This fall both Russia and the United States held their national elections. So I decided to devote another entry to the political issues related to living “between” the two countries. The Russian election was a parliamentary election only, and it occurred on September 18. The US election, however, was for the presidency, as well as a number of House and Senate seats. Thus, the American election drew far more global attention. My purpose here is not a full fledged analysis of either election. I will focus on those aspects of the elections which may better inform the relationship of Russia and the United States. So I’m not going to deal witth Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico or who he may or may not appoint to the Surpreme Court or other domestic issues unrelated to a relationship with Russia.
THE RUSSIAN ELECTION. After the election I scanned the news for the observations of persons whom I know have far more experience in and knowledge of Russian politics than I. I have my ideas from reading and listening to news both in Russia and the US, but I do not pretend to understand the intricasies of Russian politics. The first article that caught my attention was by Gilbert Doctorow, whom I have mentioned before. Doctorow’s article addressed the issue of why his predictions about the Russian election were wrong. Now, if the NY Times or the Washington Post gets Russia wrong I don’t pay it much attention, although I don’t recall they have ever actually admitted getting anything wrong about Russia. Gilbert Doctorow has spent a career working in Russia and a lot of time studying Russia. He continues to travel to the country frequently. If he gets something wrong, then it is newsworthy, and thankfully he is confident enough and honest enough to state simply he was wrong and evaluate why. He believed United Russia, the party of President Putin, would lose its majority in the lower house. He was not alone; many astute observers within Russia predicted United Russia would get between 30-40% of the popular vote. United Russia got about 55% of the popular vote. The next two contenders were the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia which received about 13.5% and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation which received just over 13%. Another party, Just Russia, got about 6%, and the other parties did not receive the necessary 5% to receive any representation. In other words, no party came close to United Russia in the popular vote. Further, the election was declared a clean one by almost all observers, and the usual suggestions of voter fraud were not forthcoming. Even the New York Times admitted it was a fair election stating, “Over all, analysts said, the Kremlin seemed to have kept its word to run a clean race.” Why were the prognosticators wrong about the results?
I would like to elaborate on the first two reasons Doctorow mentioned that he says led to his incorrect prediction and, I think, the reason others missed being accurate as well. Now that we all have the advantage of hindsight, what can we learn? First, he thought the populace would “punish” United Russia for lacking the strong nationalistic and populist themes of the Liberal Democrats and the Communists. Many believed United Russia would not be seen as strong defenders of Russian interests and reputation by comparison. While many in the West think Putin and his party are a bunch of chest thumping nationalists, this is not the perception I have gotten from living in Russia. I have found Putin comes across more cerebral, and his language is usually non-confrontational when talking about the West. Putin rarely uses demeaning or unkind language when addressing his differences with the West, despite the fact he has been compared to Hitler by Hillary Clinton and called a “thug” by more than one American politician. Russians are well aware of what American leaders say about Russia, and they know how unkind and undiplomatic they can be. For example, a collection of a few descriptions of Russia by Barack Obama.
Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.
But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.
Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve. (Applause.) State of the Union Address, 20 January 2015
Notwithstanding the fact that some of what Obama said in those quotes was just plain wrong, it would not be hard to understand why pundits might think that many Russians would hope for an abrasive and confrontational response from its leader to such condescending and deceitful remarks by the President of the United States. Surprisingly, Putin does not allow such comments to elicit emotional reactions and responses. In the press conferences I have seen he is very clear, strong, and logical in his responses. He does not “roll over,” but he does not resort to the vitriol or drama of the American leaders. The election and recent high approval ratings of Putin show that the majority of the Russian people did not allow their frustrations with America’s name-calling politicians to make them vote for another party.
Second, Doctorow said that even though he did not write about the economic situation prior to the election he really believed that the fact that Russia is technically in a recession and purchasing power is down 8% would cause a majority of Russians to vote for another party. Now, Doctorow’s understanding of economic factors far exceeds mine. There is no question that his analyses are correct. But my observation from life here is that Russians are used to tough times, especially those who lived through the fall of Communism and the “reign” of Boris Yeltsin. Russians also realize the sanctions, while limited in their effectiveness, came along roughly at about the same time as a severe drop in oil prices which had a clear and unavoidable negative impact on the Russian economy. They do not blame Putin for these problems. The annexation of Crimea, ostensibly the reason for the sanctions, was based on the fact an overwhelming majority of Crimeans wanted Crimea annexed. It actually made the economic situation in Russia worse because of the cost involved after Ukraine had left things in such terrible economic shape. But Putin could not risk losing significant military bases in Crimea if Ukraine did join NATO. Further, the radicals and neo-Nazis in Kiev dispise fellow Ukrainians who still speak, worship, and live consistently with their Russian backgrounds. Most Crimeans, as polls show, really consider themselves Russians. Putin did not want to leave Crimeans to these radicals. And on the specific issue of the Russian economy, while Russia is in a recession, the economy is clearly healthier by far than when Putin became President in 2000. Overall, my observation is that Russians look at the longer picture. Their relationship with Putin is not of the “what have you done for me lately” variety. Unlike what sometimes happens in the West the citizens here do not hold the President responsible for everything that happens to the economy.
The point here for understanding relations with the West is that the Russian people gave clear support to the party in power despite the strong attempts of the West to leave Russia isolated and in economic shambles. Based on some of Obama’s comments, I believe he really did think that the negative impact of the sanctions would be so clear and undeniable that the Russian people would rise up and oust Vladimir Putin and his party. The latest elections show that this scenario was a long way from reality. The truth is Europe is far less likely to follow the lead of the United States in the future, because following the US on the sanctions did not work out well for them. Obama referred to the US and its European “allies” as standing strong and united. Patrick Buchanan has written recently on the fact we must come to grips with very different alignments in Europe now. With the “old guard” departure of leaders in the UK, France, Italy and perhaps even in Germany next year, the US will clearly have far less influence in Europe. Russia is still standing pretty strong behind its government, but the same cannot be said of the feelings of many European countries for the US.
THE ELECTION IN THE UNITED STATES. While the results of the Duma elections in Russia were a bit of a surprise, those results were nothing compared to the shock at seeing Donald Trump elected President of the United States. I was asleep here in Russia when the evening began in the US, but I was told by family and friends that when the 6:00 news came on there no networks were predicting a Trump victory or even a close race. Again, my purpose here is not to analyze the Trump victory or to predict all that he will or will not do when he does become President. I’m not qualified to render such a broad analysis.
I do, however, want to comment on what I think his election means for the future of Amerian/Russian relations. Again, I first look to those who know more than I do for the “bigger picture,” and then comment on how this filters down to one who lives and moves about within this small Russian city. I have already mentioned Gilbert Doctorow, and in previous blogs I have referred to Stephen Cohen. I look to them because both of them have spent their careers studying Russia. They carry on the best of “mature scholarship.” More than just the advantage of age and experience, they do not need acceptance in the academic or professional media circles anymore. They can, pardon the cliché, “call ’em as they see ’em.” Cohen was recently asked why almost no one else who writes or comments on Russia agrees with him. His reponse was that there are those who do agree in private, but they need acceptance in the professional societies and circles, and if you say something outside the “mainstream consensus,” such as to claim Putin is not demonic, then you are regarded as a “stooge” or propagandist for Russia. I did a quick i-net search and immediately saw Cohen listed as “Putin’s apologist,” and “Putin’s best friend” (under the subtitle: Useful Idiot).
Both Doctorow and Cohen were “cautiously optimistic” in the evaluation of what a Trump presidency will mean for Russian/American relations. Both expressed frustration at Trump’s lack of consistency and the difficulty of seeing his “big picture” because his statements are often contradictory or mutually exclusive. Doctorow pointed out this is not unusual when looking at statements of an American politician running for office—especially if there is no record to defend or explain. In other words, all politicians engage in political pandering. No shocker there. He did, however, make a very important point for analyzing Trump’s pre-election statements. He recommended looking at statements, which the politician, in this case Trump, made during the campaign that he knew would result in criticism and would gain him few votes. So what did Donald Trump say that would meet these criteria?
First, even in the Republican primaries he condemned Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That was not popular with many in the Republican voting population. Turmp also pointed out in an interview on CBS Good Morning that after we had Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi killed the situations in Iraq and Libya got worse. In Clinton’s words on Gaddafi, “We came; we saw; he died” (followed by demonic laughter). Trump pointed out that neither of these men were good, fine, upstanding men, but look what resulted after they were gone–especially in the case of Gaddafi. He may have been a bad man, but he kept worse men from taking over. So after his death our Ambasssador was beaten, humiliated, raped and killed in the streets in Libya, along with three other brave American defenders. Hussein was also bad, but he did keep Iran under control, which was actually more important. Now look at the situation with Iran. Trump stated, “Had we done nothing, had our politicians gone to the beach, we would be in better shape (in Libya and Iraq) than we are now.”
He was asked in this interview if he could convince Putin to get rid of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. To which he said he didn’t think he wanted to. Assad is no “baby,” said Trump, but who do we think would take over control of Syria. Who is the “good guy” we have in mind? He keeps terrorists who murder and torture even children at bay. He went on to say he would be willing to work with Russia in getting rid of ISIS (and other such groups). The interviewer quickly asserted that Putin is “hitting” people we support. Trump’s response was to ask why do we support them. Why do we send weapons to these people we know nothing about other than they do not like Assad? We have no idea who we are supporting and who we are arming.
Clearly these responses are by someone who sees through the excuses the US makes for regime change. This is not pandering for votes. Pointing out that our actions against Hussein and Gaddafi were ill conceived, and that our opposition to Assad has no “forethought” to it, and expressing his willingness to work with Putin and Russia clearly will not win Trump support among the establishment Washington politicans—Republican or Democrat. This was the cause of both Doctorow’s and Cohen’s optimism. They both, like a lot of us, would like to hear a more consistent and clearer policy from him, however.
Cohen also pointed out in his podcast after the election that another reason for concern is Trump will face opposition from both parties if he tries to implement policies that move away from the position that the US has the right to work for the overthrow of any leader the Military Industrial Complex and the political establishment deems unacceptable. Assad is the democratically elected President of Syria. He is an Alawite Muslim, which means he comes from the minority group in Syria. Sunnis make up about 74%, whereas the Alawites make up only about 13%. Hence Assad has kept Syria more “secular.” As Trump said, he is not a “baby,” not a gentle person. He has been more than harsh in dealing with opposition. But Trump’s point that a gentle person would not last long as the leader of Syria is simply overlooked by most in Washington, because Assad has not been friendly toward the United States. Cohen points out the opposition comes from both Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain on the Republican side and a host of Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton. Most of what Graham and McCain say is so similar to what Clinton said during her campaign it is hard to believe they actually belong to different political parties.
THE REACTION IN RUSSIA. Now I will conclude with what I’ve observed here in Russia to Trump’s victory. The day after his election my mother-in-law called during the evening newscast and said the news reporters seemed to be smiling a little. Russians rarely smile, and Russian news reporters almost never do. It seemed they were trying to hide it, but you could tell they were pleased with the results. I think that is true of most Russians. Months back, after the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was surprised that several advisors around Putin favored Clinton. They knew Clinton had said negative things about Russia, but they believed she still was more predictable than Trump. They were more comfortable with her than with dealing with someone who had never really done anything in foreign policy before. But as the campaign went on and Clinton played the “blame Russia” card so frequently, it was clear they really were concerned about her resorting to military action. One no longer heard from anyone supporting Clinton. I would say many, if not most, Russians believed a Clinton presidency would bring the real potential of WW3. After she claimed (without good evidence) the Russians had hacked the DNC she began rattling the saber pretty loudly talking about military responses to “cyber attacks.”
Further, leading news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post joined in the renewed McCarthyism. Some of it was ideological, but as Paul Robinson pointed out, some of it is just lazy journalism. Many reporters from major outlets who write about Russia do not take time to familiarize themselves well with Russia. It is a big and complicated country. Many articles clearly show an ignorance of the country and the people that one who has lived here can easily spot. And then there is the “herd mentality.” It is easier to go with the flow than to do hard research that takes you out of the mainstream. Again, Russians are aware of what is written and said about them in the West. So the fact that both The Times and The Post, who do not like Russia, also do not like Donald Trump was seen as a positive for Trump in the minds of many Russians.
The other reaction I got here were the questions on why there was rioting, complaining, and so much angst after Trump’s victory. What were the rioters trying to accomplish with their violence against other persons and property? I had and I have no answer. People did not get their way and they expressed it through violence. I hate giving that kind of answer, because it obviously does not make American citizens look very mature. I love my country, and I know for the better part of my life most Americans accepted disappointments and moved on. Yet now that virtue is being lost. The “picture” of America that is being sent around the world is an ugly one—violent, self absorbed, and impossible to please. I have seen bitter political fights, but never the senseless violence. Now Trump’s every move seems to be questioned by Democrats, establishment Republicans and even those who did not want Clinton. I do not know what kind of president he will make. I can say from this side of “the pond” that many see Americans as a people who chose a leader then condemned him to failure before he even began.
As an aside, I will (again) address the question or the suggestion I get often that Putin has a plan to restore the old Soviet Union or at least expand the borders of Russia as close as he can to those of the USSR. I cannot say what goes on inside the Kremlin. I do not claim to know Vladimir Putin’s motives or plans. I can only judge based on what I see and read here on the news and what I sense in talking to Russians. This attitude that Putin has a secret (or not-so-secret) aim to take over the Baltic states or Ukraine or re-establish the old Soviet boundaries seems very inconsistent with what I see and hear here in Russia. I don’t know anyone here who thinks like that, and there is nothing in the news that indicates Putin is trying to stoke those flames. I would think that he would be sending out subtle messages to the public feeding the desires for a return to the old days if that was his plan. Statements like the one I quoted in an earlier blog that he frequently makes that “anyone who wants to restore the old Soviet Union has no brain” is not the way to lay the groundwork for restoring the Soviet Union or expanding the borders of Russia. Sure, there are people who still long for the old Soviet days. They are not, however, in the majority. There is a Communist Party here, and it got 13% of the vote as I said above. Many of them, however, just want Communism in Russia, not taking over the old Republics (countries).
CONCLUSION. I will conclude with some evidence for hope for future relations and another observation on Putin. After the election of Donald Trump, a Levada Russian independent poll shows that 71% of Russians want rapproachment with the West. The mid-November poll showed a jump of 21% from July of last year. The only poll that has ever been higher was in 2000. Fifty-six percent still had a negative view of the West, probably based on all the negative things that were said about Russia in American press during our election. Russians clearly want things to be better, however. I sense this in daily conversations, not just polls taken by professionals. They simply do not see the same attitude from the West.
Vladimir Putin is sometimes called a “semidesyatnik” by biographers. A semidesyatnik is a “person of the 70s.” It refers to those who “came of age” during that decade. It was toward the end of Leonid Brezhnev’s long rule of the Soviet Union. He was old and way past his prime, and most of the men in his government were as well. It was a stagnant time. For the ideology of Communism the proverbial bloom was off the rose. Putin, like many of his peers, seems to have been fiercely loyal to Russia, but not as committed to “the party” as his KGB credentials might suggest. The accusation or presumption that there lies within him a heart longing for the restoration of the USSR is, I think, way off the mark. I will offer a word from personal experience as to why I think this way. My father-in-law is also a semidesyatnik. As I have mentioned before he served a career in the Soviet army. In fact, he served five years in East Berlin at the same time Putin was there. On birthdays and holidays my in-laws often get together with some old army buddies and their wives. I get to come along because, well, I’m married to his daughter. Hearing their stories, I realize this is not a group who longs to restore the USSR. They were patriotic; they served their country, and they love their country. But they, too, saw the hollowness of the ideology they were raised on. It’s not that they hate Communism. They just see no reason to go back to it.
I read an article recently on an interview John McCain gave in France. It was a rehashing of what amounts to his political threat toward Donald Tump to the effect that Trump better not try to work to improve relations with Russia. When I read John McCain ranting about Russia (he literally sputtered during the interview) and giving his psychoanalysis of Putin, the “KGB thug,” I realized it for the garbage it is. Maybe we should analyze John McCain. His grandfather and father were both 4 star Navy admirals. Of course, he got into the Naval Academy. His rank in class at graduation was 894 out of 899. Pity the five guys out of almost 900 who were dumber than he was. Unfortunately he will unite with his Republican soul-mate Lindsey Graham and the mainstream Democrats in an attempt to sabotage whatever attempts Trump makes to join with Russia in destroying ISIS and its kin once and for all. His threat is not an empty one. My hope is that America is ready to listen to wiser voices about Russia.