The Russian state presents perhaps a unique case in modern history of a state surviving by means of paradox—turning weakness into strength, tactics into strategy, exceptions into rules, defeat into victory, and a civilizational foe into a source of life. It should be clear by now that the Trumpian world—even if we are still not sure precisely what that world will be—has bestowed on the Russian state the promise of crafting new life-sustaining paradoxes. But while the Trump Administration could broaden the field of maneuver for the Russian system of personalized power in the short term, sooner or later it will create problems for Russia, and Russia’s reaction to those problems could be perplexing and unpleasant for the world.
The Beneficiary of the Liberal Order
The post-communist Russian System has demonstrated the rare ability to a resurgence amidst a period of long-term decline (yet another paradox). It has done this by means of one of its key innovations: using liberal civilization to prolong its life—first (in Soviet times), by containing it, then, by imitating and faking liberal standards, and lastly, by infiltrating it and containing at the same time. The post-Cold War world, with its blurred, postmodern norms, provided an ideal arena for Russia’s game of misleading, pretending, and discrediting. The West’s eagerness to engage Russia led it to play along while the Kremlin paid mere lip service to Western values.
For some time one had the impression that the System could have persisted indefinitely in this gray normative zone, undermining the West from within while avoiding any overt struggle for power and dominance. Postmodernity—with its eclectic relativism, ambivalent standards, and blurred lines between legal and illegal, truth and lies, peace and war, principles and pragmatism—is precisely the atmosphere in which the System can thrive. Postmodern world politics has allowed Russia to experiment with a triadic model: simultaneously being with the West (cooperating with it when useful), inside the West (by means of the personal integration of its rentier class into Western society), and against the West, so that Russian society could be insulated from liberal influence. Putin appeared more postmodern than any of the Western leaders—including Schröder, Chirac, and Sarkozy, all of whom became poster children of political relativism. If Jürgen Habermas were to write a follow-up to his famous “Modernity versus Postmodernity” essay, he would surely have noted Vladimir Putin as the personification of the trend.
Russia has become a beneficiary of the liberal order and globalization, having succeeded in using Western resources—and Western weaknesses, too!—to freeze Russia’s decay and create the appearance of resilience. Even the growing assertiveness of the Russian political regime beginning in 2004 didn’t change this pattern: The Western community preferred to view Russia as a partner rather than a foe, hoping that cooperation with Moscow would neutralize its machismo (even after Putin’s 2007 “cold shower” speech in Munich). The Obama Administration’s attempted “reset” was confirmation of the West’s readiness for a policy of “de-linkage”—a partnership with Moscow that turned a blind eye toward its authoritarian turn.
The Crimea annexation ruined this seemingly perfect formula for co-existence. The West was forced to react, albeit reluctantly, and turned to containment tactics. The Kremlin responded with an anti-Western mobilization.
The Kremlin’s upending of the global chessboard, which ended a relationship that was beneficial for Russia, seems bizarre and irrational, but it has a rational explanation. Moscow was caught between two conflicting logics: On the one hand, the Kremlin couldn’t allow Ukraine to escape to the West, as this would undermine its great power status and be seen as a sign of weakness; on the other, the Kremlin tried to avoid a confrontation with the West. Choosing the annexation option, the Russian authorities were hoping that the land grab would be forgotten as its similar moves were in Georgia. Indeed this might have even happened, if not for the escalation of the war into Donbas.
Russia was prepared neither for a new Cold War nor for a multipolar world order (despite the fact that the Kremlin has been preaching the latter). The Russian political class, accustomed to globalization and a life of Western-style consumption, no doubt loathed the idea of the Darwinian struggle into which the world would descend absent American leadership. The developments of 2015–16 proved that the Kremlin remains desperate to return to dialogue with America, albeit this time with a more prominent seat at the table.
The Trump Challenge
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in some quarters of the West, the Trump presidency has created a new headache for Moscow. The popular belief that it was the Kremlin’s dream to see Trump in the White House is, at best, an exaggeration. Moscow would have been more comfortable with Hillary Clinton, a known, if unlikeable, quantity. Today the feeling of consternation is palpable among the Russian political class as it watches the Trump show; the propaganda efforts demonstrating sympathy for Trump can’t fully hide Moscow’s real concerns. The Flynn debacle, followed by the White House’s attempts to do damage control by shifting to tough rhetoric on Russia, has raised hackles in Moscow: On the one hand, the Kremlin wants to preserve a comfortable platform for dialogue with Trump; on the other, it must reciprocate with its own tough rhetoric while avoiding overdoing it.
Russia is at a loss as to how to react to the Trump enigma. To be sure, the Russian political class welcomes the prospect of an American retrenchment that would see liberal values jettisoned and European allies left in the lurch. But the Kremlin rulers also understand the risks emanating from Trumpian America. These are the key points of concern as the Kremlin sees it:
- Trump’s motto “America First!” The Russians would be thrilled if this phrase means American isolationism. But if it means, as some America-watchers suspect, racially or ethnically tinged assertiveness and military might, Russia would view it as a threat. First, the Kremlin, presiding over multinational imperial construct, doesn’t dare to entertain notions of ethnic superiority. Second, it can’t allow Russia to be dragged into another arms race with the United States, which might lead it down the same path as the Soviet Union. Besides, global nationalism is not a principle one can use to build a politics based on spheres of interests; how could Ukrainians, Belarusians, and the rest of the post-Soviet nations be persuaded to reject their own national identities?
- The transactional policy promised by Trump does not bring Moscow any solace either. Trump’s zero-sum understanding of deal-making—that there are clear winners and losers—is hardly suitable for the game Putin wishes to play. If one also factors in Trump’s leadership style, which demands adoration and submission from inferiors, it becomes clear that any hopes for mutual affinity would be in vain.
- Could Russia be a U.S. ally in confronting China and Iran? Come on! The Kremlin is not in a suicidal mood. To be sure, Moscow is not ready for a warm embrace either with China or Iran, but quarrelling with them would be a nightmare.
- Could Russia be a partner in combatting international terrorism? First of all, to do this Trump and Putin would have to agree on whom they consider “terrorists.” Would Moscow recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations? Not likely. Thus it wouldn’t take long for Putin and Trump to realize how far apart they are on the issue. Second, if Trump thinks in terms of a “clash of civilizations” and views Islam as a global threat, he wouldn’t get any support from Moscow. The Kremlin can’t been seen as supporting a war with Islam given that twenty million Muslims live in Russia.
If these weren’t enough to make Moscow anxious, there’s also the unpredictability that now reigns in Washington. The Kremlin’s penchant for recklessness and unpredictability on the global scene has relied in recent years on the predictability and responsibility of Western behavior. If Washington becomes reckless and unpredictable, Russia loses one of its key tools of foreign policymaking. Besides, the Trump/Bannon/Leninist urge to destroy the establishment and create chaos is anathema to a Kremlin that hates any idea of revolutionary change, especially within the establishment.
True, one might argue that the Trump team, looking to balance the postmodernity of recent years with a dose of pre-modern, anti-Enlightenment traditionalist, would respond warmly to the Kremlin’s messaging along these lines. The irony, however, is that this Mussolini-like urge on the part of Washington (if it persists), coinciding with a similar search by the Kremlin for a new form of legitimacy, is doomed to result in mutual animosity and suspicion, unless one of the two sides is willing to become a junior partner in their shared destructive project—a dubious prospect.
Finally, let’s heed the warnings of some Russian pro-Kremlin observers: It would be stupid, they say, to hope for any deal with Trump for two reasons. First, from their vantage point, Trump’s impeachment is not totally outside the bounds of possibility. Trump-Putin chumminess today could conceivably create problems with the next US leader and make Russophobia a basis for U.S. national consolidation. Second, any deal with Trumpian Washington would be directed against current Russian allies (like Iran) and would undermine Russia’s grand project to build a galaxy of satellites in its orbit. Why? Because the world would assume not that the U.S.-Russia partnership was an axis of equals but that Russia was a mere instrument of the U.S. agenda, just as Russia’s many international relationships are instrumental to its own agenda.
The Kremlin may hope that Washington will choose the Kissingerian recipe and try to reach a “new equilibrium” with Moscow based on accommodation of Russian demands. Both sides may look for common ground, at least to begin with. But sooner or later they will discover that in times of relativism they have different understandings of what would constitute a win-win deal. Remember, we’re in a post-truth world now, and Trump is an amateur next to Putin when it comes to manipulating “truthiness” in politics. Trump is less patient and more arrogant, qualities which preclude a positive Kremlin response.
Moreover, any warming of Russian relations with America after the recent Cold Peace would depend on America’s accepting the Kremlin’s recent gains. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain to the Russian audience such a sudden turnabout from confrontation to cooperation. Is Trump ready to withdraw from American positions at a time when any apparent affinity for Putin would confirm the rampant suspicions that he is in the tank for Russia? To be sure, Putin and Trump could avoid falling back into confrontation by creating a new “dual-track” policy: wielding assertive rhetoric in public while searching for common ground in private. President Trump, in this case, would have to allow the sanctions regime to mellow. Still, it’s hard to imagine how this would be feasible. The Washington establishment’s mood toward Russia is hostile, and the Kremlin has nothing substantial to offer in exchange.
So we should have no doubts that a Trump-Putin romance would end badly. The more important questions, however, are what would the ramifications of a new Cold War be, especially if Trump’s presidency nudges along Russia in its pre-modern instincts. It seems safe to say, for now, that a Post-Trumpian Russia would settle into a “new equilibrium”: more aggressive, suspicious, and resentful. At least there is one thing of which we can be certain in this uncertain world!