Think tank review: In October Russian experts offered their assessments on the potential outcome of the U.S. presidential election and took a closer look at whether the level of Russia’s confrontation with the West is growing.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a news conference with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov following his meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. Photo: RIA Novosti

With less than a month to go until the U.S. presidential election, Russian experts weighed in with their view of the unfolding political situation. By taking a broad look at the campaign as a whole and assessing the candidates’ chances, they sought to understand the prospects for Russian-American relations after the election.

In October, Russian experts also discussed the future direction of Russia-West relations against the backdrop of the failed joint efforts to bring peace to Syria, the military operation in Aleppo, and the Berlin meeting of the “Normandy Four.” The experts analyzed whether a radical escalation of the confrontation actually occurred, or whether the level of tension remained the same.

U.S. presidential election

The head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitri Trenin, predicts a victory for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton while he estimates the chances of the Republican Donald Trump to be rather low. Trump has “broken” the Republican Party, split it and filled its agenda with radicalism, which has turned off many Republican supporters. Nevertheless, he still has some chances of winning, as in the U.S. political system a “surprise” is always possible.

Trenin believes that for the Kremlin, Trump could be a more comfortable dialogue partner than Clinton because he is at least potentially disposed to exchange opinions on issues that are important to Moscow. However, the expert notes that Clinton’s victory does not imply any catastrophe for the Kremlin: the Russian leaders know her well and have an idea of what her team and style of work are going to be.

Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) is also inclined to believe that the victory will go to Clinton although he does not rule out a sudden advantage for Trump. That may happen because some of the voters, while speaking against the Republican in public, will vote for him privately. It is those “quiet supporters of Trump” that may decide the outcome of the election.

Kortunov is certain that at this point, it is impossible to predict who will be a better dialogue partner for the Kremlin, as a lot will depend on the foreign policy team that the winner is going to form. That team may include both “hawks” and moderates, depending on who wins the presidential election. The experts stresses that Clinton is a person who is experienced and known to Moscow, which certainly is a plus in the current nexus of unstable Russian-American relations. By contrast, Trump is seen as the more impulsive candidate, which increases considerably the risks of any bilateral interaction.

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Elena Ponomareva of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) points out that the current campaign has revealed dramatically the internal conflicts existing within American society. She describes this phenomenon as “a Cold War of elites,” in which highly segmented elite groups are struggling for influence on an equally segmented society.

For both Clinton and Trump, it is a matter of life and “political death,” so every possible lever and instrument is being used. Hence, the constant references to Russia in the electoral race. Of course, Clinton has on her side financial resources, political connections and influence, but the U.S. is really a country of opportunities and a “black swan” event cannot be ruled out.

Sergei Markov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP) concurs with his colleagues and predicts a victory for the Democratic candidate. Clinton has the support of the American establishment, the gender factor, influence and connections in the media, positive public perception of her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency, as well as her opponent Trump’s total lack of political experience. A high turnout plays into the hands of Clinton, too.

“For those reasons, Clinton’s victory is highly probable. Millions of ordinary American voters want to change their country’s history by electing a woman President for the first time,” Markov predicts.

Cancellation of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Paris

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Paris had been scheduled for Oct. 19. During that visit, he was to attend the opening of a Russian cultural center. However, the visit was cancelled just before the trip for the official reason that it had “fallen out of the schedule” of the Russian leader.

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The mass media and experts connected the cancellation of the trip with the uncomplimentary comments about Russia made shortly before the event by President François Hollande, who made it clear that he did not see any point in a personal meeting with Putin. Hollande also hinted that he might not receive Putin, and if he did, he would express, in the strongest words possible, his condemnation of the Russian air force operation in Aleppo.

In the opinion of associate professor Kirill Koktysh of MGIMO University, the failure of the visit is quite logical in light of the position of France. The analyst stresses that, with regard to its relations with Russia, France has shown the non-independent nature of its foreign policy: “The situation is quite clear. Hollande caved in to the U.S. pressure and was inhospitable. He said that he had nothing to discuss with Putin thus showing his lack of independence and placing himself in a lower weight category. The message was heard in Moscow.”

Georgi Bovt of RIAC describes the situation as a “French demarche” and points out that the West’s standards of behavior towards Russia transgress all conceivable bounds. France obviously resents the veto that Russia imposed in the UN Security Council over its resolution on Syria, which Moscow  quite reasonably sees as “revised” by Washington.

Following the foreign policy course of the U.S., the French leadership consciously exacerbated the state of relations by accusing Russia of war crimes in Syria and threatening Russia with a trial in The Hague. Meanwhile, both France and other Western countries prefer to ignore no less “hot” and controversial operations, particularly those in Mosul and Sana, where the U.S.’s ally Saudi Arabia has long been conducting a military operation without any resolutions.

Tensions between Russia and the West

Andrei Sushentsov of MGIMO University and the Valdai Club maintains that, even with events in Syria, the actual level of confrontation has not changed between Russia and the West. Although the mass media now pay more attention to the controversies between Russia and the U.S., thus creating an impression of the coming of the second Cold War, actually it is no more than an illusion.

According to Sushentsov, one can only talk with confidence of another round of opposition over the Syrian crisis, but there is nothing essentially new about that in terms of scale and significance. The current format of the Russian-American dialogue is a “new normal” to which both sides are beginning to adapt. Meanwhile, both the U.S. and Russia believe that time is working for them and prefer to wait without taking any real steps to change the format.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, believes that the situation is becoming more and more tense, with the greatest threat coming from possible sudden provocations that, in the absence of normally functioning diplomatic channels between the U.S. and Russia, carry maximum risks of escalation.

Europe, which cannot reconcile with its plummeting influence on the international stage, also contributes to this situation. The European countries have long ceased to be independent power centers, but they are not ready to admit it and are willing even to flex their muscles towards Russia in an attempt to prove their significance. Of course, this only aggravates the situation.

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In this connection, Lukyanov points out that Moscow’s goals are to “control the confrontation with the West, prevent it from transgressing the bounds of the rational, and at the same time, continue strengthening, by all means, Russia’s positions, relations and reputation in the rest of the world.”

Ivan Timofeev of RIAC sees the relations between Russia and the West through the prism of Russia-NATO interaction. Those relations are “serious but stable,” with a possibility of escalation. Russia and the NATO countries have been moving toward today’s deep crisis for a number of years already and have now reached a critical moment when the greatest danger is represented by the absence of normal channels for dialogue.

Timofeev suggests some measures that could normalize, or at least stabilize, the relationship -- including the continuation of the Russia–NATO Council, dialogue on conventional weapons in Europe, a pause in the expansion of NATO, and promotion of the implementation of the Minsk-2 Agreements.

Alexander Baunov, an analyst of the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that today’s talk of escalation and crisis in Russian-American relations is due in large part to the presidential race in the U.S. It is through the prism of competition between the candidates for the seat in the White House that the recent outbursts of escalation should be seen.

At that, the expert believes that in any case, the crisis is a deep, long-term one, and Russia is pushing itself into isolation by its own hand. It is also Russia’s fault that the interaction has been led into an impasse from which no way out can be seen yet. “It is not isolation, it is conflict,” summarizes Baunov.