Yury Ushakov, an assistant to Vladimir Putin, told the Primakov forum this week that few in the Kremlin expected US-Russian relations to deteriorate following the election of Donald Trump as US president but that is exactly what has happened, an indication of just how badly the Kremlin understands the American political system.
He said that the failure of the US to move in the direction of cooperation with Russia that Trump had signaled during his election campaign was “impermissible” from Moscow’s point of view and a threat both to the two countries themselves and, because of their importance, to the world as a whole.
“There are a number of problems which the world simply won’t be able to deal if the US continues to conduct itself in an openly challenging and anti-Russian manner,” the Putin aide continued. And if it does, the international community will not benefit from this at all.
Ushakov’s remarks reflect the failure of the Kremlin to understand the nature of the American political system.
First, because Putin has dictatorial powers, the Kremlin leader and his staff tend to project that on others and expect that any new leader of the US will be able to radically change direction simply because he wants to.
In fact, in mature democracies like the one in the US, there are numerous institutions involved in any decision; and the ability of one individual, even the president, to turn the ship of state in a very different direction quickly are quite limited. At best, he can signal where he wants to go, but he has to work hard to take others with him. Trump hasn’t done that.
Second, Russia’s involvement in the US election, widespread suspicions that there was some form of cooperation between Moscow and the Trump campaign, and the resulting investigations have tied Trump’s hand. Any step he makes toward cooperation with Russia will be read by many as confirmation that he is in Putin’s pocket.
Consequently, Trump has to avoid that lest he provoke the kind of political crisis at home that could lead to a further mobilization of opinion against him or even his impeachment. Thus, paradoxically, Moscow has no one besides itself to blame for the fact that in the near term, there is likely to be less rapprochement between it and Washington than it hoped for.
And third – and this may be the most aspect of the US that the Kremlin has failed to understand – Americans as a group are increasingly horrified by the aggressiveness of Putin in Ukraine and Syria as well as by Moscow’s involvement in Western elections both overtly and covertly.
As a result, many Trump supporters are turning against Putin. According to one Moscow analyst, Americans who a year ago said “I’m for Trump and for Putin” are now saying “I’m still for Trump but now against Putin.” That sea change is likely to affect both Trump and the US-Russian relationship longer than anything else.
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