The Mueller Report Extends, Not Resolves the US-Russia Stalemate

Political infighting in the United States will not ease off, Valdai Club expert Dmitry Suslov writes. Russiagate will continue to be used in this fight as a weapon, and the US political system will remain in torpor.

The completion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year-long investigation into the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was a much awaited event in the United States. Both Democrats and Republicans hoped that the Mueller report would break the Russiagate stalemate, which prevents the Trump administration from properly conducting the country’s domestic and foreign policies while impeding the Democrats from getting rid of the president they detest. Russia expected the Mueller Report to change the situation where the only thing the US president could do was to aggravate the confrontation, suspected as he was of collusion with the Kremlin and unable to conduct a normal dialogue with the Russian government.

Mueller’s conclusion that there is no evidence Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election, and his decision not to charge the president or anyone from his team with obstructing justice during the Trump-Russia investigation add up to a major tactical victory for the White House. This has strengthened Trump’s hand ahead of the 2020 election and given him more flexibility in dialogue with Moscow.

Mueller’s conclusions seem to have reaffirmed Trump’s claim that the allegations of collusion with Moscow were a “witch hunt” and an attempt to steal his 2016 victory. The report has improved Trump’s chances of reelection in 2020. It is also a humiliation for the Democrats, especially those (a minority), who hoped Mueller would help them remove Trump from the White House as a criminal, or at least kill his reelection chances. They will have to campaign very hard indeed to retake the White House in 2020.

But strategy-wise, Mueller’s conclusions – the way they have been presented – will not change anything in the US domestic policy or in US relations with Russia. Instead of resolving the stalemate, the Mueller report has extended it at least until the 2020 presidential election. It has not even drawn the bottom line under Russiagate. Mueller’s investigation may be over, but the Russian theme will still be used in US infighting as a powerful weapon and will continue to poison US-Russian relations.

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First, Mueller’s conclusions have not changed the political balance in the United States or the sides’ positions, views or opinions.

Republicans say that the report has confirmed their 2018 conclusions based on the congressional investigation, according to which Russia did interfere in the election but Trump’s campaign did not collude with it and hence Donald Trump was a legitimate president.

Dominated by the Democratic Party, the House of Representatives will continue to claim that Trump is a criminal and a racist with narcissistic personality disorder, a person whose professional and moral qualities make him unfit for the position of president . The Democrats’ hatred of Trump and their desire to put a spoke in his wheel whenever possible will be as strong as ever.

Indicatively, many Democratic leaders have either said they do not accept Mueller’s conclusions or are interpreting them to suit their purposes. For example, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has said that “undoubtedly there is collusion,” referring to a Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya in 2016 and talks held by Mike Flinn, Trump’s adviser on foreign policy and subsequently, for a short while, on national security, with former Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak.

No, this subject will definitely not go away before 2020.

Most Democrats point out, though, that the special counsel’s conclusions are ambivalent: Mueller is not going to indict Trump or anyone from his team on obstruction of justice charges but he has not stated in no uncertain terms that there were no obstruction attempts either. Their inference, therefore, is that Trump did obstruct justice and is therefore a criminal who eventually must be called to account. This subject will most likely dominate the revived Russiagate until the 2020 election. And lastly, Mueller’s conclusion that Russia clearly meddled in the 2016 presidential election, if outside of collusion with Trump, suits the Democrats, too: they said from the start that Trump was not a legitimate president because his victory in 2016 was due to Russia’s interference.

In other words, political infighting in the United States will not ease off, Russiagate will continue to be used in this fight as a weapon, and the US political system will remain in torpor. The Democrats will continue to block the White House’s most important political initiatives in order to weaken Trump, who will adjust his decisions and tweets to his core electorate, rather than mind the common denominator for the country.

Second, the Mueller investigation has not removed or at least weakened the fundamental reasons for the dramatic polarization in the US political system and society existing since the 1960s or even 1860s, which, in turn, is the main cause of the fierce political infighting and political torpor in the US. These fundamental reasons are the qualitative changes in the US demographic and economic landscape, or, more precisely, a rapid decrease in the share of the white population and the deindustrialization of America.

For most of its history, America was a country of whites, who constituted nearly 90 percent of the population as recently as in the 1970s. The current figure is 60 percent, and it is likely to drop below 50 percent by 2040. This inevitably leads to the growth of racist and anti-immigrant sentiments among the white population, especially in the hinterland and explains the Republican Party’s sharp shift to the right. On the contrary, the Democratic Party is increasingly a party of non-whites. When the traditional industries were relocated to Third World countries as a result of globalization, increasingly more people in the United States were taking a sharply negative attitude towards the neoliberal policy of economic openness and calling for protectionism. This has created the demand for Trump’s nationalist and mercantilist foreign economic policy, which is being supported by many Republicans (the era of Republican support for free trade is over), and has also strengthened the socialist sentiments among the Democrats.

In other words, the demographic and economic trends are pushing the Republican Party to the right, with a new core of Trump devotees being formed within it, and the Democratic Party – to the left, inducing the growth of socialist sentiments among its electorate. To make matters worse, the traditional elites and their neoliberal economic and migration policies are losing popularity with both the Democratic and Republican electorates. The situation is further complicated by the confrontation between the old and new elites: the latter are still described as populist but they will gradually become the new mainstream. As a result, the Republicans and the Democrats, on the one hand, and the old and new elites, on the other hand are locked in an extremely intensive, irreconcilable struggle that has plunged the US political system in torpor and will continue unabated until both parties and their political platforms are thoroughly reformed. Russiagate is just a tool in, not the cause of this struggle.

The US political system will remain in torpor amid fierce political infighting, and the US foreign policy will continue to be used as a weapon in domestic political battles both under Trump and after him, regardless of Russiagate, until both parties complete the cycle, which started in the 1960s with a civil rights revolution and followed hard on Reagan’s conservative revolution. Their next step will be to reform their political platforms and thereby overcome the current polarization. Mueller’s investigation will have no influence on this whatsoever.

Finally, Mueller’s conclusions have no effect on the general picture in US-Russian relations and create no prerequisites ions for a new détente, let alone an improvement in bilateral relations. The general belief that Russia is an enemy and meddled in the 2016 presidential election has only grown stronger. Given the political polarization and a fierce political struggle in the US, the consensus that Russia is a geopolitical, political and ideological adversary basically precludes any possibility that bilateral relations will change for the better. There is no doubt that Washington will continue its policy of containment vis-à-vis Russia. Moreover, the completion of Mueller’s investigation and his conclusion that Russia did interfere can even lead to new sanctions.

The fact that the White House has gained slightly more free hand is unlikely to lead to attempts to intensify interaction, let alone improve relations, with Moscow, because this will only create new problems for Trump and will not be supported by the Republicans, not to mention the Democrats. The Democrats, who still believe that he was in collusion with Russia, will continue to claim that Trump is not doing enough to contain or rebuff Russia. Therefore, any attempts by Trump to establish contacts with Moscow will provoke sharp criticism and an effort to introduce new legislative sanctions against Russia, this hamstringing the administration’s freedom of action.

The Republicans, who see Russia as a geopolitical adversary and do not refute the allegation that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, will be committed to a hard line and, like the Democrats, will seek to limit the president’s freedom of maneuver in respect of Russia. Indicatively, one of the toughest Russophobes and supporters of harsh legislative sanctions against Russia is Senator Lindsey Graham (Rep.), who was known as John McCain’s soulmate. Today he is Donald Trump’s ally in some respects. This means that the Republicans will oppose any new attempts to find a common language with Russia and new US-Russian summits, at least until 2020.

Trump’s political priority at home and his main foreign policy imperative until 2020 is to do only what is welcomed by his core electorate. This explains his commitment to building a wall on the US-Mexico border, his mercantilist (and openly rude in form) attitude to allies, the trade war with China, and the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Trump’s electoral base does not care about, nor is concerned with, Russia or relations with Russia. Any attempt to rebuild ties with Russia will not win Trump more votes, but will instead provoke resistance from the Republican elite plus criticism and new anti-Russia restrictions (legislative sanctions) from the Democrats. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Trump will make any such attempts.

Lastly, the Mueller report has failed to resolve one of the main problems in US-Russian relations at the current stage, which is the lack of an agenda for talks and cooperation. The sides’ diametrically opposite approaches to the majority of regional conflicts (Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, etc.) are dictated by the c logic of the US-Russian confrontation. Moreover, Washington has deliberately refused to maintain the strategic stability and arms control dialogue with Moscow, an area where they are still the main counterparts for each other and the rest of the world and where their interaction is an objective necessity. Washington is drawing on the experience of the Reagan administration in the 1980s (as they interpret it) in the belief that even the prospect of a new arms race would force Russia to make concessions and eventually surrender. Regrettably, the US administration sees no internal or foreign policy reasons for resuming dialogue with Russia, and the Mueller report has changed nothing in this regard.

The tactical situation in US-Russian relations will only start improving, when Washington becomes aware of the need and masters the political will to launch dialogue on a new vision of strategic stability and a new arms control philosophy. Strategy-wise, the situation will change when the United States sees that it cannot simultaneously contain Russia and China and starts adjusting its policy towards non-Western great powers to the realities of a multipolar world.

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