Whatever the Outcome of Midterms, US-Russian Relations Will Remain Strained for Years to Come

On November 6, midterm elections in the US Congress will be held. As a result, the Republicans could lost control over its lower house (the US House of Representatives). The re-elected Congress will address the issue of tightening anti-Russian sanctions due to the allegations of interfering in the US elections. 

While pollsters are nervous about their predictions again being so wildly wrong, it looks increasingly like Democrats will retake the House of Representatives in the 5 November midterm elections. While unemployment is at record lows among Hispanics and African-Americans and growth continues to exceed expectations, history is not on President Trump’s side. In 1966, for example, two years after President Lyndon Johnson blew out Republican nominee Hubert Humphrey for the presidency, the economy was booming and yet Democrats lost 47 seats. President Donald Trump’s polarizing style, the disproportionate impact of trade wars in America’s rural heartland, and flat wages will likely lead to an electoral disaster for the Republicans.

Still, Democratic control of the House of Representatives if not of the Senate will likely not lead to the dire political chaos that Republicans fear or, on the foreign policy front, to the substantive shift of current US attitudes or policy toward Russia.

Midterm Elections: No Major Changes in US Foreign Policy
The midterm elections have important—and potentially transformative—implications for U.S. domestic politics, but they are not likely to produce major changes in foreign policy, including towards Russia.
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© Reuters

For Democrats, talk of impeachment is tactically more effective than actual impeachment proceedings. While the House of Representatives must only pass by simple majority articles of impeachment, the likelihood of the president’s removal would remain miniscule not only in a Senate controlled by Republicans but also one controlled by a small majority of Democrats. The House leadership may despise Trump, but to impeach absent a chance of ouster would only make Trump into a martyr and better enable him to rally his base ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. Likewise, behind their overheated rhetoric, most Democrats realize that Vice President Mike Pence, who would replace Trump as president should Trump be forced to step down, is both more conservative than Trump and bureaucratically more competent.

With regard to US-Russian relations and sanctions, there will be no relaxation of current US political antagonism toward Russia regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections and, frankly, for many future elections to come. Put aside debates about the veracity of the charges which US political leaders and some in the US intelligence community level against the Russian government or components parts; these can be addressed some other time or elsewhere. What is beyond dispute is a suspicious if not hostile attitude toward Russia has become one of the few issues on which there is broad bipartisan agreement. Outliers might exist in Congress, but the most vocal pro-Russian voices often have reputations for unrelated reasons which limit their influence or the seriousness with which the broader policy community take them.

US Midterm Elections and Their International Consequences
Regardless of the results of the midterms, the current political crisis in the United States will continue at least until the 2020 presidential election. However, the opposite thing may happen – the crisis will become a permanent feature of the American politics.
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© 2018 Seth Wenig/AP

For Russia, the problem is political. President George W. Bush sought rapprochement with Vladimir Putin but, by the end of Bush’s second term, relations were sour and distrust was high. The Obama administration blamed Bush for that and sought to “reset” relations. But, even if not all Democrats approached Russia suspiciously during the Obama years, many have embraced the narrative that it was Russian interference which cost Hillary Clinton the election. The reality is more complex, but perception and politics trump reality. The net result is that Democratic rhetoric has grown so extreme and the Democratic base so angry that any rapprochement with Russia will be difficult. Republicans and national security hawks, meanwhile, distrust Russia for broader strategic reasons. Some libertarians and realists are more open to rapprochement, but they do not have the political base to overcome mainstream Democratic or Republican distrust of Moscow. Trump, meanwhile, has been much more aggressive toward Russia in terms of sanctions and other elements of policy than his detractors realize.

What this means, in effect, is the chance for increasing sanctions remains high no matter what the outcome of the November elections. US-Russian relations will be strained for many years to come.

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