WASHINGTON – Relations between Moscow and Washington are on a precipitous decline, as Russia attempts to assert itself as a resurgent world power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Deploying nuclear-tipped long-range missiles in its Baltic enclave in Kaliningrad and anti-aircraft batteries across Syria, threatening military partnerships with Cuba and Egypt and dispensing with a 16-year-old US-Russia nuclear agreement, the Kremlin and the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, appear to be preparing the nation for prolonged conflict with the West.
Decades of cold war between Soviet Russia and the United States never featured such a brazen attempt at disrupting the government of the other as we are witnessing today, say US intelligence agencies, which last week formally accused Moscow of attempting to interfere in America’s already-turbulent presidential election.
Their analyses point to a multi-pronged Russian attack on the Democratic Party, the campaign of its nominee, Hillary Clinton, and vulnerable state and local election systems.
US slams Russian 'barbarism' in Syria
This includes a contractor for Florida’s election system, according to the FBI, which has warned that the information of tens of thousands of voters may have been stolen. Given the extent of the coordinated, well-executed attack, “only Russia’s seniormost officials could have authorized these activities,” James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, said in a statement.
Russia’s decision to increase its military presence in Kaliningrad has spooked the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – members of NATO and the most likely battlegrounds for a test of the military alliance by Moscow.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has said he would pause before coming to their defense if they don’t pay their full membership fee of 2% of GDP. He also has questioned the value and necessity of the NATO alliance itself.
Trump, whose advisers have extensive Kremlin ties and whose family had significant investments in Russia (according to his son, Donald Trump Jr., in 2008) says he would seek to improve ties with the Russian government as president.
Yet an improvement of ties, in Trump’s view, may simply mean acquiescence to Moscow on a host of fronts, from the Baltics to Syria, where Russia is now under investigation for war crimes due to its air assault against civilian targets in the city of Aleppo.
Trump said last week that Aleppo – the starved holdout of a rebellion against nominal Syrian president Bashar Assad– has “basically fallen” and should be abandoned. Syria is no longer Syrian, but Russian and Iranian, he said on a debate stage with Clinton, who shook her head in disapproval.
Negotiations restarted on Saturday on the Syrian crisis in Lausanne, Switzerland, where US Secretary of State John Kerry hoped to get regional powers – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt – on the same page. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threw cold water on the meetings at the start, saying he has “no special expectations” for the summit.
Given its stated interest in expanding its sphere of influence, once again, into Eastern Europe and the Middle East – actions that Trump has not opposed, and appears willing to facilitate – Democratic leadership and US intelligence officials fear they are witnessing a concerted Russian effort to interfere in the US election to his benefit.
But they see other motivations as well. Russia has long sought to undermine American confidence in its democratic system of government, and sowing doubt through its own hacking of that system furthers that goal. Moscow sees Trump – who has for months warned that the election may be rigged – reinforcing their efforts by his own volition.
A third motivation may be forward- thinking, as Putin faces the prospects of a turbulent election of his own in 2017-18, the centennial of the Russian Revolution. Fearful of mass protests over Russia’s economic decline – prompted by unparalleled inequality and aggravated by international sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine – Putin has consolidated homeland security, police and counter-terrorism forces into one National Guard answerable only to him.
He has given this new force the legal ability to fire on crowds using live ammunition without warning, and search and seize private property without warrant.
Putin’s foreign policy is unified by his opposition to democratic uprisings – in Syria, in Ukraine and historically in Eastern Europe, where protests for liberal democratic governance unshackled from Russia nations historically in its sphere of influence.
American accusations of Russian interference in this presidential election set up a narrative that allows Putin next year to level similar charges against the United States, Russia experts warn.
Russian officials have touted its role in the US election as “flattery” and its actions in Syria and Eastern Europe as evidence of its relevance.
“It’s flattering, of course, to get this kind of attention,” Lavrov said last week, “for a ‘regional power,’ as President Obama called us some time ago.”
Putin also suggested that Russia’s actions had the effect of elevating its profile on the world stage: “Let us not forget that we bear special responsibility as the two largest nuclear powers for maintaining international peace and security at the global level.”
Russian state-run media is taking cues from its leadership, running increasingly militaristic segments on the state of relations. One channel, NTV, suggested all citizens identify their nearest bomb shelters, suggesting the possibility of impending nuclear conflict.
In an interview with three journalists over the weekend, Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said relations with Washington are at their lowest point since 1973.
“It’s kind of a fundamental lack of respect and lack of in-depth discussions,” Churkin said, adding: “If the change of administration is going to help, that’s fine.”