The trajectory of the manageable but mismanaged confrontation between the United States and Russia has fluctuated since the start of the year. And this past week, it registered at least four significant turns for the worse. Hopes for improvement in Moscow have all but dissipated, giving way to the usual game of blaming Washington for every conflict in the world and all the problems in the Russian economy. President Vladimir Putin, again accused the former Barack Obama administration and “Russophobes” in the US Congress for the setbacks in reaching a new start in relations and expressed confidence that President Donald Trump would prevail over his enemies (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 16). Putin refrained from commenting on the most recent negative events (see below), but a series of Russian diplomatic signals and military counter-measures shows that the Kremlin has shifted gears in preparation for a new escalation in tensions. The possible high-level Putin-Trump meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7–8, is no longer seen in Moscow as a major opportunity (Newsru.com, June 22).
The first of the four downturns was set by the visit to Washington of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who presented the US government with his new plan for the stabilization and reconstruction of the Donbas war zone (Kommersant, June 21). Russian mainstream media sources tried to downplay and even ridicule the short meeting in the White House, but the contrast with Putin’s lack of communication and uncertain plan for a meeting with Trump in Hamburg is still rather sharp (Politcom.ru, June 21). Ukraine recently finalized the long process of obtaining a visa-free regime with the European Union (which has yet again prolonged its sanctions against Russia). In addition, Kyiv has asserted its intention to upgrade cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), much to the dismay of many commentators in Moscow (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 19). Relentless anti-Ukrainian propaganda still shapes Russian public opinion. Indeed, 59 percent of respondents express a negative attitude toward Ukraine, and only 10 percent believe in any improvement of the situation in Donbas (Levada.ru, June 23).
The second bad turn came from the introduction of new sanctions by Trump’s decree, which upset Russian authorities so much that a scheduled meeting between high-level diplomats was canceled (RBC, June 21). Presumably, the newest sanctions passed by the Treasury Department aimed to pre-empt the approval by the US Senate of the sanctions bill that contains even tougher measures and cannot be lifted by a strike of the president’s pen (Carnegie.ru, June 19). It is, however, by no means certain that this pre-emption will work, while the impact of the new sanctions could be so hard, that even Germany is concerned (RBC, June 16). The Russian economy is experiencing new jitters, caused primarily by the downward slide in oil prices. Any external censure could push it back into recession (Novaya Gazeta, June 22). Putin’s attempt to create some good economic news by attending the start of deep-water construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline was far from convincing against this background (Forbes.ru, June 23).
The most dangerous deterioration of US-Russian relations happened in Syria. The downing of a Syrian Su-22 fighter by a US Navy F/A-18E Hornet, near Raqqa, was taken by Moscow as a deliberate challenge (New Times, June 21). Russia countered by again suspending the bilateral “de-conflicting” agreement (which was reinstated in early May after the suspension caused by the US cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in April). In addition, Moscow declared that all US-led coalition air assets performing missions to the west of the Euphrates River would be treated by Russian air-defense systems as hostile targets (Kommersant, June 20). In real terms, the Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) “bubble” over the Latakia and Tartus bases is not capable of checking the US air campaign in Syria or, for that matter, air strikes by Israel (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 23). So in order to reinforce the threat, Moscow initiated a new sequence of risky air intercepts over the Baltic Sea, making a special show around the plane carrying Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Novaya Gazeta, June 23). A new salvo by six sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles was supposed to add weight to the demonstration of resolve (Gazeta.ru, June 23). Instead of progressing in building cooperation with the US in managing the Syrian crisis, the issue presently is about managing the risk of a not-entirely-accidental combat clash. And this prospect again raises the question about the rationale of Russia’s Syrian intervention (Moscow Echo, June 23).
And fourth, a potentially serious development was the revelation of Putin’s personal involvement in orchestrating the cyberattacks on the US presidential campaign last autumn (Newsru.com, June 23). This fact, which is yet to be proven, makes it impossible for the Kremlin to shift the blame to some “patriotic hackers.” It also makes it senseless, from Washington’s point of view, to target the sanctions on some mid-level operatives in the Russian intelligence services (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 8). For the Russian media, the most notable fact was that Washington had reportedly prepared a counter-strike by planting some digital “bombs” in Russian electronic infrastructure (Kommersant, June 23). This threat is certainly being taken seriously, but it is also irresistible because Russia is by no means a “cyber superpower” and has to import every piece of electronic hardware and most computer software, so the capacity to build its own “firewalls” is quite limited (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 23). Putin is known to mistrust the Internet and has a limited understanding of the cyber-security domain (Moscow Echo, June 21).
These accumulating tensions in US-Russian relations affect not only global stability but also Putin’s political prospects. He had planned his 2018 presidential campaign with the slogans of “fairness, respect and trust”; but this message is becoming compromised by the Kremlin’s inability to suggest anything meaningful regarding Russia’s future (RBC, June 23). Each setback in relations with the United States increases domestic worries that Russia has entered into a confrontation it has no chance of winning. And many elite groups may contemplate alternatives to this dead-end course. Putin keeps postponing his announcement of claiming the presidency for six more years; and in the present situation of disappointment and discontent, he may need a game-changer. A new spasm of “patriotic” mobilization may be needed, but the choice of low-risk options is rather narrow, while the pressure caused by the high-risk consequences of Moscow’s already exhausted “victories” is forcing the aging and self-absorbed leader’s hand.