In 2015, Russian-American relations continued to develop in two parallel realities, two different time frames: the present and the future. It happened due to the fact that the trust crises and stagnation of communication between the White House and the Kremlin, unlike in previous years, were evolving against the background of the rapidly growing U.S. presidential race. As a result, there is a unique opportunity to compare and contrast these two realities: how things are right now and how they might be in the future.
For the first time after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian agenda became the key topic of foreign policy discussions during the election campaign. Russian agenda was not left out of the discussion at any of the debates and meetings of potential candidates with the voters. Who would think that matters would take such a turn?
On the one hand, President Obama, who will leave the Oval Office in a little over a year, was clearly trying to finish the game of Russia, which he was already sick of playing. He also failed to show any interest in continuing a dialogue with Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, 2016 presidential candidates from both the Republican and the Democratic Parties are eager to fight. After all, one of them will begin the next Washington redeployment in January 2017, which cannot affect relations with Russia.
It is not surprising that we have already heard enough variations of what the U.S. foreign policy toward Russia is going to be if the new president will be Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or another candidate, of whom the Russian audience recently heard for the first time.
The outgoing year is associated with the name of the current head of the White House. One of the most outstanding symbols of this year is the sticker “Obama — schmuck” on the rear windows of middle-class cars in Moscow.
Another highlight of the year is the speculation of the media and political experts on the subject of whether President Putin and President Obama will meet or not on the sidelines of an international forum: the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, at the G20 summit in Antalya, or the Climate Conference in Paris. The need for serious analytics decreased. In fact, there is nothing to analyze until 2017; everything is clear for right now. But the demand for narrow specialists that can decipher body language increased. Everyone started to judge how the negotiations between the two presidents were held and in what direction the U.S.-Russian relations are going to develop based on the interpretation of their body language.
Despite how much Russia does not like Obama, during the last year, he carefully avoided direct aggravation with Moscow. Until the last moment, he resisted approving the delivery of offensive arms to Ukraine, which Kiev asked for; he did not confirm the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, even in the very distant future; he ruled out the possibility of a U.S. operation to overthrow President Assad in Syria.
Barack Obama chose political and diplomatic responses to Moscow, like maintaining the preservation of the regime of Western sanctions against Russia, and disregarding the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow, instead of military ones. His insults to his Russian colleague [Putin], who has headed the ranking of the most influential politicians in the world, were mostly verbal. Barack Obama persistently pretended not to notice the influence and success of Moscow when he was responding to questions about the activity of Russia against the passive stand of America and the global influence of Vladimir Putin, which is bigger than his [Obama’s] own.
But who is going to replace him? The only Republican candidate who promised, if elected, to find common ground with Russia, became the shocking billionaire Donald Trump.
Other candidates, when they were speaking about Russia, resent what they consider Obama’s hesitancy. “I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message,” promised the former head of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina. She is the Republican response to Hillary Clinton. “Let’s keep him on the run” – that’s how another presidential candidate, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, talks about the Russian president, echoing Carly Fiorina. He also added, “His fuel is oil. And we need to do everything we can to develop our energy resources at an economical rate so that we keep the oil prices down, which keeps him in his little box.”
Hillary Clinton also, if elected, believes it is necessary to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. According to her, the U.S. policy toward Vladimir Putin should be a combination of “patience, perseverance and strength.”*
In this situation, Moscow chose to make a bet on the most pro-Russian, but also the most controversial candidate – Donald Trump. Putin highlighted only Donald Trump among all the other candidates when he was answering the question about which candidate has the best chance of winning the presidential race in the United States. However, since real chances of winning are slim for Mr. Trump, the presidential race in the United States threatens to turn out – for the Russians – as the election of a new “Washington schmuck.”
*Editor’s note: This quote was paraphrased. The original quote reads, “Putin sees geopolitics as a zero-sum game in which, if someone is winning, then someone else has to be losing. That’s an outdated but still dangerous concept, one that requires the US to show both strength and patience.”
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