As the furious campaigning in the United States’ 2018 midterm elections enters its final stretch, Russia can probably find some relief in the fact that it has not really come up as a major political issue this year. But at the same time, Moscow is likely nervous about the prospects of further political pressure coming out of the next Congress. President Vladimir Putin claimed on many occasions that Washington’s “Russophobic” course is driven by domestic US intrigues. Yet, a tough stance against Russia is one of the few topics that inspire consensus in the US legislature, and following Election Day, the newly incoming senators and representatives are unlikely to deviate from this stance. Neither mainstream nor liberal commentators in Moscow see any prospect that US sanctions on Russia may ease, even if President Donald Trump’s Republican Party manages to score above expectations (RIA Novosti, October 27; Novaya Gazeta, November 1).
Moscow has for years sought to use clandestine attacks to increase disorder in US politics and society. But if the Kremlin expected to watch the American political show as free entertainment, it has been taken aback by the concurrent burst of activism in US foreign policy. The announced US withdrawal from the INF Treaty (1987), resolutely confirmed by Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was dispatched to Moscow to sort out the consequences, is perhaps the heaviest blow (see EDM, October 25, 29). Moscow has tried to decry the US decision from various international rostra, including the United Nations General Assembly, but so far has collected scant support (RBC, October 30). Instead, Russia’s deliberate INF violations have received mounting public attention (RIA Novosti, October 31). Perhaps even more important for shaping international reaction has been the fact that the more-than-thirty-year treaty profoundly fails to address the new arms race announced by Putin in his famous “missile address” last March (Open Media, October 30).
Another strong message to Moscow has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) large-scale Trident Juncture 2018 military exercise, during which the US aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman sailed into the Norwegian Sea for the first time in three decades (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, November 1). Russia’s Northern Fleet tried to disrupt these exercises by dispatching its brand-new frigate Admiral Gorshkov for missile tests inside the area of activities, but NATO refused to alter its schedule (Interfax, October 30). Additional irresponsible Russian military demonstrations followed, with the overflight of two Tu-160 strategic bombers; however, Norwegian and British fighters performed proper intercepts (Interfax, October 31). Moscow’s attempts at a counter-show of force were glaringly undermined by the deadly disaster of the sinking of the huge floating dock PD-50, near Murmansk, resulting in damage to Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuzetsov, which has been undergoing repairs there (Vedomosti, October 30; see EDM, November 1).
The most recent pre-electoral move by the Trump administration has been the restoration of the extra-tough sanctions regime against Iran, and Russia is not among the eight states that have been granted a temporary exemption from Washington’s secondary sanctions (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, November 2). Moscow tried to bandwagon onto the European Union’s opposition to these US moves; but while the leaders of Germany and France showed a readiness to discuss Syria with Russia and Turkey (see EDM, October 30), they explicitly ruled out such talks with Iran (Kommersant, October 29). Meanwhile, Moscow is stuck in a rather awkward “brotherhood-in-arms” with Tehran in Syria and is anxiously awaiting the next Israeli airstrike on the local pro-Iranian forces (Gazeta.ru, November 2).
Yet another surprise for the Russian leadership was Trump’s announcement of readiness to strike a deal with China (Newsru.com, November 2). Moscow has been following the escalation of trade disputes between the US and China with barely hidden satisfaction, imagining it to be the first stage of a grand geopolitical clash, in which Russia could be a crucially valuable ally for China, but still keep a safe distance (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 15). But Trump’s tough bargaining does not fit this quasi-realist scheme, which fails to consider the volume and complexity of economic interactions between the world’s two leading powers or their mutual understanding of the imperative of avoiding antagonism (Russiancouncil.ru, October 30). China has no intention of granting Russia real support in the latter’s deeply asymmetric and badly mismanaged confrontation with the West, leaving the Kremlin exposed to the steadily building US pressure (RBC, October 30).
The sum total of these developments amounts to a progressive deterioration of Russia’s international position, and Putin’s brief expected post-election meeting with Trump in Paris is unlikely to break this trend (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 28). To counteract this series of frustrations, Putin addressed the forum of the World Russian People’s Council, lifting this rather obscure pseudo-patriotic gathering to unprecedented prominence (Kommersant, November 2). Yet, his attempt to boost Russian unity by appealing to traditional values cannot calm the brewing discontent generated by falling incomes among the most vulnerable social groups—further augmented by the shameless corruption of the privileged elites (Rosbalt, November 2). To transcend this deepening disunity, the Kremlin has been inflating the threat of imminent nuclear war (Republic.ru, October 29). Putin’s references to this catastrophe have indeed become more frequent and even casual; but his assertions that Russians are ready for this ultimate sacrifice are continually met with public indifference as well as elite astonishment.
It is increasingly obvious that Russia has no capacity to sustain its confrontation with the West. However, Putin’s regime remains committed to this hopeless proposition. The employment of military instruments heretofore seemed to be a major strength of Russia’s policy. But gradually, the partially reformed military machine has reached the ceiling of overload. A readiness to take and play with greater risks than those deemed acceptable by the adversary is seen in the Kremlin as a big political advantage, but Moscow has repeatedly been caught unprepared by the backfiring of these risks in technical accidents and diplomatic defeats. Putin’s only workable tactics are to instigate disarray in the West, with US elections seemingly a potential catalyst for this discord. Western solidarity is certainly underpinned and shaped by US leadership, and Washington’s preoccupation with highly antagonistic domestic contests affects its coherence: policy zigzags when steadfastness is expected leave many US allies disoriented, to be sure. And yet, Moscow cannot find sufficient openings for exploiting these frictions. Russia remains on a downhill trend, but its leader’s attention to these perils wavers alarmingly.