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US Elections 2016: Russia's Preferred Choice

By Samuel Rogers.

The victor of the US Presidential Elections in November 2016 will be either Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump. Both candidates have views that are inconsistent with each other regarding Russia and on the institutions that influence policy towards Russia. From a Russian perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages in relation to each potential outcome. It is therefore timely to consider to what extent each candidate may benefit Russia in terms of policy objectives. This article addresses the pros and cons for each candidate in this regard.

The Democrat nominee Hilary Clinton has been seen to personally insult President Putin on occasions. For example, comparing him to Hitler over Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea resulted in reciprocated derogatory comments from Putin. Whilst this is unlikely to seriously harm bilateral relations, a Clinton Presidency would benefit from a reversal in such rhetoric if US-Russia relations are to improve. Putin and Clinton would likely retreat from using personal insults should she be elected to the White House, though with a string of personal insults on record, Russia would initially find this hard to work with and this may hinder initial policy progress.

However, a Clinton Presidency also creates opportunities for Russia to work with. For example, Clinton is considerably experienced in politics, particularly in foreign affairs following her tenure as Secretary of State. This is underscored by her knowledge of engaging positively with Russia; the 2009 'reset' being a case in point. Personal networks within the upper echelons of the Kremlin will be a strong point from which to start for a Clinton Presidency and Russia will benefit from the experience that her team will bring, in terms of understanding international positions and the ability to create mutually beneficial deals i.e. when Russia allowed transit of US weapons and personnel across Russian territory, ratified in 2011.

Significantly,Russia has usurped by Saudi Arabia as the world's third largest investor in defence. Russia's defence budget for 2015 was $66.4bn though figures for 2016 suggest this has dropped to $49.1bn. As a rational actor, however, Russia will want to create and maintain a consistent upward trend in defence spending should Clinton be elected due to her continued history of criticism regarding Russian foreign policy. This is further underscored by Russia's medium term strategic aims in Syria and Ukraine – though cost pressures point to a weakened position for Russia in terms of bargaining in these conflicts. Positively, too, working with Clinton on issues such as nuclear non-proliferation has the potential to assist in mutual trust and would allow Russia to see itself as an equal partner in international affairs, along with the US, which is a longstanding aim of Putin's. In general, Clinton <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cS5Yz88mvhc "does not have much time for Russia">, though as President, she would be likely willing to work with Russia on the key contemporary geopolitical issues, namely the Syrian conflict, European security and combatting ISIS.

Conversely, a Trump Presidency would harbour little political experience from the new President himself. This is underscored by the contradiction between his positive rhetoric on Russia and the Republican Party's longstanding anti-Russian position. Engaging with a politically-untested US President is an unprecedented situation, which not only Russia but the whole world will need to adapt to. Trump's pro-Russian rhetoric on the campaign trail may not stand up to scrutiny when in the Oval Office, however. Once elected, Trump would likely be restricted in implementing certain promises made during his election campaign, not least because they have often been at odds with the established status quo on US-Russia relations. However, recent reversals in senior Republican rhetoric have been unexpected and will likely be beneficial to the architects of Russian foreign policy. For example, Newt Gingrich said "I'm not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place, which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg", which was in reference to Trump's statements that the Baltic states would need to "fulfil their obligations to us" in return for US guarantees on NATO involvement in the unlikely eventuality of a Russian military invasion. Russian foreign policy would be heavily influenced by such reneging in terms of institutional commitments – specifically regarding NATO's commitment to all members – giving the Kremlin increased flexibility in regard to activities in countries of close proximity, particularly Ukraine.

Rather than producing a line of personal insults to Putin, as Clinton has, Trump has consistently praised the Russian President. Rhetoric is easy to produce and it is important to consider, however, that these complements shield the lack of political experience Trump has and perhaps more importantly for the candidate himself, the lack of business experience in Russia, reflecting his "abysmal lack of connections to influential Russians". Further, Trump has tweeted, he has "zero investments in Russia". This lacuna in relations with Russian business and political elites is both potentially advantageous to Russia in the sense that there is open ground on which to generate new policies and business deals beneficial to the Kremlin, though simultaneously this reality has pitfalls. That is to say, inexperience on these matters has the potential to create misunderstandings and more broadly negatively affect Russian foreign policy, especially through inexperienced policy implementations on part of the US. It is important to note, however, that the true nature of Trump's investments in Russia and Russian investments within the Trump business empire remain opaque.

There are strong reasons, however, for Russia to desire a Trump Presidency. First of all, Trump has argued against continued membership of the institutions, which represent the post-Second World War liberal peace, most noticeably NATO and the WTO. Trump's comments on the fulfilment of Article V, in regard to protecting other member states – in this case, the Baltics – have significant ramifications for the security situation in Eastern Europe. While it is unlikely that Russia will invade these states, the possibility of the US not coming to their aid in response to external threats should their obligations to the US not be met, has shaken the organisation and would have widespread repercussions for other NATO members, too.

More broadly, a Trump Presidency would see a break with over sixteen years of broken efforts in terms of securing and maintaining strong US-Russian relations. These include Russia's aim to reintegrate with the West, particularly after 9/11; the vetoing of the Iraq War; NATO enlargements; Putin's 2007 Munich Speech; the lack of cooperation following the 2009 'reset'; plans to locate missiles in Czech Republic and Poland; and sanctions since 2014. These challenges have represented the volatile nature of US-Russia relations since Putin was first elected in 2000. The Kremlin will see Trump's anti-establishment rhetoric as refreshing with the potential to create a genuine 'reset' in relations, with Russia's position in terms of bargaining power, considerably leveraged. More profoundly though, a Trump Presidency would give Russia more confidence to act within its near-abroad i.e. Ukraine. Whilst the Baltic states are not the primary concern of Russian foreign policy, maintaining influence in Ukraine is, and can be seen through a series of events since the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Overall, Russia will have contingency plans for either outcome. While the election result is too hard to call with opinion polls showing potential victory for either candidate, it is nonetheless essential for Russia to be able to move forward in bilateral relations with the US. Russia has broken with the post Cold War peace order but a return to continuous candid relations is not beyond reach. There are challenges that are significant for both countries to consider and where cooperation can be achieved. For example, the Syrian Civil War; efforts to combat ISIS; and most recently maintaining stability in Turkey – that is to say, from the US perspective, maintaining Turkey's international commitments i.e. to NATO and from a Russia perspective, solidifying the volatile nature of bilateral relations since 2015 and mutually utilising Turkey as a key player in fighting ISIS and the wider Syrian conflict. Less pressing issues where cooperation can be made include further downsizing of respective nuclear arsenals and visa-free programmes, which remain longer-term issues.

In 2013, RT – a Russian state-run television outlet – published emails between Clinton and former advisor Sidney Blumenthal, which eventually resulted in a political scandal during the US Presidential elections. This has been recently compounded as further emails were acquisitioned on the eve of the Democrat Convention in July 2016, leading to accusing rhetoric against Russia, citing Putin's desire to compromise Clinton resulting in a Trump Presidency. Soon after these leaks, Trump's Presidential Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort resigned following the discovery of handwritten ledgers from former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, totalling $12.7mn, stressed as illegal by Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau. It is uncertain how the documents were discovered but the timing is significant, and ultimately damaging for the Trump campaign.

As the election nears, it appears that Russia is laying its cards on the table as to whom it considers its preferred choice for President. For the first time, there is a lack of bipartisanship towards Russia from within the two main US political parties. This is what makes the 2016 election unique from a Russian perspective.

September 2016

Samuel Rogers is a PhD Candidate at the University of Bristol and was recently a visiting fellow at the Harriman Institute at Colombia University. He will be joining a panel discussion with General Richard Shirreff at the Bristol Festival of Ideas entitled 2017: War with Russia? taking place on Monday October 24th 2016 from 6.30-pm-8.00pm.