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Expert Round-Up: Impacts of US Midterms on Russia Policy

November 08, 2018
RM Staff

What impact will this week’s midterm elections have on the U.S. policies most relevant to U.S.-Russian relations? Russia Matters has scanned publications by some of the West’s leading media and think-tanks for initial insights. Most commentators seem to agree that a Democratic-led House of Representatives is likely to revive or intensify some of the investigations into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections and to expand sanctions against Russia, but that President Donald Trump’s executive powers are deep and broad enough to let him continue pursuing a Russia policy of his own choice. (Though it’s worth noting that even with a Republican-led Congress, the Trump administration has hardly been dovish on Moscow.)

The center of decision making on Russia sanctions and policy, according to former Obama administration official Peter Harrell, will likely shift from the Republican-majority Senate to the House. In fact, new sanctions on Russia were likely regardless of the election’s winners, according to Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer. They note that under a Democratic House, the Kremlin can simply expect more of them, as well as more investigations. New sanctions are likely to be tougher for Russians both inside and outside the Kremlin, including for ordinary citizens, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky writes. 

But the midterm results aren’t all bad for Moscow, according to two leading experts from the Carnegie Moscow Center. Alexander Gabuev says the Kremlin may actually view the split Congress as a good thing, as it will exacerbate the already deep divisions in U.S. politics. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, writes Dmitri Trenin, the center’s director, the impact of the U.S. midterm elections is negligible. Trenin explains that Putin’s investment in Trump is not about Washington’s Russia policy, the U.S. Congress or how well or poorly Republicans fare in the midterms; instead, Trump’s importance to Putin lies in his departure from previous U.S. foreign policy and the disruption he creates in the global system—which Putin sees as positive for Russia.

Things aren’t all bad for Trump, either. In pursuing his goal of better relations with Russia, the U.S. president is unlikely to be hindered by a divided Congress, since the executive branch has a relatively free hand in foreign policy issues, say Andrew Weiss, a former Russia director on the National Security Council, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Moreover, while Democrats are readying to slap new sanctions on Russia and put Trump’s White House under a microscope, according to Financial Times’ Katrina Manson, Robert Mueller’s investigation may be facing difficulties. This is particularly true following the ouster of Jeff Sessions as attorney general the day after the midterms, as noted by the New York Times editorial board.

And what does Europe make of all this? Some worry that the mixed outcome of the midterms means Americans could back Trump for a second term, according to both Bershidsky and Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times.

Check out our round-up below for more on the impacts of the U.S. midterms for Russia policy.

What kinds of new sanctions and investigations to expect:

“What’s Bad for Trump Is Worse for Putin: The Kremlin can expect more sanctions and more investigations from a Democratic House,” Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer, Foreign Policy, 11.07.18: The authors, reporters for Foreign Policy, write: “The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is promising more investigations into Russian meddling … and both parties are likely to push for more sanctions… ‘There is a decent chance that we will see the center of gravity on Russia sanctions and Russia policy shifting from the Senate to the House,’ said [former Obama administration official ] Peter Harrell… New sanctions on Russia were likely regardless of who won the elections. … [T]he Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act … would impose sanctions on Russian sovereign debt, Russian energy projects, oligarchs and national banks. … Another significant piece of legislation to watch is the Deter Act.” Congressional aides also “expect the new Democratic majority to reintroduce several key bills aimed at cracking down on Russian election meddling in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”

“How Congress Can Take Back Foreign Policy: A Playbook for Capitol Hill,” Brian McKeon and Caroline Tess, Foreign Affairs, 11.07.18: The authors, a former national security official and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center, offer various recommendations: In January, they write, the congressional committees “that cover national security … should hold hearings on U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Central America” among other issues. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee should take “a close look at the Chinese and Russians who have bought Trump properties … as well as the lavish spending by foreign governments at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.” Congress should also highlight “how U.S. foreign policy toward China, Russia and the Persian Gulf is affected by Trump family business interests. … The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence … should focus on standard oversight of the intelligence community” rather than on Mueller’s Russia investigation. “Building on the Russian sanctions it passed in 2017, Congress should also promptly consider the Defending American Security From Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018.”

How the Kremlin perceives the results:

“Why Putin Isn’t Sweating the Midterms,” Dmitri Trenin, Politco, 11.06.18: The author, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes: “Some are advising the Kremlin to stay clear of Trump’s White House… Yet, Putin is determined to continue his face-to-face contacts with Trump. … In his recent public remarks … Putin suggested that when Trump wins his second term in 2020, he will be freer to stabilize and normalize relations with Russia. … The new Congress promises more of the same: more sanctions, more investigations, more accusations about the Trump-Russia connection. Thus, they [analysts] say, engaging with Trump is futile… [T]his line of analysis … totally misses what Putin sees in Trump. … To Putin, Trump represents a new departure in U.S. foreign policy. What Putin considers positive for Russia is the disruption that Trump is creating for the global system… In this, Trump, for all his idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, is the most avowedly Russia-friendly American leader Putin is likely to encounter. … Trump wants a ‘great America,’ the world’s mightiest power that is focused mostly on what it regards as its own national interests. … [S]uch an America would be ideal for Russia.”

“US Midterms: Why The World Fears ‘Trumpism’ Is Here to Stay,” Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 11.06.18: The author, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, writes:The Putin government has not given up on Mr. Trump. Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, says he thinks ‘Putin’s preferred outcome’ would be for the Republicans to maintain control over both the House and the Senate… The expectation of a potential second term for Mr. Trump is also rising in Russia. However, even a result where the Democrats win the House but not the Senate ‘doesn’t look bad from Moscow’s viewpoint,’ he [Gabuev] says. ‘A split Congress … will add dysfunctionality to the U.S. political system, so the country might become even more divided and inward-looking . . .  Something that weakens your opponent is good for you, that’s the logic.’”

The election results will have limited impact on president's foreign policy course or national security:

“US Midterms: Democrats Ready to Put White House Under Microscope. New Committee Chairmen Prepare Agendas Despite Talk of Bipartisanship,” Katrina Manson, Financial Times, 11.07.18: The author, a correspondent for the Financial Times, writes: “Democrats will try to scale back the U.S. military presence in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, as well as demand more information about U.S. relations with Russia and North Korea. Many are also eager to reassert support for NATO and strengthen the U.S. alliances with Western allies… Total deadlock [between Democrats and Republicans] is unlikely… Both parties share ‘a common threat perception of North Korea, Russia and a common concern about China,’ says Louis Lauter, who leads congressional affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. … Andrew Weiss, a former Russia director on the National Security Council … said he was skeptical that a divided Congress would create a dramatic shift, adding that the White House had a much freer hand over national security than other policy areas.”

“How House Democrats Will Try to Reshape Trump's Foreign Policy,” Amanda Erickson, The Washington Post, 11.07.18: The author, a foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post, writes: “The Democrats cannot do much to change the president's foreign policy course. ‘It's not at all obvious that the midterms will have much effect on foreign policy,’ said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘Under our system, almost all of the initiative resides with the executive branch. That's not going to change.’”

Impact on Russia investigation by Mueller:

“Mueller Was Running on Borrowed Time. Has It Run Out?” Editorial Board, New York Times, 11.07.18: The New York Times editorial board writes: “Robert Mueller, the special counsel, always knew he was running the Russia investigation on borrowed time. That time may have just run out on Wednesday afternoon [Nov. 7], when President Trump ousted his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, less than 24 hours after Republicans lost their eight-year lock on the House of Representatives. … Trump has made clear that he thinks the attorney general should function as a president’s personal lawyer… In the days before Mr. Sessions recused himself last year, Mr. Trump tried desperately to stop him… The president may believe that in Mr. [Matthew] Whitaker he’s found his Roy Cohn,” whom the authors describe as “an infamous mob lawyer and fixer.” Trump “may also believe that the Republican majority in the Senate … is prepared to embrace such a corrupted standard for American justice.”

Where do new chairs of House committees stand on Russia:

“Democratic House Brings Uncertainty to Trump Foreign Policy,” Mike Eckel, RFE/RL, 11.08.18: The author, a senior correspondent for RFE/RL, writes: “Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), an outspoken critic of the Kremlin … is likely to take chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Another Russia critic, Adam Smith (D- Wash.), is likely to take over as head of the House Armed Services Committee. … Jim Risch of Idaho is widely expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations. He is not considered to be as hawkish on Russia policy as [Bob] Corker, or as the other Republican who has expressed interest in the chairmanship—Marco Rubio… Little change, if any, is expected in the congressional approach toward Ukraine… House Democrats may consider funding for more weapons supplies to Ukraine's armed forces.”

“What’s Bad for Trump Is Worse for Putin: The Kremlin can expect more sanctions and more investigations from a Democratic House,” Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer, Foreign Policy, 11.07.18: The authors, reporters for Foreign Policy, write: “One sliver of good news for the Russians may be the change in leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee… With Sen. Bob Corker (R), a key architect of Russia sanctions, set to retire, committee chairmanship will pass to Trump loyalist Sen. Jim Risch. … ‘I would be surprised if Risch would want to do anything on Russia,’ [former Obama administration official Peter] Harrell said. … Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who had been dubbed ‘Putin’s favorite congressman,’ lost his seat in California’s 48th district.”

Election results suggest Trump is here to stay:

“Europe's 2018 Takeaway: Trump Is No Fluke. Commentators and politicians see the mixed outcome as evidence Americans would back the president for a second term,” Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg, 11.07.18: The author, a columnist and veteran Russia watcher, writes: “It’s something of a shock to European U.S.-watchers that the midterms prove that Trump’s victory in 2016 wasn’t a freak accident… For most European countries, little will change after the U.S. vote. At best, the new Democratic leadership in the House will propose alternative policies and try to heal rifts… The Democrats’ performance in the midterms doesn’t foretell a landslide, or even a narrow win, in 2020. On this side of the Atlantic, only one country faces somewhat increased risks from the midterms: Russia. … Russian officials have long known that they have to dig in for the long haul when it comes to U.S. hostility. Europeans, too, are getting accustomed to the prospect that Trump’s America is not necessarily just a painful but brief interlude.”

“US Midterms: Why the World Fears ‘Trumpism’ Is Here to Stay,” Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, 11.06.18: The author, chief foreign affairs columnist for Financial Times, writes: “The results of the 2018 midterms will be seen all over the world as a crucial test of whether Donald Trump has permanently changed America. … If the Republicans do well, then many will conclude that ‘Trumpism’ is here to stay. The rest of the world would have to make a long-term adjustment to an America that is highly protectionist and suspicious of treaties on principle… However, if the Democrats prosper on Tuesday night, then the US president’s foreign critics will cling on to the hope that the Trump years may yet turn out to be an aberration.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.