RICHARD BUTLER. Russia and the US Elections

Oct 26, 2016


The US elections campaign has set-up a deeply negative framework for the future management of US/Russia relations. If Hillary Clinton is President her past attraction to military solutions to foreign policy problems will need revision, if conflict is to be avoided.

Speaking at the Alfred Smith dinner, in New York, on October 20th, Hillary Clinton referred to a difficulty Donald Trump had apparently encountered in his use of a teleprompter, during a campaign event. She said to Trump:

“They’re hard to keep up with, and I’m sure it’s even harder when you’re translating from the original Russian”. The audience was, largely, amused.

This wasn’t merely a joke. It reflected her assessment that there was domestic political mileage in hostility towards Russia and Putin and harm to be done to her opponent by calling attention to, and misrepresenting his stated preference for trying to get on with Russia, rather than fight it. Another Clinton aside illustrated further her assessment of the “Russia card”: “We all know who Putin wants to win, and it’s not me”.

Vilification of Russia and its President became a currency of the election battle, in a manner that recalled some of the darker times in US politics. It has the potential to endure beyond the campaign and constrict the creative and nuanced thinking about relations with Russia that current circumstances demand.

The former Head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has pointed out that unlike the time of the Cold War, the US and Russia do not have the focus of a strategic relationship between them, there are “no clear rules of the road” and the German Foreign Minister, Frank –Walter Steinmeier has said: “It’s a fallacy to think that this is like the cold war. The current times are different and more dangerous”.

It’s hard to know exactly what policies will survive the remarkably un-enlightening campaign, but if President Clinton were to act as she has in the past and/or act in ways she broadcast during the campaign, she can be expected to favor a robust stance towards Russia for at least three reasons: to differentiate herself from her predecessor whom she thought was weak on a number of key foreign policy issues; because she has repeatedly demonstrated that she is personally inclined towards military solutions to problems in foreign policy; she will be pressured by a security/military establishment in Washington which believes that the serious difficulties the US now faces with Russia derived from weakness displayed by President Obama.

The latter point of view ignores central facts.

Putin’s foreign policy has been shaped by three main determinants: betrayal by the West; a determination to re-establish Russia as a global power, unable to be ignored; populism – the belief that such policies will be strongly endorsed by the Russian people and keep him and his friends in power.

The betrayal of Russia by the West has been dissected and discussed, in detail, in a multiplicity of forums ( see my essay on Russian Foreign Policy, Pearls and Irritations, January 2015) and widely accepted as a valid interpretation of events, even in conservative circles in Europe. Above all, the West broke it promises on containing NATO expansion, given at the time of the re-unification of Germany, in 1990, and has continued ever since, to expand NATO’s presence up to Russia’s borders. The US’ unilateral withdrawal, in 2002, from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, thus destroying the Treaty, was seen as a blunt rejection of Russian security concerns.

US led military action against Libya also had a heavy impact on Russian policy. Unlike the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, UN authorization for the Libyan action was obtained, under the principle of “responsibility to protect”, in this case to protect the citizens of western Libya, who were under attack by the Libyan government. Russia agreed to this. But, that authorization was quickly abused by the US, UK and France, in their removing the Libyan regime and its leader. The US decision to conduct that action was driven by Secretary of State Clinton.

Since that time, Russia has refused to agree to any proposed Security Council intervention, including in Syria.

The repeated attempts, particularly by Secretary of State John Kerry, to negotiate a joint US/Russia agreement to end the violence in Syria and Russian and Syrian bombing of Aleppo, have failed. Kerry’s persistence had come to face growing opposition in military and political quarters in Washington. It is not clear what more robust steps they would prefer, short of coming into direct conflict with Russian forces.

There seems to be no prospect of a resumption of fruitful negotiations with the Russians on Syria. The US and Russia are now entrenched in being directly opposed on Syria.

Russia continues to expand its military presence in Syria, including by installing heavy-weight surface to air missiles.

The US is now focusing it’s attention on Iraq, that is, away from the Russians, in supporting the Iraqi/Kurdish/Turkish military action against DAESH, in Mosul, in which Australian troops are taking part.

Once again, however, while there appears to be fairly well developed military plans, there is no clarity about the future of Mosul after those plans have been executed, and this under circumstances of disputed interests in Mosul on the part of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish communities and the Turks.

Wider conflict between the US and Russia is expanding. Russia has abandoned the US/Russia plutonium disposal agreement, moved nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, its enclave between Lithuania and Poland, threatened the Intermediate Range Nuclear Disarmament Agreement, is building new long range nuclear weapons systems, and the Ukrainian situation remains unstable. Perhaps just to ensure that he has obtained full US attention, Putin has also mentioned that he is considering reopening military bases in Cuba and Vietnam.

Currently, the US is increasing NATO forces on the Baltic States’ borders with Russia, conducting significant exercises with them, has sited new nuclear missiles in Rumania, and has also embarked on substantial new long- range nuclear weapons development.

There is an urgent need for reflection in Washington on the series of failures, indeed in some cases disasters, caused by the increasing militarization of US foreign policy, a phenomenon most compellingly analyzed by Andrew Bacevich. In particular, it must be recognized that the relationship with Russia cannot be managed, peacefully, on the basis of threats.

To direct this process, President Clinton will need to ignore the anti Russian election campaign hype and re-think the utility in her new job, of her past “liberal-warrior” credentials.

Richard Butler AC was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, then Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, and a Professor of International Relations at NYU and Penn State University


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