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A near-term prognosis for the world’s most dysfunctional big-power relationship

Russian President Vladimir Putin
REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to cruise to another six-year term following the March 18 election.

Washington is in an uproar again over the Russia investigation. The CIA director expects more meddling in this fall’s elections. Meanwhile, Russia complains that U.S. publication of a list of government and business elites is a poisonous effort to influence its presidential election next month.

So what’s the near-term prognosis for the world’s most dysfunctional big-power relationship? Look for some bluster, but nothing intentionally provocative from Russia, which will want a period of calm through the summer. There may even be some opportunities to cooperate. The most important factor is whether Congress and the White House can get on anywhere near the same page regarding U.S. policy toward Russia. 

Two big events coming up in Russia over the next six months will have an outsized effect on how Russia acts. The first is the March 18 election, when President Vladimir Putin will cruise to another six-year term.

The opposition is well muzzled. The leading anti-Putin figure, Alexei Navalny, has been banned from running. He has called for a boycott, and he brought his supporters out into the streets last weekend. As usual, he was briefly detained. So were a couple hundred other people around the country. In Moscow, police mostly stood by and watched.

Putin doesn’t need to do anything dramatic, just snarl enough to show supporters he hasn’t gone soft. Pushing it would make everyone nervous, including voters who are proud to be standing up to the West — but don’t want a confrontation.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Russia will be hosting soccer’s World Cup from mid-June to mid-July. Particularly after the public-relations disaster of a massive scandal over officially sanctioned doping that is keeping Russia (but not individual athletes) out of the Olympic Winter Games, the government will want to create a good impression. There is no point in thuggish behavior that would discourage thousands of visitors from coming to one of the world’s most celebrated sporting events. 

If you’re serious about persuading a global audience that you offer an alternative to an overbearing, self-interested United States — as Putin is keen to do — you’ll want to behave.

There may even be limited opportunities for cooperation with Washington. There is no reason to believe they won’t cooperate to keep the World Cup safe from terrorist attacks. 

In December, the CIA tipped Russia off to impending attacks in St. Petersburg, including one on the landmark Kazan Cathedral. Putin called President Trump to thank him for U.S. help.

The two sides also are talking about eastern Ukraine, although they are not surprisingly still far apart. Putin has suggested an international force along the front line between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists – which would only cement their control over breakaway regions. The U.S. says peacekeepers would have to be placed on the Russia-Ukraine border, as well.

After a Jan. 26 meeting in Dubai, U.S. Special Envoy Kurt Volker said Russia was showing more openness. The Russian envoy, Vladislav Surkov, was quoted as saying the U.S. proposals appeared “doable.” 

It’s unlikely, but Putin could hang the separatists out to dry if he can find another way to achieve his goals. Their only value to him is keeping Ukraine from plunging headlong into the embrace of the West. A more modest, and more muddled, step would be the introduction of a peacekeeping force that might reduce the fighting, but do little to solve the larger question.

Overall, though, an era of peace and friendship is not on the horizon.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the BBC that he expects Russia to continue trying to influence U.S. elections. Putin described the Treasury Department list, which could be used to impose sanctions on Russia’s wealthiest and best-connected figures, as “stupidity,” and his prime minister said it would poison relations. 

Where the relationship goes now depends largely on events in Washington. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation appears to be heating up, as is the pushback from House Republicans like California Rep. Devin Nunes.

Nunes may be trying to undercut the investigation with his memo alleging misdeeds by the FBI, but Congress still wants to take a harder line against Russia than does Trump.

Veteran analyst Anders Aslund says the Trump administration botched the Treasury Department list by trashing months of staff work and substituting a sloppy compilation of high-level government officials and billionaires – including some who oppose Putin. Instead of driving them apart, the effect will be to unify them, he says.

Still, there are a couple of scenarios in which Putin chooses to scale back. In one, there is such chaos and anger in Washington that continued meddling would have diminishing returns, and risk a serious backlash. In the other, Congress and the White House get serious about protecting the elections, make clear to Putin what is unacceptable, what the consequences are, and where the U.S. is open to cooperation. Putin is clever, but he has little choice but to calibrate his actions to a clear and consistent policy of a much stronger foe. 

Otherwise, it’s game on for the midterms.

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