Whatever friendly feelings United States President Donald Trump might personally hold toward Moscow, the anti-Russian policy of his administration is even bolder than the course set in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency. This conclusion was articulated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who expressed his dismay about the wave of “Russophobic hysteria” that, he said, had swept Washington (Russiancouncil.ru, November 30). Lavrov had shared that opinion before Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor in Trump’s administration, pleaded guilty of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about his contacts with Russian officials and opted to cooperate with the investigation of special counsel Robert Moeller. This investigation is now expected to produce more evidence of Russia’s interference in the US presidential elections (Gazeta.ru, November 30). Stricter implementation of the law on sanctions is certain to follow, and Moscow is bracing for more punishment and preparing responses.
The Russian economy can be maintained at its just-above-zero growth trajectory only if Moscow’s agreement with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on production cuts is sustained, thus supporting the oil price on its current plateau (Forbes.ru, November 30). Greater worries in the business elite pertain to the personal sanctions aimed at oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, which allegedly are being investigated by US financial intelligence with alarming prejudice (Rosbalt, November 30). Huge fortunes evacuated to Western “havens” by carefully hidden channels are in danger, and even family members enjoying the “good life” in Monaco or Miami could feel the squeeze (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 28). It is well known in Russian business-political circles that the US State Department under Trump has not been particularly active in preparing new sanctions, so the news about the possible departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brings more worries (RBC, December 1). Some experts suggest that in this turbulent situation, Moscow could benefit from keeping a low profile and refraining from proactive moves on the international arena (Kommersant, December 1).
These cautious recommendations to wait out the political storms in Washington stand in sharp contrast with the escalation of the official rhetoric on preparation for a “big war” (Novaya Gazeta, November 29). The tone was set by President Vladimir Putin, who held a series of meetings with the top brass and then demanded from big business greater readiness for a rapid expansion of defense-related production (Newsru.com, November 28). In real terms, no return to the Soviet-style mobilization economy is planned or indeed possible (RBC, November 28). The embarrassing failure of the space launch from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome reminded yet again about the degradation of Russia’s military industry (Kommersant, November 29). Significant resources, nevertheless, are invested in building a top-heavy system of state command and control in a large-scale emergency (New Times, November 27).
The smoldering and malignantly mutating conflict in Donbas remains the most probable epicenter of such emergency. Moscow has invested much effort in cultivating fatigue in the West with the deadlocked Minsk process (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 29). The firm statement from Kurt Volker, US Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations, regarding the non-negotiable proposition on restoration of Ukrainian control over all occupied territories came, therefore, as an irksome reminder to Moscow that its dirty little war was not forgotten in Washington (RBC, November 28). The armed squabbles resulting in a military coup in the Luhansk quasi-republic revealed Moscow’s inability to enforce any resemblance of order in the separatist enclaves (Novaya Gazeta, November 24).
It is in the Middle East that Russia tries to amass assets usable for bargaining with the US and thus discouraging the introduction of really hard-hitting sanctions. Putin’s plan for declaring victory and managing the talks between opposition groups of various persuasions in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime was postponed (see EDM, November27, 29), so airstrikes with long-range Tu-22M3 bombers were resumed (RIA Novosti, December 1). Israel, meanwhile, is delivering its own airstrikes on the Hezbollah bases near Damascus, disregarding the deal on “de-escalation zones”; and the Russian foreign ministry no longer bothers to issue protestations (Newsru.com, December 2). It looks instead for opportunities to claim a key role in the management of the violent strife in Libya without any costly entanglement (Kommersant, December 2). The draft agreement with Egypt on access to its air bases could be used for making an occasional air raid targeting some Libyan groupings, which would hardly make any difference in the chaotic conflict but would demonstrate Russia’s capacity for projecting power (RBC, November 30).
This capacity is strikingly lacking in the most demanding and dangerous of conflict situations, which is driven by the North Korean nuclear and missile programs (see EDM, November 30). Russian experts are fully aware that Pyongyang’s proclaimed defensive goals can camouflage aggressive plans, which could produce a direct security threat to highly exposed Vladivostok (Carnegie.ru, November 30). Russian leadership cannot figure out how to interpret Trump’s “we will handle it” statement, and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, sticks to the point that a military solution is unacceptable (RIA Novosti, December 1). The real point, however, is that the Kremlin would apparently love nothing better than to see US pressure on North Korea, supported and reinforced by China, fail (Russiancouncil.ru, November 29). Moscow is ready to accept the de-facto nuclear status of its obstinate totalitarian neighbour, but is upset about the cooperation between the United States and China, which leaves it marginalized in the big East Asian game.
Putin seemingly cannot quite grasp the nuances of decision-making in Beijing and may not fully understand the complexity of Middle Eastern intrigues, but what he knows expertly and sees as the main driver of politics is corruption. He thought that in the course of last year’s US presidential campaign he finally managed to connect with American political corruption, but that breakthrough has inflicted massive damage to Russia’s international status and keeps backfiring. He cannot admit any wrongdoing or, even worse, mistakes, and can neither shelter his courtiers from escalating punishment nor give them compensation for the growing damage. The signalling to Washington of the readiness to be useful in managing high-resonance conflicts is by and large ignored, and the subtle hints about making troubles are interpreted as threats. Putin can neither control nor counter the deterioration of relations with the US, and this makes anti-Americanism a less useful tool in domestic politics.