The black smoke rising from the chimney of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, last Friday (September 1), made for a perfect symbol of the deepening degeneration of Russia’s relations with the United States. Moscow was given only two days to shut down its diplomatic activities at this consulate and two other facilities—in Washington, DC, and New York. The Kremlin expressed indignation at this demand, calling it “raider capture” (RIA Novosti, September 1). The US State Department took this step in response to the Russian order, from July, to dramatically reduce the staff of US diplomatic missions by 755 personnel, which itself was a response to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats back in December 2016 (Newsru.com, September 1; see EDM, August 3). Now Moscow is preparing a new response, assessing the costs of the few bad options it has left; its previous step, for that matter, has backfired quite directly, as more than 600 out of the 755 reduced personnel at US diplomatic missions in Russia are Russian citizens (RBC, August 30). This diplomatic quarrel might appear petty and senseless, but it actually reflects the fast mutation of a crisis affecting all key parameters of the bilateral relationship.
One of the most dangerous deteriorations is undermining the system of arms control, and in particular the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which bans the deployment of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with the range of 500–5,500 kilometers. Moscow denies Western accusations that it is violating this treaty by testing a medium-range cruise missile that could be fitted into the Iskander launcher. Nonetheless, the Russian government surely understands that simple denials will not necessarily dissuade the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from preparing countermeasures (RBC, September 1). The Russian military is also concerned about new US programs for modernizing its tactical nuclear weapons (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 29). The appointment of Anatoly Antonov as the new Russian ambassador to the United State may signify an attempt to rescue the troubled INF treaty because he is an experienced negotiator and was a key member of the Russian team that worked in 2009–2010 on the New START bilateral nuclear arms reduction agreement (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, August 22). Antonov’s first statement upon arrival to Washington was about taking a careful measure of the new situation and avoiding “hysterical impulses” (Kommersant, September 1).
Nevertheless, Antonov will have to subordinate his professional, cautious networking to the venomous conflict-mongering of Russian propaganda, which has grown into a self-propelling political force. It was duly noted in Moscow that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allocated funding for countering this force, in fact treating Russian propaganda on par with that of the Islamic State (RIA Novosti, September 1). What adds a schizophrenic twist to the crude mainstream anti-Americanism is the Kremlin’s clearly expressed preference for avoiding direct attacks on President Donald Trump. Reportedly, the order on shutting down the Russian consulate and trade missions was issued by Trump himself (RIA Novosti, September 1). And yet, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mentioned that Trump was pressured by the US Congress and prevented from proceeding with reasonable cooperative steps by frenzied “Russophobes” in Washington (Kommersant, September 2). Trump’s alleged dissatisfaction with Tillerson and other members of his team is interpreted in Moscow as evidence of his irreducible desire to cultivate a positive rapport with President Vladimir Putin (Gazeta.ru, September 1).
This delusion is recycled despite the fact that Russia is now defined as a source of threat to US security by law, in which Trump’s reservations do not amount even to a footnote. Experts speculate that the direct impact of new US sanctions on Russia would not be particularly heavy, so the Russian economy could remain on its current trajectory of stagnation (Carnegie.ru, August 11). However, there is far more to the new situation than some tightening of economic sanctions. The in-depth investigation into the fortunes accumulated by Putin’s elites, indeed, could uncover many channels Russia has used to export corruption. Meanwhile, such proceedings in Moscow as the court case against Alexei Ulyukaev, the former minister of economic development, add valuable data to the files collected by US authorities (Novaya Gazeta, August 24). Alexei Navalny, who is moving forward with his presidential campaign against impossible odds, keeps presenting spectacular cases of domestic corruption and identifies the beneficiaries of various embezzlement schemes (Navalny.com, August 30). His previous high-profile investigation targeted Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; but now he is going directly against Putin (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 1).
The Russian government clearly cannot respond in kind, and the escalating anxiety in Putin’s court translates into an urge to find and squeeze any sensitive areas in US external engagements. All this risks adding a new crisis to the already tense relationship (RBC, August 24). The most acute calamity is presently unfolding on the Korean Peninsula, but Moscow’s ability to nudge the North Korean troublemaker is severely restricted by Beijing’s desire to exercise full control over the high-risk situation (Politcom.ru, August 30). Opportunities exist for playing a spoiler game in Afghanistan, but Russia cannot ignore the fact that the latest adjustments in US strategy for this malignant conflict are, in fact, serving Moscow’s own interests (Republic.ru, August 24). Alternatively, Russia might try to exploit its ties with Iran, but both Israel and Saudi Arabia have made it clear recently that such opportunism is not a good idea (Carnegie.ru, August 28). This leaves Ukraine as the most convenient target for pressure; and the forthcoming Zapad 2017 military exercise could be transformed into a forceful “answer” to the US plan to supply the Ukrainian army with lethal defensive weapons (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 1).
Putin is probably reluctant to engage in a test of wills with Trump, but he keenly monitors the confusion in US decision-making and the disarray in the Western coalition—and is induced and even compelled to explore options to aggravate both. Amidst latently growing domestic discontent at the start of Putin’s yet-to-be announced presidential campaign, he probably feels the need to show resolve to withstand US pressure and a readiness to respond assertively and asymmetrically. Posturing is a necessary part of Putin’s policies, and demonstrations of machismo are essential to assert his leadership over packs of predators inhabiting the Kremlin. The Russian leader may be a cautious cunctator by nature, but Trump’s egocentric unpredictability is tempting to mimic. Playing a weak hand in the rigid confrontation, Putin can conclude that he has nothing to win by showing moderation. He cannot out-maverick Trump, but he can hope to outlast him.