Staunton, January 1 – The appointment of Robert Mueller as special investigator of Russian interference in the 2016 election may well prove to be the most significant event for the future of Russian-American relations because it “deprives Russia of a chance for an effective ‘exit strategy’ from its Ukrainian adventure,” according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
“Russia never was ready for and did not in fact want to ‘fall into’ a global conflict with the US and the entire Western world” because neither its economy nor its military are capable of withstanding such a clash for very long, the St. Antony’s College Russian historian argues (polit.ru/article/2018/01/01/worldpolitics/).
Such a confrontation in fact “threatens Russia with the very same outcome that it did the late USSR,” Pastukhov continues. The Kremlin in fact understood that when it began its Ukrainian adventure, but it believed the West and especially the US were “inclined to ‘a big deal’” about spheres of influence as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Helsinki Final Act did.
Such a deal has been the idee fixe of the Kremlin for several years, the historian says; and it finally decided “in this risky game” to put all its bets on a change of administration in Washington and on the election of Donald Trump as president. “As things have now become clear, [Moscow] bet on ‘a zero.’”
The Mueller investigation has put Trump “in a very difficult position.” He can’t move in the direction with Russia he would like to, one based on his view that world politics is about making deals – a position by the way with which Vladimir Putin entirely agrees – without sacrificing his position at home.
And thus despite his obvious desire to make a deal with the Kremlin, the Mueller investigation “forces Trump to demonstrate constantly growing harshness toward the Kremlin, even while he does not cease his contacts [with Putin] via intermediaries.” Trump’s message to Moscow is “wait,” but the Kremlin’s ability to do so is nearly at an end.
As a result, instead of heading into a new term with the problems of his last one behind him, “Putin has been forced to move toward a global confrontation with the US, by inertia involving himself in ever new adventures and becoming a universal spoiler for the West” and its efforts.
Russia has gotten involved in places beyond its capacity to sustain its initial moves, Pastukhov says. “The Soviet Union could play these games for quite a long time, but Russia weakened by three decades of inaction and corruption which has left it in a state of paralysis isn’t capable of doing so.”
This will not lead to a good end for either Trump or Putin. And it also means that the immediate future at least becomes “unpredictable in principle” as the two try to cope with a situation neither wants to be in. Many international events won’t appear to be about this but will affect their relationship at least indirectly.
Among the most likely points of conflict will be places where tensions are already high, Pastukhov continues, the Middle East, Korea and “with less likelihood” Ukraine. Europe too may become a flash point because of tensions over Brexit and the issue of dominance within the EU.
“For several years,” the scholar says, “Russia has actively sowed the wind in world politics, shaking up whatever it could in order to make any crisis more problematic for the West.” But now “the time is coming when it will ‘reap the whirlwind.’” Just where this will start is uncertain, but it will be the defining feature of Putin’s life after his latest “decorative” election.