Between the primaries and the…well…lets just call them debates this election season has been truly remarkable for the United States. The dynamism of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders is promising an interesting struggle among Democrats while the Republicans are still trying to figure out what to make of Ben Carson and the ever colourful Donald J Trump. Third parties are still struggling to be represented, as usual, but there is sufficient diversity within the major parties to reveal that this election is all about a rejection of “politics as usual.”
While political scientists observe with interest (and an appropriate modicum of horror), students of Russian history are most likely mortified by the showing so far. Few candidates seem to have much understanding of Russia, much less an understanding of how to counter Russian interest! This is a grave issue since Russia is one of the hot-button issues this time around. In this post I will discuss what the elections have to say about Russia. First however I think it is important to gain some understanding of Russian domestic politics, if only for purposes of comparison.
Russian Domestic Politics
Now would be a convenient time to discuss Russian politics. It may be out of place, but we will neatly tie it all together later (or make a sad attempt to do so).
Russia’s political structure can best be described as a super presidential parliamentary system. For all intents and purposes it resembles France’s government although the Russia president is vastly more powerful than the French head of state. Luckily for Americans, the Russian government’s structure bears many similarities. There is an executive branch comprised of the President (currently Putin), a Prime Minister (Medvedev) and their various ministers. The legislature is bicameral, with the Duma being the lower house and the Federation Council being the upper house. There is also a judiciary branch, although there are several high ranking courts which divide up the duties that, in America, are all imbued into the Supreme Court.
Ever since Yeltsin opened fire on the parliament building in 1993 the President has been the main player. Later “reforms” passed under Putin would further cement presidential power to the point where the Russian President effectively has free reign over the government. Even before the reforms though the presidency was quite powerful, although you may not have noticed from the way Yeltsin handled his power. Maybe it was just the alcohol, but most likely it was because Yeltsin simply failed to garner much support. Perhaps overestimating his own power, Yeltsin ignored party politics and suffered as a result.
Political parties in Russia are a dime-a-dozen, although there are a few perennial favorites. Yeltsin had to compete with the Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party. The Communist Party (fronted by Zyuganov) is exactly what it sounds like and has regularly done quite well. The Liberal Democrats (led by the ever colorful Vladimir Zhirinovsky) are essentially an ultra-fascist party that borders on theatrical and, unfortunately, also remains popular. Late in the 90s the Fatherland-All Russia Party appeared, and Yeltsin’s supporters quickly threw together the Unity Party. Early in the first Putin administration these two parties were fused into United Russia. Less of a party and more of an understanding, United Russia has regularly won elections since its inception and remains the party of power. Putin is in control of it, although he is not himself a member, and United Russia has become a potent right-of-center rallying point. United Russia has enabled Putin to co-opt regional governors and garner tons of influence. The Communists and “Liberal Democrats” technically remain lively opposition, but they are far out-numbered by and frequently acquiesce to the dominance of United Russia. There are tons of other parties of varying strengths, and parties frequently come and go or combine, but usually they play an insignificant role. A left-of-center party usually takes a few Duma seats with each election. In a way, all of the parties are alike in that they seem to embody a different sort of nationalism.
United Russia has usually dominated elections but hasn’t been doing as well as it has in the past. With increasing pressure on Russia, United Russia’s position may grow more precarious over time.
The Caucuses on the Caucasus
How has Russia come up in the 2016 Presidential Elections? Putin has been a busy bee, and Russia has become a major “issue” for candidates. In this section I will take a look at debate transcripts and other news to get an idea. The debates aren’t perfect (far from it), but I figure that they are the best way to look at where everyone stands. Why yes, I am just using control-F here. So what?
The Dems on Russia: Business as Usual
The mainstream democratic candidates, Clinton and O’Malley, largely followed the line set by Obama. Clinton mainly resorted to standard liberal rhetoric and O’Malley followed suit in the first debate. Perhaps realistically, Sanders opposed getting involved in Syrian affairs and directly confronting Russia, and he expressed a belief that sanctions would undermine Putin’s support in the long term. In the first debate Sanders was only critical towards Russia on the topic of climate change. The second debate saw even less discussion of Russia; it took place after the ISIS attacks on Paris and the Russian airliner, so the focus was far more on the Middle East and ISIS. The third debate saw a little more discussion of Russia, with Clinton calling for more diplomatic solutions and Sanders believing that cooperation with Russia would provide the best chance of defeating ISIS. Nothing changed much in the 4th debate although Hillary came under some fire since her New START with Russia seems to have evaporated. Hillary attributes these setbacks to the reappearance of Putin as President, although this ignores the fact that Putin was still the prime mover of Russian politics even in his years off the Presidency. Moving forward she recommended firmness in dealing with Russia.
The fifth and most recent democratic debate had the most substantial discussion of foreign policy. When asked to rate the threats to America posed by N. Korea, Iran, and Russia, Sanders put N. Korea and ISIS ahead of Russia. His argument seemed to stem from the fact that Russia was a fixture of international politics while N. Korea and ISIS were isolated, which shows consistency with his previous idea that Russia was a partner in the fight against ISIS. Hillary indirectly hinted that Russia was the biggest threat by listing the recent conflict in the Ukraine as a significant problem and by stressing the need to reinvigorate NATO.
The Democrats seem to be on the right track but they continue to be light on details. Hillary has a perceived advantage in foreign affairs, and I believe that it shows in the light of Bernie’s relatively undeveloped idea of somehow courting Russia. I agree with Bernie’s idea that we should work with Russia towards defeating ISIS, but I’m just not sure of how to get to that point. Until we can figure that out I’m afraid that the status quo is our best bet, although I don’t believe that it is necessary to build up NATO as Clinton intends.
The Right on Russia: Warp Speed
Analyzing the Republican treatment of Russia is hilarious, especially since the GOP generally appeals to aggression and strength for support.
The first debate covered very little beyond showing a general antipathy towards Russia. The GOP candidates generally agreed that the current administration has been weak and they called for growing militarism and increasing defenses in Eastern Europe, up to and including reviving anti-ballistic missile programs (which is bound to only increase troubles with Russia). The second debate revealed more variation. Trump declared that he would be able to deal with Putin on the basis of mutual respect. He at least did better than Rubio, who made a strawman out of Putin’s infamous “the fall of the Soviet Union is the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century” quote. Fiorina reiterated the need to counter Russia with a show of force, using language that George Kennan used about 70 years ago to codify US Cold War logic. Rand Paul gave the most intelligent answer I heard, arguing that we might not like Russia but we need to continue working with them and keep lines of communication open. Russia didn’t come up as a topic in the third debate, which is a fairly dramatic change in pace, but it reappeared in the next one. Once again most Republicans attributed the rise of Russian aggression to weakness in the Obama administration and overestimated Putin’s aggression, but Trump appreciated Russia’s involvement in the Middle East and supported their stand against ISIS. Rand Paul also showed a high degree of foresight when he lambasted the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria/Iraq, saying that it would be dangerous to shoot down Russian planes. This sentiment was reiterated in the fifth Republican debate. The sixth debate saw less discussion of Russia, with candidates expressing continued frustration at Russia and Iran getting involved in Syria. Jeb delivered this gem though: “Russia is advancing their agenda at warp speed.”
I believe that the Republican debates reveal a real poverty of information about how best to handle Russia. Republicans are less interested in assessing or inventing a Russian policy than they are in saying “well Russia is strong ergo the current administration is failing.” I would counter by saying that no administration can control Russia; at best we can merely influence and constrain Russia. It doesn’t seem like Republicans take Russia seriously. For them it is just a hot-button issue where uninformed public opinion can be exploited.
Russia and Putin were barely mentioned in the next few Republican debates, which I think raises an interesting concept. The debates are run by media outlets, which naturally profit off of the hottest breaking news. Russia’s aggression and involvement in Syria were fresh when election season started, but as the novelty wore off and interest in debating Russia policy has waned. Whether this is an indictment of media manipulation or vast public amnesia remains uncertain. Regardless, once again intelligent discussion is lacking.
The Caucasus on the Caucuses
What does Russia have to say about the circus of American electoral politics?
Well…Putin seems to like Trump…Who knows why…
Winds of Change?
This seems to be a critical election for America. It’s too early to tell if any outsiders have a chance to win, but we can start drawing some conclusions about how this election might impact our orientation for Russia. Simplifying this calculus is the fact that we currently have a strong policy towards Russia: Obama’s sanctions are doing well and expenditures on Europe are already increasing. I think that any victor (outside of Trump and, maybe, Bernie) would likely just continue our current policy against Russia. We are playing the slow game, gradually bolstering our defenses while hammering Russia with sanctions and letting them get bogged down in a foreign intervention. Republicans may be harsh, but I feel like this is all bluster. In reality there isn’t much else we can do to counter Russian influence beyond what is currently happening.
The elections in America also have an influence on Russian elections. In any case it seems like the United Russia party’s trend of decline will continue. Increasing pressure from sanctions and ongoing conflict may inspire voters to turn to the Communist Party. Fermenting anti-Western sentiment may play into the hands of the Liberal Democratic Party. A destabilized Russian political system would probably lead Putin to take more radical actions in order to hold onto his support, which may involve taking steps that the U.S. doesn’t appreciate. Things might change with the US-Russia, but for the worse. Yet again, its been getting worse for a few years now, so maybe things aren’t changing so much after all.
I never realized how empty and fruitless elections and debates are until looking exhaustively at one issue as a case study. Mainstream discussion of Russian policy has been shallow at best and reveals two troubled trends. Firstly, the debates are useless as examinations into policy as they allow no time or opportunity for in-depth discussion. Secondly, even with the scant conversation surrounding Russia I can tell there is a real dearth of information on how best to approach Russia. The Democrats seem uninspired while the Republicans seem clueless at best. I think too much emphasis is placed on overall platforms and vague stances rather than in-depth, well-informed policies. Who knows what candidate will be the best and who the worst? We can’t possibly tell within the context of our soundbyte culture. I guess we should take comfort in the fact that there are no experts on Russia, only varying degrees of ignorance…