Investigations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States presidential election and the impediment this scandal creates for accomplishing any significant policy-making by the US government resonate loudly in Washington, DC, and beyond. As such, the applicability of the term “Russia-gate” is pretty much no longer in doubt. Indeed, Donald Trump’s administration has had to concentrate more attention on minimizing damage from this scandal that on any other macro-political matter, from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) to the North Korean nuclear program. Appointments to key positions, particularly in the State Department, are badly delayed; some loyalists are threatened with sackings while others opt to resign (Kommersant, July 22). This extraordinary confusion should logically play into the hands of the power that launched the attack on American democracy though remains in denial of any wrongdoing—Russia (New Times, July 19). And yet, Moscow has had few achievements it could plausibly attribute to this bold offensive, while the damage to Russia’s international reputation is severe. Meanwhile, the prospects for cultivating a “beautiful friendship” with a maverick US president has, to all intents and purposes, been destroyed (Gazeta.ru, July 17).
Russia could have harvested the richest crop from Trump’s troubles in Europe, particularly due to his repeated misgivings about the costs and benefits of the Transatlantic alliance. Trump is indeed greatly unpopular in Europe, particularly in Germany; but French President Emmanuel Macron apparently managed to convince him of the high value of old allies (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 14). The persistent demand from Washington to increase defense expenditures irks many Europeans but still contributes to them taking military matters more seriously. This denies Russia opportunities to exploit its position of strength (Carnegie.ru, July 20). The European Union is concerned about the new sanctions legislation moving ahead in the US Congress, insisting that such heavy-impact steps should be taken only after proper consultations with all parties to the sanctions regime, and not unilaterally (Newsru.com, July 23). At the same time, Germany is roiling from a scandal involving four gas turbines, manufactured in cooperation with Siemens, that have ended up in Crimea, in violation of President Vladimir Putin’s explicit promises to the contrary. So the German company has been compelled to introduce its own sanctions against further joint ventures in Russia (RBC, July 21).
Moscow may have expected that the disarray in Washington would diminish support for Ukraine, which has never been high on Trump’s list of priorities. However, there is no evidence the US is dropping the ball on this issue; and the appointment of Russia-hawk Kurt Volker as Special Representative for Ukraine, as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Kyiv have not given any hope to the Kremlin that it might gain more ground in the deadlocked Minsk ceasefire process (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 17).
In Moscow, there are also expectations that growing tensions in US-China relations will make Russia a more valuable partner for the increasingly assertive Beijing. Trade negotiations between the two economic giants are indeed facing complications, but Trump has shown all due respect to China’s ambitious leader, Xi Jinping. Russia can have but a limited impact on setting any sort of economic or security agenda for the Asia-Pacific (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 20). The crisis triggered and escalated by North Korea’s ballistic missile tests constitutes a direct threat to Russia’s security; yet, Moscow has failed to make any contribution to its management, except for following China’s lead (Russian Council, July 6).
It is in the Middle East that Moscow is looking most eagerly for opportunities created by US strategic confusion, and Russian commentators are trumpeting every interwoven intrigue as a major success (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 21). The ceasefire in the southwestern corner of war-torn Syria indeed fits far better with Russian plans than US missile strikes. And yet, this minor deal, agreed by Trump and Putin at their controversial meeting in Hamburg, could easily unravel because neither Israel nor Iran are satisfied with it (Carnegie.ru, July 18). Trump may want to brag about and build on this achievement, but there is clear understanding in Washington that Russia is not a reliable partner in managing the mutating conflicts in Syria (Kommersant, July 21). One particular consequence of the US’s misjudgment of complex quarrels in the region was the eruption of the crisis around Qatar. But Russia has been unable to profit from it and cannot present itself as a reliable mediator, because it is not trusted by Saudi Arabia or Iran or even Turkey (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 19).
Washington created many complications for itself on the international arena—for instance by withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. But Russia has gained nothing from this self-undermining of US global leadership. Disappearing US interest in arms control, for that matter, denies Moscow one of the most important channels of strategic communication with Washington, while the arrogant “reminders” about Russia’s readiness to use nuclear weapons from Chechnya’s despotic ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, discredit the much-valued nuclear status (RBC, July 18). Whatever Trump and Putin later discussed one-on-one (in the presence of a Russian translator) over dinner in Hamburg, Russia is nonetheless defined as the most important source of threat to US security. And this risk assessment translates into a sequence of practical steps aimed at countering this threat (RBC, July 23).
The Russian foreign ministry’s hysterical demands that Washington return access to its two diplomatic “dachas” on US soil (confiscated by the Barack Obama administration last year, in retaliation for Russia’s meddling in the election) appear to be going nowhere (Novaya Gazeta, July 18). Whereas, the appointment of the experienced and independent-minded Jon Huntsman as the new US ambassador to Russia will not provide Moscow with much opportunity to establish a special channel to the White House (Kommersant, July 19). Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s newly designated ambassador to Washington, meanwhile, is already known for his confrontational and truculent nature (New Times, July 7).
Though Russia is consistently in the headlines in the US, this excessive attention is hardly helpful to upholding Moscow’s international position. The more dubious details of the workings of Russian corruption permeate the US media. The lower Russia’s reputation sinks and the less the Trump administration is able to cope with this onslaught of accusations, the harder it will be for Moscow to sustain its denials. The Kremlin is typically adept at exploiting Western divisions and internal confusion; presently, however, this mess-making is backfiring. Russia is incurring penalties rather than bonuses for its efforts at managing the severe crisis in relations with the leaderless West.