besides trying to project an image of elections in Russia becoming cleaner, the Kremlin is interested in undermining the credibility of the US when it comes to condemning election manipulation abroad. If this is the case, Trump may have helped, by chance or otherwise. After repeatedly claiming the election is “rigged,” polls now show 35% of Americans saying there is a great deal of voter fraud in American elections, 39% saying there is some and 24% saying there is hardly any.

In any case, Russia’s involvement is far from obvious. The chairman of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has said “there is no evidence, absolutely no evidence that the Russians are trying to influence the US election”. We will have to wait and see if the investigations do lead anywhere else.

Regardless, any outcome in the election will probably come with its own path for future relations between both countries. However, neither Clinton nor Trump are likely to change Russia’s view that the US poses a threat it needs to balance. Both support high military spending (Clinton opposes current mandatory military spending limits, while Trump has pledged to increase it). They also stand for US engagement in war abroad, having been in favour of the Iraq War and the military intervention in Libya. They agree on the point that the US should not withdraw from the war in Syria, although they both have new approaches and defend keeping US ground troops out of the conflict (apart from the US Special Forces, which are already fighting there).

In the case of Clinton becoming president, she vows to push for a “no fly zone and safe zones” in Syria. She has also said that wherever the US “can cooperate with Russia, that’s fine,” highlighting that she has already done that in the past and “that’s how we got a treaty reducing nuclear weapons”. However, she has proclaimed that “war crimes committed” by Russia in Syria must be investigated in order to try “to hold them accountable”. She says she will stand up to Russia and take on Putin. She also wants to strengthen the current alliances the US has in Syria, which include those with rebels fighting the Syrian regime, supported by Russia. She says the US should even consider arming Kurdish forces. Both Trump and, crucially, Putin (according to reports), have expressed alarm at prospects of war between the US and Russia if Clinton becomes president.

Image: Former Secretary of State Clinton with Russia’s President Putin

With respect to Syria, Trump opposes supporting rebel groups and says fighting so-called Islamic State should be the primary concern. Although he has offered few specifics, he does not rule out allying with Russia to fight so-called IS. “Russia is killing IS,” he has stressed. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia?” he has also said about criticism he is too tolerant of Putin. He has even shown himself open to “look at” recognising Crimea as a part of Russia. That is not to say he does not champion “unquestioned military dominance” by the US. Nevertheless, Putin has welcomed Trump’s predisposition to work with Russia. “He says he wants to move on to a new, more substantial relationship, a deeper relationship with Russia, how can we not welcome that? Of course we welcome that”, he has said.

However, with polls tightening after Clinton is back under criminal investigation by the FBI and suspense around whether there will be any more surprises before the election, there is a level of uncertainty around who will be sitting in the Oval Office next yearlet alone the execution of their policies. Will Clinton, if elected, be as uncompromising with the Russians as she says she will? And will Trump maintain his openness about collaborating with them? Might either become even more friendly, or belligerent, than we can all anticipate? Well, all that, we shall see.

Víctor Recacha Benito, estudiant de 2n curs de International Business Economics a la Universitat Pompeu Fabra i col·laborador de Pompeunomics

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