Mueller Report: A Reason for Optimism

It’s generally easier to be a pessimist than to be an optimist. This is especially true when it comes to the current state and dynamics of Russian-American relations. We all have long been accustomed to the fact that these relations are developing according to the formula “today is worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow”.

The latest news about the results of Robert Mueller’s commission didn’t give rise to new hopes as much as they created new anxieties among political analysts. There is no evidence of Russia having colluded with Donald Trump’s election headquarters in 2016, but the charges of Kremlin interference haven’t been rescinded. Therefore, as the experts assure us, no improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington should be expected. On the contrary, now that the formerly alleged criminal relationship between Trump and the Kremlin has been discarded, the president’s supporters can safely attack Vladimir Putin without any fear of casting a shadow on the American leader. And if earlier, the Democrats headed the unfriendly crusade against Moscow, in the wake of the publication of Mueller’s report, Republicans loyal to the White House will attempt to seize the initiative as soon as possible.

There is certain logic in such gloomy assumptions. The results of the Mueller Commission’s investigation, whatever they may be, will not change the fundamentals of US policy toward Russia or the general anti-Russian attitude that prevails in American society. No “reset” is on the horizon. But the results of the investigation can contribute to achieving another, much more relevant goal at the moment – the removal of the "Russian theme" from the epicentre of the American domestic political struggle, and an end to the established stereotype: "we say Trump, we mean - the Kremlin, we say the Kremlin, we mean - Trump". In this sense, the results of the Mueller report provide grounds for cautious optimism. If you search thoroughly, there are other reasons for optimism. They may be shaky and somewhat controversial ones, but are still quite specific and worthy of attention.

First, Russia was never caught by the American special services actively interfering in the US Congressional mid-term elections in November 2018, although the thesis about the “inevitability” of such interference on the eve of the elections was virtually unquestioned in Washington.

Second, last year's most gloomy forecasts about the new round of American sanctions against Russia did not materialise. At least for the time being, the White House is seeking to avoid a hasty and irresponsible escalation that could damage not only Vladimir Putin personally, but also the global financial and economic system as a whole.

Third, the uncompromising and rather unconvincing US decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty caused serious discontent in influential circles, both among Republicans and Democrats, as well as American political analysts. Even among the toughest and most consistent critics of Russia, there are more often calls to prevent the final collapse of the US-Russian strategic arms control regime.

Fourth, there are signs that in the on-going casting being organised by Washington’s political establishment, Beijing has replaced Moscow in the role of the main geopolitical opponent of the United States. If Russia is perceived by the American foreign policy elite as an annoying bully, then China will increasingly appear as a long-term strategic challenge.

Sceptics may say that all of the above is a weak basis for even cautious optimism. As always, they will be right. The absence of accusations that Russia intervened in the midterm elections does not mean that this topic will not be raised during the upcoming 2020 presidential election campaign. The current pause in the escalation of anti-Russian sanctions offers no guarantee that this escalation will not be resumed as soon as possible. The Trump administration could easily ignore the growing concerns of arms control supporters by derailing the START-3 treaty. It is also easier to imagine some sort of agreement being reached between the United States and China; if not a long-term trading one, then at least some temporary truce. It is even easier to predict new conflicts between the US and Russia for various reasons, from the Venezuela crisis to the future of European energy, where the vacant spot reserved for Washington’s main geopolitical adversary will, in the end, once again be assigned to Moscow.
United States, China, and European Union: Resolving Underlying Conflicts
Alan W. Cafruny
The year 2019 might also see the further unfolding of the trend towards global bifurcation. Many U.S. firms are gradually shifting their supply chains out of China to other Asian countries, or contemplating this step. The United States is also placing more pressure on its central and eastern European NATO allies to support its containment strategy.
Expert Opinions

One should not, however, discount less gloomy options for the future. At the moment there is a likelihood, albeit not a very high one, that Russian-American relations have finally reached their lowest point, and a sharp new deterioration in these relations can be avoided. If this is so, then the task of professionals in Moscow and in Washington is to consolidate the outlined shifts for the better, so far very modest, almost imperceptible ones. It must be understood at the same time that in the foreseeable future, the discussion will not reflect a  fundamental rejection by Russia and the USA of their confrontation in bilateral relations, but only the competent management of this confrontation in order to reduce the attendant risks and costs - both for our two countries and for the international system as a whole.

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