Hillary and Donald, How Are They Going to Manage Russia

Two premises are fundamental to understand this presidential race, probably the best worst one since the two party system has been established in the United States in the form we know it today. The first one is, and please bear with me on this one, is that Hillary Clinton is no Donald Trump and Donald Trump is no Hillary Clinton. Most importantly though, it’s necessary to understand that nor Hillary Clinton is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is Donald Trump. What I mean with this is that the president is going to be very different from the candidate, regardless of who gets elected.

To further clarify: if The Donald is elected probably there will be no wall, and it’s 100% sure that Mexico isn’t going to pay for it. This is just vain talk to appeal to the most venal instincts of one section of the American electorate, exasperated by the perceived mass migration to the US. Furthermore the amount of external influence, especially on Hillary Clinton, is going to be huge. Recently it came to the public’s attention that over 50% of the non-governmental visits she received while she was Secretary of State were from people that had donated considerable amounts to the Clinton foundation. Visitors came from, among others, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia.

The second premise, and this is much more specific on the case I’m going to write about, is that Donald Trump isn’t Putin’s best friend as some Democrats described him, obviously to make Trump look even less presidential. Some even suggested that he is a Russian agent. I believe this is absurd. There are broader strategic and geopolitical interests which leave aside the personal relationship between the two presidents.

As written by Thomas Graham on Foreign Policy, so far neither candidate has offered a vision that goes beyond the failed troops of the past (guardare link nell’ articolo), with Clinton painting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a cartoonish villain and Trump viewing Moscow as an ally in-waiting.

Let’s get specific and start our analysis with Hillary Clinton. As we all know Clinton has been Secretary of State from 2008 to early 2013, therefore many assume that she has had more than 4 years to relate to Vladimir Putin, as it’s widely believed that he has been the perpetual president of the Russian Federation since his election in the year 2000. Likewise many forget that those 4 years were precisely the years of Dmitry Medvediev as President, and Putin as Prime Minister, when he focused much more on internal issues as prescribed by the Russian constitution, specifically reformed for the situation.

Obviously Clinton and Putin did meet several times but they don’t have a very intense history together. Even so she still has a clear idea about him, most recently calling him “a bully” and comparing him to Adolf Hitler in 2014. She is determined to maintain and strengthen sanctions on Russia, and persuade the EU and other allies to follow the same path. She was in fact one of the strongest advocates of new sanctions to be imposed on Russia over the Syrian crises.

An interesting event to remember, as Molly O’Toole recalls on FP, is that upon leaving office in 2013 she wrote a final note to President Obama, urging him to take a tougher position on Russia after the intended but failed reset in relations in 2009. A fun fact about the reset ceremony, organized in grand style in Geneva is that Clinton presented the Russian Foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, with a red button which in her intention had written on it something that can be translated from Russian as “reset” or “reload”, but due to a spelling mistake in actually said “overload”, which is exactly what ended up happening.

On the issue of Crimea, Clinton has taken the view of the most extreme republicans (interesting to notice how Trump took and almost opposite position), such as John McCain, advocating for more lethal aid to be sent to the current Ukrainian government to step up their effort and escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Notably Angela Merkel opposed this view arguing that more weapons in the middle of Europe would definitely not help to solve the crises.

Clinton’s position on Syria is mostly concerned with a No Fly zone over the northern parts of the country, an idea particularly disliked by the Russians, as they regularly operate there. She never said that she would impose it unilaterally, without Russian consent, but seemed to hint at that as Mark Lender recalls on the NYT. Although, when asked if she would strike down a Russian plane, she seemed to fade away from the answer saying that it won’t come to that. It has to be clear that Clinton cannot push too much on the no fly zone during the campaign, because it directly counters the Obama administration’s policy, with whom she has strategically been associating herself as his approval ratings rise to record heights towards the end of his mandate.

When it comes to Donald Trump the situation becomes a lot more vague and complicated. As for almost every policy, excluding economy and immigration, Trump has been saying all sorts of things about Russia, which go in all sorts of directions. Trump changed the facts almost completely by saying in 2014 that he “spoke directly and indirectly to President Putin who could have not been nicer” and stating this year that he has “never met him” nor he has “ever spoken with him on the phone”. The second version is the one more likely to be true, considering that Putin himself supported it.

It’s understandable though why many members of the Russian parliament, the Duma, have used kind words toward Trump when he expressed the idea of negotiating and collaborating with Russia, On Syria and Ukraine, rather than standing immediately on a confrontational route. It would make no sense for a Russian politician not to welcome such an idea even if it comes from a bizarre candidate like Donald Trump.

Trump’s stance on Crimea is peculiar, and probably one of the key factors that furthers him the most from the party that supports him. Firstly it appears that he doesn’t know much about the situation at all, as he stated that “Russia isn’t going into Ukraine” after the annexation of Crimea had already happened. When reminded that Russia had in fact already annexed Crimea he stated that he would “take a look” at recognizing Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, to give a de jure status to a de facto situation on the ground to ease tensions among the two countries. The Crimean annexation in fact was the catalyst that brought to the definitive collapse of relations among Russia and the United States in 2014. Recognizing Crimea would be a major step for a the two superpowers to start collaborating once again.

As far as Syria in concerned, Trump has shown a slightly better knowledge of the situation, maybe only because it got a lot more media attention when there was already a lot at stake for him. He most notably disavowed Mike Pence’s stance, his Vice Presidential candidate, who advocated for airstrikes against the Assad regime, and dismissed him with “he and I haven’t spoken, but I disagree”. Trump calls for better focus on ISIS in Syria and seems to agree with Putin that a strong man is needed. Assad could play that role before a transitional government is formed. It appears that right now nobody, except Assad himself and most notably not even Putin, considers the current Syrian president a viable option for a future, long time government. The situation in Syria, and particularly in Aleppo, is extremely fluid, therefore a lot can change from one day to the other.

To conclude and sum up, it could be said that Clinton, if we have to label her, is a Neoconservative. She is going to take a tough stance on Russia, but once elected president she will realize that she cannot behave in a strictly confrontational manner, separating areas of competition such as Syria from those of needed cooperation such as non proliferation of WMS, as said, once again by Thomas Graham on Foreign Policy. Ultimately though, she would probably give up and pander the hawks that will most likely surround her in the administration. A Trump presidency on the other hand is a much more indefinite scenario. He could be labeled as an inexperienced isolationist. He will most likely still have to take a tough, but less tougher, position towards Russia, and abstain when possible. All things considered it’s not so much about personal feelings, or contracts between individuals, as Trump probably sees it, how much it is about competing strategic and national interests. In both cases for geopolitical nerds a very interesting 4 years shine at the horizon.