Image of Russia as a New Tool in US Political Strife

07.03.2017

The fight staged by the liberals against President Trump actually makes Russia part of the US cultural wars. Russia has become another watershed dividing the parties, just like abortion, minority rights, healthcare issues, as well as migration and taxation policies.

Donald Trump’s first keynote speech before Congress was a success, but it failed to alleviate the intensity of the political crisis plaguing Washington. The opposition to the White House among the American elites is growing. This deepening political division has propelled Russia to one of the top spots of the US domestic policy agenda.

The fight staged by the liberals against President Trump actually makes Russia part of the US cultural wars. According to Democrats, they lost the election precisely because of a "Russian conspiracy" rather than the effective work of Trump's team. As a result, Russia has become another watershed dividing the parties, just like abortion, minority rights, healthcare issues, as well as migration and taxation policies. Both liberals and conservatives believe Russia is siding up with the rednecks from Southern states − staunch Republican supporters − in the American "culture war".

The antagonistic domestic policy pursued by President Trump aims to dismantle the "administrative state," a system of regulatory mechanisms at the level of US departments which operates independently from the President. By doing so, the president opposes himself not only to liberals, the judiciary, and a large part of bureaucracy, but also the FBI and the NSA, which enjoy extensive powers and autonomy from the White House. Even a special Senate committee and the FBI have started to scrutinize the President’s relations with Russia. The Joint Committee on Taxation intends to investigate President Trump’s tax-filing history. In earlier times, such a set of circumstances in the US politics would have lead to a major internal political crisis such as Watergate or the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. As these contradictions pile up in US politics, the Republicans can be lead to believe that Trump’s presidency is damaging the interests of the party, and his victory in the race is a hostile takeover attempt by the party outsiders. As a result, in 2017−2018, there may be an attempt to impeach the president and replace him with the more acceptable, in the eyes of many, Vice President Michael Pence.

The argument of "Russian influence" has taken on much weight in US domestic politics. Trump’s opponents are able to use it both safely and effectively. The President’s supporters aren’t quite sure of the ways Trump can capitalize on his position on Russia or why it is that he is content with incurring such reputational costs in remaining steadfastly committed to possible rapprochement with Moscow. That the Russian authorities deny all accusations of hacker attacks, and that the Russian media protect Donald Trump against assaults by American media and finally the goodwill gesture of not expelling US diplomats in late 2016 are all interpreted in Washington as a sign of a secret agreement between Moscow and Trump, one that is damaging to US interests. In the case of an impeachment attempt, both parties will certainly focus on criticizing Russia.

The current situation is detrimental to Russia’s long-term interests. The Democratic Party is becoming increasingly antagonistic of Russia, whereas Russia’s relations with the key figures of the Republican Party have yet to be built. Trump’s group continues to be a loner in the political spectrum of the United States and it remains unclear whether this experiment will become a constant in US politics. Also, there are no guarantees that agreements reached between Russia and current US administration will remain valid once the latter leaves office in due time.

Trying to secure Russia’s positive relations with the core of the Republican Party at the expense of worsening relations with the Democrats may lead to "the Israeli scenario." Following the exacerbation of relations between Tel Aviv and the Obama administration, the untouchable priority of the American elites of both parties regarding unconditional support of Israel ceased to exist. The latter is now forced to rely only on the Republicans, thus severely undermining relations with the Democrats. It is in Russia’s interests to maintain the party-to-party consensus in the United States based on the assumption that rivalry and cooperation between our two countries can still go hand in hand. This priority makes it imperative that Russia avoid severing relations with the Democrats.

In this situation, Russia should act proactively and advance a program of normalizing bilateral relations on a party-to-party basis. Its main components may include the following.

The strategic stability sphere. Responding to accusations of violating the INF Treaty, Russia can: indicate its willingness to invite US inspectors to visit the cruise missile deployment areas in Kaliningrad and other places of concern of the United States, show commitment to resuming a dialogue about the next phase of nuclear disarmament; emphasize its commitment to reduce military activity in the border areas in sync with NATO and suggest developing confidence-building measures in the military sphere; present, as a model, Russia's relations with China in the sphere of confidence-building measures in the military sphere based on demilitarization of their common border, the non-targeting of each other’s strategic weapons and the provision of mutual security guarantees in Central Asia. Taken together, all these measures have led to the elimination of the military-political aspect of the competition between Russia and China in Central Asia, the exact scenario that needs to be achieved in Russia’s relations with NATO along the western CIS border.

The cybersecurity sphere. Russia can advance a proposal on confidence-building measures in the sphere of cyber security on a bilateral or multilateral level. The purpose of the transaction is to provide mutual guarantees of non-interference in the electoral processes of Western countries and Russia, based on the principle of "we won’t do unto others what we don’t want done to us." It is advisable to secure cooperation of the Democratic Party in Congress in developing these rules. During consultations on this issue, offer assistance in investigating what Washington believes to be Russian hacker attacks.

The information policy sphere. Russia can: adopt a neutral stance in the dispute between the US liberals and conservatives and refrain from indicating preferences. In particular, stop protecting Donald Trump from attacks by local liberal media and stop criticizing Democrats for being bad losers and not knowing their own people; balance the coverage of the US conservative initiatives with issues on the Democrats’ agenda, such as human rights, minorities, social justice, education, etc.; show respect to the American tradition of competitive elections and confidence in the Democratic Party winning the next elections; clearly indicate a willingness to normalize relations with the United States by failing to express preferences or sympathies to a particular party.

This step will help cut the link between Russia and Donald Trump and indicate goodwill towards the overall normalization of bilateral relations regardless of party. Irrespective of the impact of the proposed initiatives, Russia will regain the initiative in forming its own image in the eyes of the American elites and will exert a significant impact on the internal political debate in the United States. The American elites are focusing on Russia mostly in a negative light, and an unambiguously peaceful signal will be most effective at opening a new line of discussion on the issues at hand.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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