THE STATE OF RUSSIA

2016 has seen some dramatic global events in unexpected quarters - from the Brexit to the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. These events have shaken the totemic ideas of what the ‘West’ represents; they have undermined the notion of European integration and of an American commitment to liberal democracy. In doing so they have also offered a chance to re-evaluate the long standing notions of two poles - of Russia and the West - the Cold War axis that dominated geopolitical thinking for 50 years, and which has, under Putin (so vilified by the West) returned as a mode of perceiving the world. The Barack Obama regime hoped for a ‘reset’ with Russia in 2009, but the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine, and the bombing campaign in Syria have all soured relations with the West and seen tensions re-ignite. The regime of Vladimir Putin, whilst not being considered a rogue state, is widely considered a pariah regime and a degree of Russophobia has been the default position for Western eyes, the near entirety of Putin’s reign. Could this be about to change?

Prior to his election, Trump already praised the Russian leader and questioned the logic of US-Russia rivalry. Addressing a forum on national security in September Trump noted, ”The man has very strong control over a country […] Now, it's a very different system and I don't happen to like the system, but certainly in that system, he's been a leader. Far more than our president [Obama] has been a leader. We have a divided country." Prior to the election, there were indications that Russia was more supportive of his candidacy than that of Hillary Clinton. Unusually, the Russian ambassador to the US was present at Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech in April, at which the Republican candidate suggested ending “this horrible cycle of hostility”. Typically diplomats stay away from matters of domestic policy, so this anomaly was remarked upon. Although Trump’s camp denies it, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the press that “quite a few” Kremlin officials were in contact with the Trump campaign prior to his election. Additionally to this, it was widely suggested that Russian hacking group ‘Fancy Bear’ may have been behind the leak of Clintons emails which cost her so dearly in the second presidential debate.

Ex-chess champion and anti-Putin activist Garry Kasparov, believes that Russia might have tried to install Trump as President noting, “It was quite apparent to me […] that they put the entire sort of machine, KGB machine, the network of agents and lobbies, and of course hackers, to make sure that Trump will have a good shot at the presidency.” Once elected, Putin (who described Trump once as a “colorful and talented” person) sent a telegram in which he “expressed hope for joint work to restore Russian-American relations from their state of crisis, and also to address pressing international issues and search for effective responses to challenges concerning global security”. The latter point has, indeed, been much discussed - since following the first official conversation between Trump and Putin, Russia redoubled its offensive in Aleppo. The Washington Post had this to say on that event: “Just a coincidence? Not likely, given what we know about Mr. Putin.” The Post argues that Trump’s harsh stance on Islamic State meant he has “all but given Mr. Putin the green light for atrocities,” in Syria. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who has watered down Russian optimism about the new US president by saying that Russia-US relations are at their worst in decades, did note that Trump and Putin are “very much alike” in their worldview, and that they have a “phenomenally close” approach to foreign policy. Trump’s foreign policy ideas, observers have noted, seem to have been much more influenced by commercial concerns than by the work of government, or the policy reviews of think tanks.

What Garry Kasparov also points out is that Trump’s refusal to publish his tax returns, might have something to do with close business ties with Russia. Kasparov notes that in 2008 “he was saved from bankruptcy by [an] influx of foreign money, […] And we have good reason to suggest that the money, most of this money, came from Russia and Russian oligarchs.” This might also explain why his stance diverges so much from the typical Republican stance (previous candidates such Mitt Romney, described Russia as the United States’ top geopolitical threat).

The ideological approaches and styles of Putin and Trump seem to be close, but whether the idea of a rapprochement with the U.S. will come to fruition of course remains to be seen.

There are many concessions Russia would hope to gain from a Trump government - hence the accusations that they worked to implant him. Firstly, Moscow would hope for the lifting of sanctions that were put in place in 2014 over the conflict in Ukraine, which, along with EU sanctions, have had a devastating effect on the economy. A proposal that Moscow would like to see dropped is that of the missile defence shield that Washington intended to build in Europe ostensibly for protection against countries like Iran, but which Russia says is aimed at itself. Finally, another thorn in Russia’s side has been the troops that NATO have deployed near its Baltic borders, in an attempt to reassure neighbouring states of their security in the wake of the Crimea annexation and the Ukraine conflict.

On the issue of sanctions, these could be removed by a National Security Waiver. Not only would this dramatically improve Russia’s economic situation, but if they are removed, it might be harder for Europe to keep theirs in place. Having said this, there is no guarantee that Trump will do any such thing.

Rhetoric among EU officials remains unchanged as to the indefensibility of Russia’s moves in Ukraine. At a November 18 meeting with US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a number of EU leaders, including the UK’s Theresa May, sharply criticised Russia’s actions in Syria.

Whether or not the President-elect actually lifts sanctions, analysts concur that that the election of Trump has helped the investment mood around Russia - indeed Russian assets rallied on the news of the Trump victory. "I think Trump's victory represents a life saver for Putin," says Alastair Winter, the chief economist at Daniel Stewart. If Trump indicates he will lift sanctions, the rally is likely to continue. Regarding the point about missile defence, it seems unlikely that this project will be jettisoned, as Trump is committed to retaining the missile defence program, articulating a desire to “rebuild our depleted military and pursue ‘a state of the art’ missile defense," in a speech to the American legion before his election.

With regards to NATO, Trump has also won favour in Russia and equivalent concern amongst allies, for his criticism of the organisation - calling it “obsolete”. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s handpicked national security adviser, has complained that NATO (and particularly Article 5, which lies at the heart of its commitments), is a 20th century model. Article 5, the core of the Treaty, stipulates that “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America, shall be considered an attack against them all.” This is essentially based on the idea of a Soviet land offensive in Europe – an idea which Trump and his cohorts have contested the necessity of. In practice however Article 5 says that every member of NATO is required to defend its ally, using “such action as it deems necessary”. The vagueness of this phrase has mean that NATO members’ obligations to other members when aggressed, conceivably can be rather limited - so were Russia to invade Estonia, theoretically the U.S. is not obligated to send in troops - rather it could simply offer military equipment, although that would spell the end of any mutual defence arrangements in future

Since the level of engagement is not necessarily that deep, NATO’s current effectiveness as a bulwark against Russia could be questioned. Whilst evidently Trump’s criticisms of NATO might give the Kremlin reason to feel empowered, in practice it seems though that Putin is unlikely to use any undermining of the organisation (if indeed it is in reality undermined), as a pretext for invading Estonia or say, Lithuania or Latvia. In Crimea and in Ukraine there is a significant Russian speaking population which identifies with Russia. In the Baltic states, despite their proximity to Russia, their identification with Europe (and indeed their membership of NATO and accession to the EU in 2004), make them much less likely targets for Russian aggression.

Nonetheless, Trump’s anti-NATO talk is rattling nerves across eastern Europe. If the US reduces its payments to NATO, as it indicates that it might, then many of those countries in the former sphere of Russian influence, which feel threatened by Russia in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, fear that any diminishing of the organisation that has guaranteed their safety, can only be a bad thing. In the wake of Trump’s victory, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said he was “very afraid” for the Baltics, and prior to the Trump election had warned that Russia could test NATO. In Ukraine, the news of Trump’s arrival has been to shock. RFE/RL reported one journalist tweeting - "It's 5 A.M. in Kyiv, but I am scared to go to bed now. With Trump in office, Putin can easily turn Syria, Ukraine into his new Chechnyas." This is mirrored on an official level. The only telegram sent from Ukraine to congratulate Trump on his arrival into the White House, did not actually name the President elect. Kiev is concerned with Trump in the White House, Russia may feel emboldened to put pressure on eastern Ukraine where there are currently two pro-Russian, self-declared, independent republics - Donbass and Luhansk. Whilst Trump claims the secessionist movement in Ukraine is home-grown, and has nothing to do with Putin, others (mainly in the West) claim otherwise.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko hopes certainly that neither the EU nor Washington will lift sanctions, as this will reinforce the idea that the conflict is not Russian-made. The fact that the International Criminal Court has, in a preliminary verdict, ruled that Russia ‘invaded’ Crimea and Donbass, has solidified the impression that Russia has been waging a ‘de facto’ war. Russia has, as a result, withdrawn from the organisation.

The ICC has said that there should be no references to “civil war,” “separatists,” or “insurgents,” but that it should be termed “international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” It also argues that Russia, as a party to the conflict, must no longer be a peacemaker in the Minsk agreements. This is worrying for Russia’s prospects of seeing sanctions lifted, since this is contingent on the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

For the Ukrainian government, the conflict with Russia provides it with a focus for enmity and also a pretext for failing to tackle its many domestic issues, which have gone unchecked despite the hopes for change. One form of cronyism (the Moscow affiliated Yanukovych regime that was deposed in 2010), has been replaced with another form of cronyism. Society remains soaked in corruption. 75% of the population apparently believe that corruption has not been reduced since the regime change. Former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, invited to come to Ukraine after his electoral defeat, who was appointed governor of the Odessa region, has now resigned and accused Mr Poroshenko of failing to extirpate corruption, instead - facilitating it! “Real change and reform really means also decreasing the leverage for stealing, for plundering, pillaging Ukrainian wealth and for the cronies of the president and the others to basically increase their wealth," he said.

Whilst many wish to view the conflict as black and white, a fledgling democracy struggling valiantly against an oppressive Russia, this does tend to obfuscate some of the real problems notoriously particular to the Ukrainian regime itself.

Similar and entirely valid aspersions about transparency, continue to dog Putin’s Russia. In the most significant attack on corruption in his tenure, Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev has been charged with accepting a $2 million bribe in exchange for his ministry giving a positive assessment to state oil giant Rosneft’s bid to buy a controlling stake in smaller oil firm Bashneft. The evidence for this was based on a wire-tap, planted by the FSB (the successor to the KGB), used for a number of months. This is the first time a serving cabinet minister has been arrested in decades. He faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. When appearing in court, Ulyukayev described himself as a “victim of provocation” and accused President Putin of personally seeking his downfall. Some may see the arrest as an attack on graft; others, no less convincingly perhaps, see it as Putin’s way of asserting power. “The arrest of such a loyal and important official as Ulyukayev is a powerful act of intimidation,” said Yabloko leader Gregory Yavlinsky. What has been noted at several points in the past year is a shakeup among senior figures, with for example the departure of Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s former chief of staff, earlier this year. These moves, along with the creation of a National Guard that would be loyal to the President alone, show that Putin is keen to assert that he is not falling into any state of Brezhnevian stagnation, but is as robust and ruthless as ever. Ulyukayev belongs to a faction that is more liberal in its outlook - close to former finance minster Alexei Kudrin, who believed in economic reform as opposed to the petrodollar model, and to Prime Minister Medvedev. This group is locked in battle against the ‘siloviki’, the FSB faction which believes in firm state control. Concerns have grown among high ranking officials that this is the first move in a purge. It was alleged, though immediately denied, that Deputy Prime Minister Arkadii Dvorkovich and the First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov were also under wire-tap. Other potential ‘victims’ could include the Governor of the Russian Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina, the Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov and, of course, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who said that the events surrounding Ulyukayev’s arrest were at the “edge of his understanding”.

It is believed that Igor Sechin - who has been described, worryingly, as the Kremlin’s “Darth Vader” - may well be behind the attack on Ulyukayev. Sechin is a leading figure among the siloviki who wields immense power as the CEO of oil giant Rosneft, which is set for privatization. Rosneft grew out of the assets of Yukos, the oil company owned by fallen tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which were seized by the state enterprise upon his arrest. The company was bailed out by the government two years ago, when it asked the Kremlin for a $43 billion rescue after sanctions and low oil prices quashed its revenues. Although unimpressed, Putin did agree to a rescue package. Now he is apparently keen to see the favour returned. He hopes to reduce Russia’s considerable budget deficit by privatising part of the oil major, a strategy which has yielded criticism of short termism from many analysts. The road to its privatisation has also been problematic. Putin allowed Rosneft to buy the government’s 50.08 percent stake in Bashneft without the sale being open to other bidders, despite protests from Ulyukayev and Medvedev inter alia that this did not really constitute privatisation. It seems that those who oppose may pay for their views with political exile.

Putin’s efforts this year to consolidate power could be forward planning to the election of 2018. The President has apparently put together a team of advisers who will ensure he remains in power by a large margin. This team is to be led by the former nuclear power chief Sergei Kiriyenko who became the deputy head of the presidential administration in October. Kiriyenko is seen as possessing a more youthful, reformist inclination and it has been suggested his job will be to reduce the conservatism seen among the older ranks. Andrei Kolesnikov, head of the domestic-politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that Kiriyenko is to “conduct not normal elections, but Putin elections, which are more like a referendum on trust in Putin.” Not that Putin is unpopular - according to a Levada centre poll, almost two-thirds of Russians want to see him continue after 2018 - but stage managed, elections seem to have been l’ordre du jour, for some time.

During the American presidential elections, numerous Kremlin figures criticised the kind of democracy on display. Dmitry Kiselyov, often described as the Kremlin’s propaganda tsar, described the 2016 US election campaign as “the dirtiest campaign in the history of the United States […] It has been so revoltingly foul that there is real disgust at the fact that…they still talk of democracy in America." This has been taken as an attempt to legitimise Russian electoral practices, often much criticised by the West. As one observer, Leonid Bershky pointed out however, the mirror held up by Russia has exposed some of the failings of the US system - and given the West pause for thought. Discussing notions of Russian interference in the election, as those implied by Garry Kasparov, he noted, “Putin is providing a useful service to the U.S. by holding his malicious mirror to its political establishment. It's a troll's mirror, but it does reflect a nasty reality: A complacent, clannish elite that has written convenient rules for itself but not for the society it governs. Much of this society, both on the right and on the left, doesn't like what it sees.”

Little can be said of how the Trump presidency will affect the reality of bilateral relations at this early stage. However the psychological effects are already clear - as the markets have shown - it is widely considered that this change will be positive for Russia. However there have been periods in the past where leaders had common points and this did not necessarily advance relations in a concrete fashion. We might think of the warm relations between Vladimir Putin and George Bush, who famously said that he could see into Putin’s soul. That may have been the case, but this period did not see a complete thaw in relations between the two countries. What is certain is that Putin can capitalise on the early ways of Trump’s presidency, when all is uncertain and inchoate, to assert Russia’s interests. It is fortunate for Mr Putin also that the tide is turning towards his kind of politics across Europe - with a Russia- favourable regime in Hungary, and with recent elections in Moldova and Bulgaria seeing pro-Russian elements triumph. Upcoming events in Europe - the Italian constitutional referendum in December, the Presidential elections in France in April of next year, the way in which the Brexit is negotiated, will all affect how European politics develop, as Trump establishes his rule. The President of Russia is well positioned to sit back, observe and strategize as to how to ensure these waves push his ship forward.

Sara Bielecki