In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Russian President Putin examines a racecar

Only six months ago the future must have looked promising to Vladimir Putin as he sought to end his isolation by Western leaders: Donald Trump was settling into the White House amid reports of champagne corks flying in Moscow and Francois Fillon was the presidential frontrunner in Paris. Now prospects seem dimmer, with Congress this week pushing for more sanctions on Russia for its attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections as concluded by the U.S. Intelligence Community. And that raises a question: If Putin did seek to influence the outcome of elections in the U.S. and France, did his gamble pay off? Did the benefits of doing so exceed the costs? We have already asked Nikolas Gvosdev to explore this question and we expect to post his answer this week, but we also want to ask you: Looking back, how do you assess Russian leaders’ alleged decisions about Western election interference?

Did they backfire?

Choices

Photo from Vladimir Putin's official website.

Trump and Putin in Hamburg
Allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential race first surfaced more than a year ago. Since then, Donald Trump—as a candidate, as president-elect and finally as president—has weighed in on the topic. In some ways, his position has evolved: from saying that the story of Russian interference was spread (and possibly invented) by sore-losing Democrats to conceding that Russia was behind the hacks of Democrats’ computer systems, and ultimately to confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin about the allegations. But in other ways, Trump’s position has remained consistent: He maintains that even if Russia did interfere, that had no impact on the election’s outcome; he has repeatedly expressed doubt that Russia was behind the hacks (even after publicly saying it was); he has insisted that his campaign did not have any back-door dealings with Russia, calling claims to the contrary part of a political “witch hunt”; and he has defended those close to him as they have been accused of colluding with Moscow.

A declassified version of a report by the U.S. Intelligence Community said in January that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” whose “goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” The intelligence officials “further assess[ed that] Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and that they used various means—including cyber and disinformation—in pursuit of their goals. At least three investigations are ongoing: one probe by a Justice Department-appointed special counsel and one each by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Below, we try to trace the arc of Trump’s comments on the topic of Russian election interference. This is an evolving draft that may be updated in the future and an expanded version including Trump’s comments on all things Russia will appear under our Competing Views rubric.
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Putin and Obama
As readers of this website likely know, U.S.-Russia relations have dropped to a low point reminiscent of the scariest days of the Cold War, and the risk of nuclear miscalculation is the highest it’s been in nearly 55 years. With passions flaring and recriminations flying, how can Washington and Moscow find a calm common language and ratchet down tensions?

My colleagues and I have tried to help in this search by creating a negotiation tool called a partisan perception chart, which can often be a useful way to advance dialogue in confrontational relationships. Such a tool proved helpful in U.S-Soviet “Track 1.5” dialogues on nuclear-risk reduction back at the nadir of the Cold War in the 1980s. As I describe in more detail in a recent article in The National Interest, the chart we designed back then helped both sides see each other’s point of view, move beyond mutual accusation and shift the focus to common interests and reaching concrete agreements.

Below is the new version prepared for 2017, as we see a nuclear déjà vu with a risk of inadvertent war arguably even higher than in the 1980s. The chart seeks to represent important points of view in both countries as a tool to further dialogue. It is meant, in part, to counter some dangerous tendencies in the way human beings process critical information in adversarial situations according to extensive research in the field of negotiation—for example, to perceive one’s own side as more honest and morally upright, while seeing the other as untrustworthy, dishonest and seeking unilateral advantage. The sources for the points of view in the chart include official speeches, published articles and conversations with leading U.S and Russian experts.

It is important to underline that there are major substantive differences between the U.S. and Russia on key issues of sovereignty, use of force, the rules of international decision-making and many others. The chart does not assume that all conflict is just the result of misunderstanding, action-reaction cycles or perceptual bias; nor does it assume moral equivalence. (In the midst of our own hellish Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained firmly against slavery, yet he still was able to speak of his Confederate adversaries as human beings and envision a union. He famously stated: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”)

This is the aim of a partisan perception chart: to get to know the other side better, to allow both sides to air their grievances, challenge the other side, correct inaccuracies and then move beyond their emotionally charged, opposing positions to begin to address critical underlying interests.
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Russia's main trading partners
As relations between the West and Russia went from bad to worse in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, one consequence has been Moscow’s decision to strengthen ties with China, while devoting less energy to attempts at cooperation with the U.S. and EU.

Relations between Russia and China have become so close that some policy influentials on both sides have begun to advocate a military-political union between their two countries. (See the summaries of two recent Russian press reports below.)

However, while the post-Cold War Sino-Russian rapprochement has definitely accelerated since the Ukraine crisis, one should bear in mind that Russia’s “pivot” from West to East is a longer-term trend in terms of bilateral trade opportunities and public opinion.

On the latter point, take a look at these polls conducted by Russia’s most prominent independent pollster, the Levada Center (see one above).
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We at Russia Matters tend to treat claims by state-owned pollsters with a grain of salt, especially when it comes to political rankings. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to share the results of the following survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) in May, as it gives some fascinating insights into ordinary Russians’ thinking about nuclear-, biological- and chemical-weapons threats to their country.

When asked to assess what actor is most likely to launch an attack using weapons of mass destruction against Russia, respondents said they view the United States, al-Qaeda and “Chechen terrorists” as the first, second and third likeliest sources of such an attack, respectively. (A decade ago Russians ranked those potential attackers in the reverse order.)
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