US 2016 Presidential Race: Impact on America-Russia Bilateral Relations (I)

US 2016 Presidential Race: Impact on America-Russia Bilateral Relations (I)

It is widely believed the US-Russia relations are at their lowest point in decades. The United States presidential election is expected to be held on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Will the results have an effect on U.S.-Russia relations?

Leading presidential race runners appear to see red. Republicans accuse President Obama of being soft on Russia and call for the US to withdraw from the INF and START treaties among other things. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic hopeful, has compared Putin to Hitler. Polls show that 70 percent of Americans have a negative attitude to Russia, which is again seen as the number one threat to the United States. Anti-American sentiments in Russia have soared to above 80 percent. These changes in public opinion are a real drag on the relationship. It takes years of hard labor to improve the relationship as practice shows.

A cursory look at the candidates currently running for president gives some clue to what the US policy on Russia would be like, though the forecasts can never be precise as a lot of things may take place to impact the state of relations.

Many experts believe there will be no drastic changes. For instance, Stephen Jones, a Russia expert at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, believes that «Nothing dramatic will change as a result of this election in terms of U.S.-Russia relations. You will hear perhaps stronger voices from the Senate at times of crisis with Russia, maybe a push to take more aggressive actions in terms of the embargo [i.e., sanctions that the United States has instituted at some level. But nothing dramatic, I wouldn’t think». For his part, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told VOA that Russia has to be an integral part of any international system. «I think even more, now that it is important to find a way to bring Russia and the other countries into a cooperative relationship», he said.

Sergei Rogov, a Russian leading expert on international security and US-Russia relations, the government adviser and the head of Russian Institute of US and Canadian Studies, said that «Russia and the United States have many common interests such as preventing terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and regional conflicts. Unfortunately, they have been pushed aside. We are witnessing a growing trend towards multipolar chaos».

Democrats on Russia

On May 27, Vice President Joe Biden delivered remarks on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its implications for European security. Biden is expected to announce his decision to take part in the race as Hillary Clinton’s Democratic challenger.

He pressed a hard line on Russia describing how it has shown «contempt» for his smaller neighbors, and committed a «pure aggression» toward Ukraine. The US Vice President underlined that the West had to continue pressing Russia with sanctions while working with the Europeans to increase military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and continue working with the Ukrainian government on meaningful reforms to decentralize and fight corruption in Ukraine: «Helping Ukraine in its defense and deterrence against Russian aggression is critical to checking further aggression down the road. The United States’ focus will be on directly addressing the humanitarian tragedy in Ukraine that has been brought on by Russian aggression. So long as Ukraine leaders keep faith with the project of reform, the U.S. will continue to stand with them». 

Biden’s comments did not directly contradict the remarks made previously by Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Sochi earlier this month. But Biden did strike a tougher tone. He also doubled down on America’s commitment to funding Ukrainian military equipment and basic training. No matter harsh rhetoric, the Vice President also said something worth to note. According to Biden, the tension with Russia over the situation in Ukraine does not mean that the two countries should not cooperate on other global issues, like the nuclear negotiations with Iran and combating terrorism.

Hillary Clinton is the Democratic heavyweight and a clear frontrunner. She is predicted to take a tough line on Russia; the Clintons’ animosity towards Russia is well-known. Mrs. Clinton has said in the past that Putin's Russia must be contained and checked. Putin, in turn, has repeatedly said that the United States seeks to thwart Russia's legitimate interests abroad and destabilize the political situation inside the country. Most recently — in February — she said European governments were «too wimpy» in dealing with Putin, the CNN television channel cited London Mayor Boris Johnson as saying. «Her general anxiety was that Putin, if unchallenged and unchecked, would continue to expand his influence in the perimeter of what was the Soviet Union. She spoke of alarm in Estonia and the Baltic states. I was very, very struck by that», Johnson told CNN, describing his meeting with Clinton in New York. 

Last March, Clinton said that Putin's actions there were akin to Hitler's moves to occupy neighboring territories in the 1930s, which the Nazi leader justified as necessary to protect German people there. It’s understandable - Clinton has to be tough on Russia to prove her readiness to defend national interests.

Republicans: get tough on Russia and security issues

Russia appears to emerge as an issue to use for painting the Democratic administration as weak. This issue seems to serve well for criticizing the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' likely choice for the election. No leader abroad draws more Republican criticism than Russian President Putin does. The candidates' message is clear: if any of them are elected president, U.S. relations with Russia will turn even more negative. 

Foreign policy does not always figure prominently in U.S. presidential elections. The quadrennial vote often hinges on the health of the U.S. economy. Republicans this time have seized on the daily drumbeat of news around the world: the threat of Islamic State, the China’s to disputed waters and Russia challenging US domination in the world. Republicans believe Russia serves well as a way to rally the party's base of supporters. Republican candidates generally favor increasing economic sanctions on Russia, sending arms and economic aid to Ukraine, boosting NATO defenses, especially in Poland and the Baltics, and increasing U.S. exports of natural gas to ease European dependence on Russian gas.

Likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on June 10 that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a "bully" and the United States and its allies in Europe should be resolute in responding to Russian aggression. The brother of former U.S. President George W. Bush, was touring Europe in a bid to prove his foreign policy credentials before he is expected launching his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Jeb Bush is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother. «Ultimately I think to deal with Putin you need to deal from strength - he's a bully and... you enable bad behavior when you're nuanced with a guy like that», Bush, the former governor of Florida, told reporters in Berlin. 

Bush said signaling what further sanctions Russia could face, and reassuring Poland and the Baltic states that the United States would meet its NATO obligations to view an attack on one member state as an attack against the whole alliance could help halt what he called Putin's «aggression». He said training exercises in Poland and the Baltic nations needed to be «more robust» and the Washington’s actions more meaningful». «If I was President of the United States, I'd clearly take the advice of the commanders on the ground but from the outside, without having any kind of classified information, it appears that we could have a more robust response», he said. At the same time he emphasized that it was also essential to ensure that the United States did not isolate Moscow to such an extent that it ended up in the arms of China – the similarity with the statement of Joe Biden is clear, Russia is too important to tear up the relationship.

Vladimir Putin was the only leader outside the United States that former Texas Governor Rick Perry mentioned in his presidential candidacy announcement speech on June 4. «Vladimir Putin uses energy to hold our allies hostage», he said«If energy is going to be used as a weapon, I say America must have the largest arsenal».

It’s not just hawks versus doves. Senator Rand Paul came under harsh criticism for being «soft» on national security as soon as he announced his candidacy. Paul is the most moderate mainstream Republican candidate in many years. There may be a divide in the party ranks over foreign-policy issues. Rand Paul is less inclined to intervene militarily than other GOP candidates. Paul has been among the most vehement congressional critics of President Obama’s intervention in Libya, and has been generally opposed to intervening in Syria. He criticized the US Iraq policy for helping to give rise to Islamic State. Though being considered a moderate candidate, he has recently proposed a $160 billion increase in defense spending over ten years to be paid for by cuts in foreign aid and domestic spending.

Senator Marco Rubio is, perhaps, the biggest hawk among GOP candidates. Rubio has supported intervention in a variety of hotspots around the world. He has supported the Libya intervention and would have backed a much bigger and stronger U.S. effort and called for being fully engaged in arming, training, and equipping non-jihadist Syrian rebels to make them overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. In contrast to Paul, Rubio has been a supporter of NSA surveillance programs and the Patriot Act. 

Republican Senator from Texas Ted Cruz falls somewhere in between senators Paul and Rubio. He says: «One of the most troubling aspects of the last six years is that America has receded from leadership in the world, and it has created a vacuum, and into that vacuum has stepped nations like Iran, like Russia, like China. It’s made the world much more dangerous». Cruz supports actions abroad but stands against the concept of nation building «to «build democratic utopias across the world». According to him, the job of the military is to «hunt down and kill our enemies». 

Scott Walker, too, has taken a hawkish stance on foreign policy. According to him, the US should be prepared to put boots on the ground to defeat the Islamic State. Ben Carson has leaned hawkish telling ready for boots on the ground, if need be. In making his presidential bid official on June 1, Sen. Lindsey Graham promised to put "a strong national defense" and service member concerns at the center of his campaign. «I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate — that includes you, Hillary», the South Carolina Republican told a cheering crowd of constituents at his campaign announcement. «I have listened, learned and prepared myself for the job of commander in chief»."He is the most hawkish of all Republican runners.Graham lambastes the Obama’s policy toward Russia. Speaking to NBC’s «Meet the Press» on July 19 he said, «I’m suggesting European, American-organized sanctions that go after Putin individually, the energy sector in Russia, the banking sector in Russia. I’m suggesting that we arm the Ukrainians so they can defend themselves», Graham explained. «I’m suggesting we put more N.A.T.O. troops around Ukraine, that we rebuild the missile defense systems that Obama took down to let Putin know the path of least resistance is not to continue to dismember the Ukraine».

All these presidential hopefuls are still expected to formulate more in detail their stances on Russia as the race has just started, but hawkish approaches clearly prevail.

(To be concluded...)

Tags: Russia  Ukraine  US  Bush  Clinton