Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Objective Factors Ultimately Trump Subjective Ones in Russian-American Relations

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 15 – There is an old saying among American lawyers that when trying a case, if the facts are against you, argue law; if the law is against you, argue facts; and if both are against you, raise your voice.  Unfortunately, lawyers are not the only ones who follow this dictum and focus only on those factors which appear to favor their position.

            In the last week following the election of Donald Trump as US president, media in Russia with hope and in the West with concern have suggested that the subjective factor of the personal relationship of the two is going to immediately and forever transform the Russian-American relationship, something the Kremlin appears to be hoping for and that many in the West fear.

            It is certainly true that personal relationships matter in international relations and they matter profoundly in the short term just as they do in domestic ones, but it is also true that those ties however strong they may be are in almost every case quickly “trumped” over the longer term by objective factors regardless of what one or both of the parties think they want.

            When Mikhail Gorbachev appeared as the leader of the Soviet Union, many Western leaders developed a personal relationship with him that led to predictions of a glorious new age of Russian-American partnership.  When he lost power and was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, many felt that the absence of a similar rapport undermined the possibility of change.

            But in both cases, objective factors like the economy and the military overwhelmed the subjective ones, pushing the two sides in directions that their leaders may or may not have wanted or pursued.  That pattern has been typical, and the same thing is likely to be true today after a brief “era of good feeling” between Trump and Putin.

            Since Trump’s election, the Kremlin-controlled media has been promoting the idea that the incoming American president will change course so dramatically that it will do miracles for Russia, a view many commentators elsewhere have accepted as something both inevitable and long-term (ru.krymr.com/a/28118381.html).

            But three stories today should disabuse those who expect either a miracle of a disaster:

·         First of all, the Russian economy is in deep trouble; and it won’t be revived even by an end of sanctions. Elvira Nabiullina, the head of Russia’s Central Bank, warned that her country faces three tough years ahead (mk.ru/economics/2016/11/14/nabiullina-predupredila-rossiyan-o-trekh-tyazhelykh-godakh.html). And many of Trump’s policies, including expanded drilling for oil, a reindustrialization of the US, spending on infrastructure projects, and ending some international trade arrangements will only make that process more difficult and more contentious.

·         Second, while Moscow has been celebrating the victory of what it considers “pro-Russian” presidential candidates not only in the US but in Moldova and Bulgaria, experts on Eastern Europe point out that however much these leaders may feel, Russia today lacks the resources to substitute for the European Union and they know that too. Consequently, they aren’t likely to tilt as far in the direction of Moscow as Moscow thinks

·         And third, and perhaps most important given Putin’s use of force or the threat of its use, the Russian government is having to cut back on its spending for the military, effectively gutting much of its vaunted power. When a country can’t provide its soldiers with sufficient clothing or health care or pensions, its army and navy are less the allies it may like to think they are (svpressa.ru/war21/article/160604/).

Putin and Trump or at least their advisors are very much aware of all these things, and these trends rather than their smiles will almost certainly dictate how their countries behave or are forced to behave in the future. Trump, however much Putin hopes, isn’t going to be Russia’s savior; and Putin, however much some in the West fear, isn’t going to dominate Trump.

The objective factors for either development aren’t present; and it is time for people to lower their voices and take them into consideration in their analyses and projections.

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