Reasons why the US Elections of 2016 will mean a more hostile US stance towards Russia including pressuring the EU to extend sanctions with the European leadership in no position to oppose it and Russia under no illusions as to what is going to unfold.
January 30, 2016
In a typically well written piece, “Endgame for Sanctions? Russia and the West Move Towards Common Ground“, journalist Bryan MacDonald makes the case that Western sanctions on Russia are on the balance likely to be allowed to expire with many forces in Europe urging them to be, given their negative effect on their economies, while warning that the American Hawks will always be on the lookout for excuses to extend them or (as in the case of Iran) simply invent new ones.
A key point he leaves out in his analysis is the effect of the US Presidential Elections in 2016.
The Race for the White House
Come summer the race for the elections being held on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 would be in full throttle. The Presidential candidates for the Democrats and Republicans will be annointed at their respective conventions in late July 2016 (around the same time the current EU sanctions on Russia are due to expire unless renewed.)
In the next 6 months there is going to be intense campaigning, not just by conservative Republicans – whose leading candidate at the moment is a man, Donald Trump, who has both electrified the Conservative base and shocked the Conservatives establishment with an unprecented campaign outside the establishment, combining extreme domestic views with an almost non-interventionist Foreign Policy (including his much talked of dovish views on Putin) – but also on the more liberal Democratic side where a man, Bernie Sanders, with socialist views (for the US that is: as Leonard Bereshidsky points out they are Center-Right for Europe) and a more dovish Foreign Policy, is giving a much tougher fight against the presumed candidate, Hillary Clinton who is a hawk to the right of Obama on Foreign Policy, including a tougher line on Russia (and having compared Putin to Hitler).
For Obama, the key priority is to ensure that his legacy – Domestic, like his Healthcare Plan, and his overseeing 7 years of GDP growth, low unemployment; and Foreign, like the Iran and Cuba rapprochements – remains secure. For him this is best done by ensuring a Democratic candidate become President. And much as he apparently personally dislikes Clinton, the dilemma he faces is that while ideologically closer to Sanders, a Sanders Democratic nomination would imperil the chances of a Democrat as a president come November since Sanders is seen at this point as not electable at a nationwide level as Clinton.
Thus while at this stage, Clinton losing the Democratic nomination and then the Presidential election would be a political shocker for the ages, Obama has to stand by Clinton and ensure she faces no obstacles. And he also has to ensure that the Democratic Party is best poised for the biennial races for control of the House, and races for a third of the Senate and many Governors and thousands of local elections.
Perception of Obama’s Foreign Policy and Russia
Obama is domestically perceived or projected as “weak” or dithering on Foreign Policy not just by his detractors but many allies and has low poll numbers in this area. For a country where the middle class is being eroded away, poverty is on the rise and there is a pervasive feeling of maliasie that the US has lost its leadership in the World – this despite the US having the strongest military (as Obama himself said at the State of the Union); bases in 120 countries; dominating the seas, the communication channels, the financial structure, the media, the entertainment industry – and that it needs to become stronger against its “enemies”. This inchoate fear expressed most by Trump’s “Make American Great Again” slogan is pervasive and has fueled the anti-establishment candidacies of both Trump and Sanders.
Obama thus cannot appear to be weak. He has expended a lot of political capital in the Cuba and Iran rapprochements, which have less to do with idealism than realpolitik.
Meanwhile Russia, and especially its President, Putin are regularly savaged across the political spectrum not just in the establishment outlets from the New York Times to Fox News, but from the outlets where many Americans get their information: from the (typically liberal) late night entertainment shows to the right wing talk radio. Putin is the punch-line for a joke or a short-hand for Evil much like Hitler is. His name might come up in a casual line like “The puppy is so cute that even Putin’s heart would melt”.
So the depth of agitprop and hatred against Russia and especially Putin has really sunk deep into the public unconsciousness (sic) to a largely irrevocable degree.
The Russia Sanctions Policy
Faced with all this, Obama will have everything to lose and nothing to gain by having sanctions lifted. Russian sanctions may harm Europe but the US itself is relatively unaffected. Left to himself and John Kerry – who was an anti-war Vietnam Veteran – they might prefer a more cooperative stance considering the Russian point of view at the least if not their interests, but Hawks beyond personnel in his own administration like Biden and Nuland, prefer a more confrontationist stance. It’s good for the Military and Defense industries which are very powerful across the US and Europe. It gives NATO the rationale to expand more aggressively than any excuses with Iran would. With low oil prices and the inefficiencies of the Russian domestic economics, it would make sense for US geopolitical strategists to put as much pressure as possible to make Russia crack. George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, who works independently now, has given Russia two years to implode a la Soviet Union (though ironically his former firm has a far more sanguine analysis).
Thus in order to protect Clinton and the Democratic Party as being associated with a “weak” leader on Foreign Policy, as well as pressure from the Hawks to hit Russia harder when it’s down, Obama’s course will be to pursue an uncompromising stance versus Russia and urge for sanctions to be renewed or find excuses for new ones to be manufactured.
As MacDonald notes, Western and Central European are chaffing at the sanctions (though Eastern Europeans West of Russia, are very much for it). Yet there are too many levers that the US has to control European leaders many of whom are getting out of sync with their electorates. This ranges from military and intelligence sharing; lucrative business deals as well as threats of exposing malfeasance in their own Governments and Business elites. Simply put, as Obama himself famously put it, they can twist arms of allies if the US really want something.
Besides, Europe is making a lot from the easing of restrictions with Iran. It’s not out of the question that this could have mollified the European leaders to go along with the US on Russia.
Over the New Year, the loud agitprop against Putin has increased further. From direct accusations of Putin “probably” being responsible for the Litvinenko’s murder in a extraordinary kangaroo UK “Public” Inquiry (brilliantly critiqued in depth by Alexander Mercouris), to having a Under Secretary of the US Treasury Department, publicly state that Putin is personally corrupt, the agitprop on 2016 has been amped up as a selection of headlines over the past week shows.
Indeed there was a presser by the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest on January 28th, in which Earnest not only confirmed the Administration stands behind the Treasury Department stance that Putin is personally corrupt but did not rule out sanctions on Putin himself, an extraordinary stance (see below).
In reponse both the Kremlin, via the spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Foreign Minister Lavrov were scathing in their comments. Peskov termed it “unprecented”, “insulting”. acknowleding the role of the US Elections in fanning the demonization. Lavrov in a Kerry initiated call, expressed his “indignation” as the Russian transcript put it. (Notably, the State Department spokesman, John Kirby, was more circumspect about backing the Treasury’s accusing Putin personally of corruption.)
The Russian Stance
The Russians are clearly aware of the dynamics of the US Elections as Peskov’s response in TASS makes clear. Lavrov has spoken of how the regular US Elections affect their foreign policy statements and stances as excerpted below from an interview on December 30, 2015.
The Russian leadership – Putin, Medvedev, Ivanov and Lavrov – have at different times spoken about their skepticism that sanctions will be lifted soon based both on history and the US political dynamics. Despite the rhetoric that “Russia’s actions” need to be modified and the Minsk 2 agreements fulfills, Russia knows that it is Ukraine that needs to follow through (and that Poroshenko squeezed between the Europeans pressuring him to implement what is essentially Federalization for Donbass as per Minsk 2, and his core constituency which is opposed to it, is in a zugzwang as Lavrov himself intimated in his yearly press conference on Jan 26. )
So essentially there is nothing Russia can do except continue with the policies it clearly outlined and is executing whether on Ukraine (Minsk 2) or Syria (where Putin is consistently following what he said in October 2015 and before.)
There is also a possibility that Putin and his core team finds sanctions advantageous (at least in the short term) to boost domestic investment and get Russia to structurally adjust, de-dollarize making the economy more resilient from and less dependent on Western financial policies and debt; and if darker theories are to be believed, to allow Putin to give a long rope for “Atlantic Integrationists” who some factions see as pursuing economic policies inimical to Russia’s pursuit of independent policies to hang themselves.
Given the increasing vitriolic US Presidential Election where any easing of tensions with Russia will be hysterically amplified as “caving to the enemy”, and Obama’s concern with ensuring his legacy via Clinton being anointed as his successor, his administration will pursue a hawkish policy trying to ensure sanctions won’t be lifted any time soon. Excuses can be manufactured or found – Syria is a ripe area for a conflict to either be accidentally triggered or engineered. Recall how the MH17 crash in July 2014 was used to convince foot-dragging Europeans to go along with more severe sanctions in the Orgy of Hate that followed.
Russia meanwhile is under no illusions that European noises to lift sanctions will bear any fruit given how under the thumb of the US they are. Lavrov in his yearly press conference on January 26 said:
… I’d like to point out that we are not are chasing our European colleagues, saying: “Let’s do something to get the sanctions lifted.” No. We’ve focused on making ourselves independent of such zigzags in Western policy, of Europe saying, “Yes, sir,” to the United States.
Whatever happens, the next 6 months will be interesting.