US Elections Untangled – EP 5: US and Russia – a doomed relationship (with Arkady Moshes)
Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?
FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.
The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.
Episode 5 – US and Russia – a doomed relationship (with Arkady Moshes)
When Donald Trump was elected, Russian politicians celebrated. But just like his predecessors, Trump has failed to build a better relationship with the cold-war era adversary.
Programme director Arkady Moshes from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs believes the US-Russian relationship is doomed to stay bad regardless of who wins in November.
“It’s practically impossible, that Russia would give the United States what it wants and the other way round,” he says.
“We’re basically stuck in a very difficult and complicated relationship that is not going to get any better any time soon.”
Read the text version of the episode
The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first.
Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone.
Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series.
Maria Annala: In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing the US-Russian relationship. Our guest today is the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia Programme director Arkady Moshes from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Hi Arkady, thanks for being here!
Moshes: Hi Maria!
Annala: So, how would you describe the US-Russian relationship on a general level?
Moshes: Well on a general level it’s very easy to describe and it’s very easy to predict for the foreseeable future, even though this predictability is as unfortunate as it might go. This relationship is very problematic, sometimes growing into antagonistic and very little can be done about that, because these problems and this even antagonism is systemic and is structural. I’m sure everybody can recall that during the post-Soviet period the three presidents that were there in the United States; Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama; they all would want to start a fresh relationship with Russia and they would all end up disastrously. Bill Clinton had or wanted to have great relationship with his personal friend Boris. He was maybe naive and overly enthusiastic in the beginning. We all know how it ended; it ended with deep contradictions and conflicts over the issue of the NATO enlargement at the end of the 90s and particularly the bombings of Yugoslavia. George Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and read his soul and in the beginning indeed, in the context of the maybe common threat of Islamist terrorism, there was a serious attempt to re-establish the relationship, but again the end was what it was… again a very sharp conflict over the issue of continuing NATO enlargement to open the native perspective for Ukraine and Georgia, in 2008 the Bucharest summit and then the Russian-Georgian war which was really the end of the relationship. Barack Obama started with pressing the famous or maybe infamous reset button, but he didn’t even have to wait for eight years for this attempt to crash. Because already around 2011 Russians diagnosed that the protests inside Russia was somehow provoked by the United States and that was the end of reset. So, the second term of Barack Obama was even worse than perhaps the two second terms of his two predecessors.
We should understand that the reasons behind these failures have nothing to do with who is in power, have nothing to do with the personal qualities of this or that politician, but they are unfortunately very structural. The first reason is the legacy of the Cold War. Because of the legacy of the Cold War, for Russia it’s been completely… it seems been completely impossible to admit that the world might live in times of American hegemony, in times of a unipolar moment, Russia has never accepted that and it was always fighting against that. Even though now, it’s of course a reality that there is no US hegemony and unipolar world, Russia keeps that policy. There is a very clear material symbol of that legacy of the Cold War and this is the arms control. The US-Russian nuclear arms control is about reciprocal deterrence, it’s not about anything else. Although the politicians on both sides for years have been talking about a non-targeting of their missiles, non-targeting the mutual territories and so on, it has never been true. Because even if you kind of de-target your missiles, it doesn’t take long to set the targets again and everybody knew it. All the treaties that were there; the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which US abrogated in the early 2000s, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty which finally became history last year, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, all of them are about mutual deterrence and that’s highly symbolising. That’s unfortunate that the two sides have not been able to overcome that legacy. We can see that in more recent times, when Russia started to… I would say to challenge the United States and United States regional dominance in different regions, also in the military sense, it has added to that. Russia is basically the only power in the world, which is not only willing but is able to sustain operations overseas as Syria has demonstrated. This is something, which is again, which is a very clear challenge to the United States global military outreach. Then the second structural reason, why this relationship has not got any better, is the lack of economic interest. Of course, there are individual companies that make or used to make money on mutual markets, but in reality, the trade is absolutely negligible. Just to give you an idea, the Russia-US trade at the moment is about 5% of the US-China trade and which is definitely smaller by an order of magnitude than the Russian-European trade. So, when you don’t have the mutual economic interest, it’s very difficult. You may still fail, even when you have economic interests, as the Russian-European relations have shown us. When people were talking for decades about economic interdependence, but they didn’t help to keep the political relationship stable and safe. But when you don’t have this relationship, it’s even worse. If 20 years ago there was an idea that the United States might be willing to start purchasing hydrocarbons from Russia to weaken its dependence on the Gulf oil and gas, at the moment it’s completely different, because the United States and Russia are competitors. Partly one of the reasons, why the relationship is so bad at the moment, is that United States wants to sell, its gas at least, to the same markets, where Russia has been strongly present all the time. The third set of reasons… I’m sorry for kind of speaking for that long, but I think it’s good, if the listeners immediately get the picture in its entirety. The third reason is the fact that Russians are afraid of regime change and they think that the regime change is inspired by the United States. They see, they are used to see, the US hand everywhere in the world; in the Arab Spring, in the Ukrainian revolution of dignity, in as I’ve mentioned in the protests inside Russia itself. So, basically the working algorithm is to be afraid of the United States and to think that the United States is planning the regime change in Russia. There are periods, when Russia is more or less sensitive to these issues, but I mean over the last 10 years it’s been extremely sensitive to that. But what is knew, that in the last five years we’ve also get a new similar, well not exact type of, but a similar process going on in the United States. The political class in the United States has relearnt to see Russian attempts to intervene and interfere in the US political process, has learnt to see Russian hybrid war attempts as a direct and immediate threat to American democracy, to American political process. We followed that closely in the last maybe four years since the elections of 2016, before it wasn’t noticed, but now it’s just a given that rushes, attempts and potential to wage a hybrid war against the United States is a very big irritant in this relationship. So, these are the three major areas, but on top of that you have to see, that even if everything were ideal, it would still be very difficult to strike a deal. Reset and refreshment is always an arrangement, where both sides have to make concessions and it’s practically impossible that Russia would give to the United States what the United States wants and at the other way around. The United States now mostly wants basically the weakening of the Russian-Chinese alliance. It wants maybe to have Russia on its side, rather than on China’s side in case a conflict goes deeper and grows further between the United States and China, but that’s simply impossible, Russia no longer has that freedom of manoeuvre. We can talk about that later. So, I think that the United States could probably do trade-offs between Ukraine and maybe Middle-East, but this China thing is a very big issue, also on the Chinese domestic agenda and Russia cannot help on that. So, we’re basically stuck in a very difficult and complicated relationship, which is not going to get any better anytime soon.
Annala: That’s depressing, but you make a very good case. Let’s talk about president Trump for a minute, even though you say that who is in charge in the US doesn’t make much of a difference, because it’s all systemic, that the relationship is bad and will stay bad. Nevertheless the Trump presidency has been… at least on the American side it’s being an eye opener in a way. People are, as you mentioned, much more aware of Russia again in the US. The Americans kind of forgot about Russia for a while; they don’t even have enough Russia experts, I’ve been told they don’t have enough Russia experts in the intelligence community, they don’t have enough Russian speaking Russia experts in the academia. They kind of looked the other way and forgot to keep an eye on Russia, which from a Finnish perspective was very surprising and odd to me, because here in Finland we’re always very much aware of our relationship with Russia. It’s not something we could forget, but the Americans seem to have kind of looked away and forgotten about it. So, the Trump presidency has been eye opening in the sense that the Americans are now much more aware of Russia again. There is much more talk about Russia and how to deal with Russia and what the relationship should be and how the relationship has reached the lowest points in a long time. It’s become an issue in the American thinking again after a long time and it has a lot to do with the Trump presidency. Not necessarily only Trump as a person, but the Trump presidency all the same. So, how would you describe the Trump presidency as a period in in the American-Russian relationship? What do you see as the most important aspects of it?
Moshes: First of all, I think I should say that I fully agree with you. It’s really interesting, how much the American analytical community basically missed, overslept the resurgence of Russia; how long it was in denial of Russia’s growing challenge. We remember very well, when Mitt Romney in 2012 tried to call Russia, I don’t remember exactly the warning, but kind of a leading geopolitical threat to the United States and he was basically ridiculed. That statement basically went into oblivion very quickly, but even after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in the East of Ukraine Barack Obama said basically in a very kind of condescending way that Russia is isolated and its economy is in tatters. Well it didn’t help very much the Ukrainians and it didn’t help the Americans to pursue their policy towards Russia in Europe. But back to your question, Trump’s presidency has been very interesting, because the expectations, especially the expectations of Russia, were extremely high. When trump was elected, it’s not a joke, members of the state Duma of the Russian Federation were uncorking champagne. I vividly remember the scene was… one senior member of the Duma basically interrupted the speaker, whatever the debate was about at that moment, and said “I have to congratulate everybody, Trump has won.” What kind of a disappointment that was and how quick kind of a disappointment that was, for the Russians to see that Trump actually is not delivering up to their expectations.
Annala: What do you think those expectations were? What were they hoping to get out of him?
Moshes: Well the expectations were again… There is a kind of a myth in Russia that it’s easier to deal with Republican administrations than with Democratic administrations, because Republicans less care about human rights, because Republicans care according to that thinking about pragmatic interests; major agreements during the Soviet times were signed with Republican administrations and so on. While the Democrats was their idea of liberal world and democracy promotion, less pragmatism, are usually the more difficult partners. So, that’s the thinking, but the basic expectation was of a deal. Trump was talking about the deal for much. I mean they thought they would get off the hook, as concerns the sanctions around Ukraine, basically and they would be able to make a deal with the United States trading off Ukraine for the Middle East, I think; cooperation on combating terrorism against… well basically privileged rights in the post-Soviet space. That didn’t happen and the paradox is that Trump keeps talking about the need to get along with Russia, that he would like to get along with Russia. Just yesterday I saw on one US-channel, during his press conference he was asked by journalists about his most recent conversation with Putin and he said, ‘I cannot talk about the substance of this conversation but I can tell you it was very productive’. So, that’s the rhetoric, the rhetoric is that yes I want to make a deal and then he comes down to Helsinki, as we know in 2018; and again every time you hear the signals that something is in the making, that something positive is going to happen and then you actually see that it is not happening. If you go through the list, you can see that Trump has actually been involved in Ukraine… well, arguably more than the Obama administration had been involved. The most symbolic thing is that Trump has given Ukraine anti-tank missiles, javelins, which Ukraine wanted so much and Obama administration was refusing to do. There’s been a whole list of sanctions, individual sanctions, sanctions against state companies and state institutions and most recently we are now in the middle of a very big fight over this actions against the Nordstream 2, which is a very painful thing for the Russian companies, for the Russian export strategy and so on and so forth. Of course, you can ask me, why that happened and of course my explanation would be exactly that there is a basically bipartisan consensus that Russia is a problem. Whatever Trump may or may not want to do, he cannot ignore that consensus or go over it. I’ll remind you that there is a very interesting piece of legislation: CAATSA sanctions, Counting American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act that was passed in 2017. There were three votes against it in the House of Representatives and two votes against in the Senate. So, it’s basically a consensus. Interestingly enough, Trump has been kind of dodgy in strict implementation of that piece of legislation. He was trying to make it softer than another administration potentially would, but nevertheless, I mean he cannot ignore the reality. The reality is that Russia is a problem, that most of American political class believes that Russia is a problem and the president has a very limited freedom of manoeuvre. Another thing, which I may say, is that even if he had the freedom of manoeuvre, we actually don’t know, how he would behave, because that’s Trump. Trump has two positions on every matter and that’s not accidental, that you actually never know what his actual policy is going to be.
Annala: That is true, but I do feel that Trump has been very consistent over decades. Well before he went into politics, he has been very consistent in this admiration of authoritarian leaders of what he perceives as strong leadership, which other people might call dictatorship, and he has been very consistent in his admiration of Putin. So, I do believe that if he had the freedom of manoeuvre, if he could do anything he desires, I think he would want to be friends with Putin. I think he would be willing to give away quite a lot just to feel like they’re friends and feel like they’re sort of on the same side, but as you say it is hard to know, because he does not have that leeway. He does not have that opportunity to just pursue whatever Russian policy he might wish to pursue, because there is the Congress to be reckoned with and as you said, for once the US Congress pretty much agrees on something. That is not common these days, but this is something they oddly enough seemed to agree on. So, that definitely leaves Trump very little room to actually pursue the agenda he might wish to pursue.
Moshes: I agree, but the other thing is that also… why Trump is so difficult? Because Trump is a kind of Putin. For Trump, a deal is something that he dictates 100%. The deal is a document, which just puts his wishes on paper. Trump is not a mutual processer of quid pro quo or mutual concessions and that’s why it’s so difficult to deal with him. Again, there are issues, which… as I mentioned before, it’s just very difficult for the United States to get from Russia, what it wants on China and Iran, on some other things, it’s just difficult.
Annala: Yes, I agree, Trump doesn’t really seem to understand that to have a negotiation, to make a deal, you have to be able to, everybody has to be able to feel like they won something. You have to be willing to give the other party also some kind of a win, some concessions and he seems to sort of either not care about that or not understand that.
Then of course, when we talk about the Trump presidency and Russia in the context of US, we have to also mention the alleged Russian election meddling, which I feel made it all the more difficult for Trump to pursue any Russia agenda he may have aspired, because the question of the Russian meddling just made everything so partisan. It made Trump dig in pretty deep, because he seems to be afraid of that people are saying that he wasn’t really good enough to be elected, his campaign wasn’t good enough or he wasn’t popular enough to be elected president and people say the only reason he’s president is, because Russia helped him. This whole trauma… it seems to be very traumatic to him. He doesn’t want people talking about it or saying that, that’s the reason he won. So, then that has also skewed his thinking and his actions. It’s made it all the more difficult for the Americans to have a better relationship with Russia and for Trump to pursue that.
Moshes: Yeah, I agree. I mean the point is that we don’t actually know what happened. Maybe some people know more than the others, but we don’t know exactly what happened. I believe that the calculus was to really undermine US democracy and the credibility of the process, rather than to really help Trump win. But whatever was the game plan and whatever was the actual impact of the interference on the electoral process, which probably wasn’t that big, it indeed made Russia toxic. It made Russia an issue for Trump itself, as you just mentioned, and it has made Russia a pretty big pain for most of the political class. Of course, now that we have all sorts of things in the United States and when the campaign is different, this is an extremely important contextual issue, because of course it’s now not only about Russia. It’s about Iranian hackers, Chinese hackers and you name it. Actually, this piece of legislation, CAATSA, which I mentioned, adopted in 2017; it’s also very interesting, because it actually puts Russia into the same category as Iran and North Korea. I don’t think legislation of that kind had existed before. So, Russia was lumped together with countries, which were like really rock states, which were really enemies of the United States, while Russia before had not been one. It’s been a respected adversary during the Cold War, a problem at times, but kind of to be lumped together with Iran and North Korea… it’s very telling for the US political process and it’s also very telling, when you think or anticipate Russian reaction.
Annala: Yes, absolutely. From everything you’ve said, it seems the relationship between the two countries is doomed to stay pretty bad, but the outcome of the elections this fall may, nevertheless, have some impact in what happens next between the two countries. Do you think Russia would prefer one outcome over the other, Biden or Trump?
I think psychologically Russia would probably still prefer Trump, because of his rhetoric, because of his thinking. That okay, maybe he gets another four years and no longer thinks about re-election, he can ignore the Congress and he can make certain deals, even though all potential agreements would still need to be ratified by the Senate, big agreements, and that’s difficult. But at the same time, if Trump is elected, it’s actually very difficult to again put down even an agenda, not just to structure a deal, because the arms control will further unravel, because basically United States is going to leave the last big arms control agreement, the START III treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Other than that, the economy is not going to come back, the regional priorities of Trump may differ. If Trump, not because of Russia but because of his relationship with the old members of the Euro-Atlantic NATO-alliance, kind of finally moves troops from Germany to Poland, that’s going to be very problematic and cause very nervous reaction in Moscow. So, you can think of psychologically kind of preferring one… but I don’t have the knowledge of course, it’s just what I think, preferring one to another, but in reality is going to be difficult. Still, why I think that he might be preferred, because if Biden is elected, Biden will immediately come with his revenge: for everything that was said in the past about Hillary Clinton, for everything that was said about the Obama administration and its policy in the post-Soviet space in particular and most importantly because of Biden’s personal connexion and involvement in Ukraine. Biden used to be Barack Obama’s Ukraine person and he spent a lot of time trying to promote reforms in Ukraine. Not everything is ideal and I mean there are scandals also, into Biden’s son Hunter, whose name was involved, but nevertheless democracy promotion might be more likely, if Biden comes; restoration of the relationship in the transatlantic alliance, which will not be viewed positively in Russia, because Russia likes it, when alliances are divided, and Ukraine. So, Biden might be a more difficult vis-à-vis… for Russia that’s why it would probably prefer Trump; but again now we’re talking about different shades of grey, because we know that it’s not going to be good.
Annala: Yeah that is true, unfortunately. So, you kind of went over this already, but what do you think happens if Trump is re-elected? What happens to the US-Russian relationship?
Moshes: There might be an attempt to still find some areas for discussion. Actually as we speak there are now, I wouldn’t call them negotiations, but some kind of contacts and talks in Vienna around the issue of strategic stability. It’s not expected that the sides will agree about anything big, but it’s at least a sign that they’re willing to talk. However, Trump is unpredictable, and as I said, what’s going to happen in the relationships within NATO is an issue and what’s going to happen in Ukraine is an issue. It’s practically impossible to imagine a scenario with Trump actually, when things will be different; probably he will be repeating what he has been repeating in the last five years. What they want from Russia is a different Russian stance as concerns the US-China relationship, but that’s not going to come.
Annala: Why do you think it’s impossible for the US to get what they want there? Why wouldn’t they be able to get Russia on their side?
Moshes: Because there’s nothing that they can offer and because China will not let it happen. China… I mean maybe the dynamics in the Russian-Chinese relationship are now not as fast and as positive, as they have been immediately in the years like 2014, 2018, but China has got qualitative gains vice versa Russia; in terms of the Russian arms exports, in terms of access to Russian hydrocarbons, in terms of access to the Central Asian countries, which before was expected Russia would resist and a little bit, at least potentially, in the Arctic. When Russia is basically blocked… cut away from a number of western technologies and western financial resources and western investments, China is the only way it can go. So, for Russia to turn away from China, even in the ideal world the West would have to make huge concessions, which it can’t for as long as Crimea is occupied and illegally annexed, since the EU says it. Since it’s illegally annexed, for the West it’s very difficult to offer something. What Trump is offering, is again a kind of a potential return to the G8, bringing Russia back in G7 to make it G8 again, which the leading European members, like Germany, vehemently oppose. So, whatever Trump may promise, is not going to come, that’s why it’s so difficult. So, I think the Russian-Chinese relationship and the Russian pivot to Asia will continue, whether it serves the Russian interests or not. There are people in Russia who are concerned, because they see that the Russian-Chinese relationship is moving in the direction of a military alliance. In that situation Russia might be involved into the China-US conflict, which are not Russia’s conflicts, but a political decision to basically reshape, reformat and revise that relationship has not been taken. So, Russia keeps moving closer towards China.
Annala: How about if Joe Biden wins? Do you think Russia would be willing to negotiate a continuance to the new START deal for example or other arms deals?
Moshes: Russia has signalled that it would be ready to negotiate new treaties on that issue. What is difficult is to extend the current treaty. It can be extended according to provisions of the treaty by another five years, but the problem is that it will be technically difficult, because between the moment of new president’s inauguration and the expiring of the treaty there are only a couple of weeks. You can probably make an extraordinary provisional deal or maybe extend it by a year or two, but that’s possible under the Democrats, or at least I would like to hope that it might be possible under the Democrats. Bidens European policy will be different and that paradoxically might mean softening of the US stance on the Nord Stream. It’s difficult to say again, because again I can say that there is a new piece of legislation about sanctions, which is now in the Congress: DASKA, Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act. That one is called by Americans and some Russians ‘sanctions from hell’, because then they would target Russian sovereign debt and a number of leading Russian state institutions, like State Bank and companies. For Biden it would be difficult to say no to that piece of legislation, but not impossible if the Democrats changed their position, but difficult. The economic policy might have some again contextual impact, because if US policy becomes more green, it will have an impact on Russian oil exports and gas exports and all that kind of stuff, but it’s a bit difficult to predict. So, my point would be that we know the corridor, but of course we can’t know all the details; there might be difference in style, there might be some reopening under the Democrats, but it’s a little bit too early to tell.
Annala: All and all it looks kind of bleak, no matter which way you look at it. To finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections might mean to the US-Russian relationship?
Moshes: Well the nightmare scenario is a serious acceleration of arms race, military build-up, especially regionally in Europe leading to a very dangerous situation, in which accidents may happen. Eventually if there is a case when Americans and Russians start killing each other accidentally, inadvertently, cannot be excluded. Let me remind you that actually a couple of years ago, there was a case in Syria when Russian fighters of the private military company Wagner, essentially mercenaries, died from American fire. That was the first case when people armed with the… Russian citizens were killed by Americans since the Korean War. So, its the first time in 60 years. Of course, Moscow chose not to make a political conflict out of that, because these were not regularly troops and in general actually the deconfliction and interaction between the Russian and American military in Syria was good. Nevertheless, people died, because of certain things. So, if you have the increase of tension in strict military sense in Europe, central Europe, Baltic states, I don’t know if I would call it a nightmare, but what I’m trying to say that there is unfortunately a possibility for this relationship to worsen still seriously. New deployments of US troops in Poland, I don’t know, potentially bringing nuclear weapons somewhere closer to the Russian borders all that. There is a way to go for this relationship unfortunately in the wrong direction.
Annala: Do you think one of the candidates would be more likely to bring that about then the other? Do you think the election results have something to do with, if that scenario is likely to happen?
Moshes: As I said, my working scenarios that we have a corridor there and what I’ve just been describing is actually an extreme. So, I’m talking about hypothetical scenarios, because if I think that, I don’t know, the probabilities are… three, four, five per cent. I want to be adding little fractions to that figure. Talking about the better scenario, if people are willing to talk, there might be understanding refound on the issues of nuclear proliferation, because Russia cannot be interested in nuclear Iran, for example and this is a serious conversation. The same issues of strategic stability can be re-discussed and maybe a new deal can be found. So, I wouldn’t call it a rosy scenario, because there are things which you simply cannot do, but you can slightly affect the atmosphere. Maybe certain things can happen behind the scenes – so we will never know. Maybe there is an agreement about actually not fighting the hybrid war against each other that much. Again what I forgot to say, was that for instance as we now hear, there was a cyber-counterattack ordered by Trump against some Russian, although not state facilities. So, if there is a deal that these things are not done, it might help, it might lead to… a scenario over certain de-confliction, of a certain degrees intention can be envisaged, but again how probable it is, is difficult to say. Not particularly probable, as of the moment. Something would have to be done on Ukraine still. For everything to happen in Europe, something would need to be done on Ukraine and it’s extremely difficult.
Annala: All right, thank you so much for being here!
Moshes: Thank you!
Thank you for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be talking about, how our relationship with the truth has changed and how that plays into presidential campaigns and governing. Our guests will be leading researcher Antto Vihma from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.