by Robert E. Hunter
Long-running anticipation of Robert S. Mueller III’s report on the 2016 presidential election has become like a Samuel Beckett play. Indeed, near the end of Waiting for Godot is the following exchange:
Estragon: I can’t go on like this.
Vladimir: That’s what you think.
In that jest lies problems for the United States, especially in dealing with Russia.
The fate of President Donald Trump may hang on what the Mueller Report will say—and what it will not say. For Democrats (and some Republicans), it may contain enough for the House of Representatives to impeach Trump and the Senate to convict. It could lead to a criminal trial that does not involve “high crimes and misdemeanors” during Trump’s presidency. It could lead him, like Richard Nixon, to resign. Or it could prove to be, as the British say, a damp squib.
Whatever happens with Trump, the United States has lost two years that could have been used to rethink long-term relations with the Russian Federation and its president, Vladimir Putin. Even now, there is no overall strategy for dealing with the inevitable rise of Russia from the ashes of the Cold War. Russia has instead served largely as a U.S. domestic political instrument for explaining how Hillary Clinton lost the last presidential election and, looking ahead, for driving Trump from power before election day 2020. Nor did the hiatus of strategy only begin with Trump’s inauguration. The United States has lacked a long-term, coherent U.S. approach toward Russia since at least Putin’s seizure of Crimea five years ago under the Obama administration. In fact, the search for a way to include Russia in the outside world and in the process reduce any potential threats coming from that quarter ceased being a U.S. priority as early as the administration of George W. Bush.
The first president Bush recognized that, even though the Soviet Union had collapsed along with European communism, Russia was inherently too significant to be kept down permanently. The United States had become sole superpower, but that unprecedented circumstance could not long endure. George H. W. Bush also tried an experiment: to see whether it could be possible to foster a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. He primarily wanted to prevent Russian revanchism as happened in Germany following World War I, when it was required in the Treaty of Versailles to take full responsibility for the war. President Bill Clinton followed suit. As NATO was rebuilt for the post-Cold War era, a central feature of U.S. and Western diplomacy was the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which included 19 specific areas for cooperation. Within a few years, however, the United States abandoned this experiment. On his accession to the Russian presidency, Vladimir Putin did so as well.
Many Western observers have called this standoff “Cold War II,” and some have called for a new containment like that which marked the era from the late 1940s until the end of the 1980s. This rush to judgment, however, does not take account of the facts that Russian military power, while growing in recent years, is still far below that mounted by the Soviet Union in its heyday, that the Russian economy doesn’t even rank among the top ten, and that Russia is not at all a global competitor to the United States even though it has gained influence in its immediate neighborhood and in a few places farther afield like Syria.
Because of what Russia has been doing in Ukraine—plus trying to intimidate other European countries, exploiting some divisions in the West (e.g., in the European Union), interfering in Western elections, and even, some hawks have claimed with more than a touch of hyperbole, undercutting democracy itself – the United States and others have taken prophylactic steps. These have included the strengthening of NATO military capabilities and deployments and the buttressing of defenses against cyber intrusions, including in Western electoral systems.
In the process, however, Putin has played his relatively weak hand with considerable skill, aided and abetted by fears in the United States similar to the Red Scare of yesteryear, concurrent though unrelated disorientation in the politics of many Western nations (including in the United States), and a surprising lack of trust in electorates displayed by elites, including media elites, in America and elsewhere. (Putin also stands to benefit from Brexit, if it does take place, a self-inflicted wound that will reduce Britain’s role in European security and politics.)
Nevertheless, inherent Western strengths in virtually all the classic components of power and influence—except, at least for now, the important quality of self-confidence—make Russia no serious match, provided that the West remains sensible, doesn’t overreact to every Putin provocation, and engages the best brains in crafting policies that will work for the United States, its allies and partners.
The bad news, however, is that so long as the Mueller inquiry drags on without resolution, and very likely even afterwards, the United States will not be able to revive the Bush-Clinton vision. Maybe that is no longer possible. But it certainly won’t be possible even to try so long as the “Russia issue” plays such a central role in U.S. domestic politics. In fact, it is now virtual gospel that no matter what President Trump tried from early in his presidency to see whether something useful can be done about relations with Russia, his proposals and his motives are suspect. This happens even when words are taken out of context or misrepresented, as they were following the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki last July. How many commentators actually read the transcript of their joint press conference? The assumption that Trump is a tool or patsy for Putin even led Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to ask: “What does Putin have on the president, politically, personally or financially?”
The obligatory statement at this point is that perhaps Putin does have something on Trump. Perhaps Russian interference in the 2016 election did have a major impact (though it’s unlikely to have been decisive). Perhaps Putin does have a master plan to extend Russian power and influence at the expense of the United States and its allies, wherever possible. That’s what major powers do. NATO has already responded prudently to what Putin has done in Europe. But the United States and others still need to find a way to live in a world in which Russia is not the basket case it was in 1990.
The United States faces an even larger problem. Since World War II, America has faced down virtually all challengers, all competitors (aside from North Korea and North Vietnam). Trump is the first president since Clinton and G.H.W. Bush who—for whatever reasons—has clearly acknowledged that the United States has to live in the same world with Russia. For U.S. elites in government, think tanks, academia, and the media to figure out what “living in the same world” means—in terms that will at the same time protect the interests of the United States, its allies, and partners—they first have to make it through the Mueller inquiry and its aftermath—one way or another. It’s even become difficult to debate publicly what can and should be done, given the overriding role of this issue in determining Trump’s fate.
One thing is for certain. In the interim at least, the winner will be Vladimir Putin.