Has Diplomacy Been Sent Back to 1985?
Putin, Trump, Clinton, Obama - Who Gains in New Cold War?
Did the Russian government really hack the U.S. 2016 presidential election? In a news cycle that reads like a Tom Clancy novel, a second Cold War appears to be icing between the outgoing administration of president Barack Obama and longtime Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. In the aftermath of the unexpected loss of vaunted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to controversial Republican nominee Donald Trump, the Obama administration has formally accused Russia of meddling in our election. The move has split Republicans in Washington, with some applauding the condemnation of Russian hijinks and others accusing the Democratic White House of promoting "conspiracy theories" to taint Donald Trump's victory.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has rejected the accusation and insisted that the U.S. must reveal "proof" of the alleged meddling. Tensions heighten further even as I type, for president Obama is publicly insisting that Russia has "blood on its hands" for the atrocities in Aleppo, Syria. For the last few years, the U.S. and Russia have been on opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War, with the United States backing "moderate rebels" who are opposed to the militaristic regime of authoritarian ruler Bashar al-Assad and Russia backing the dictator himself. Russia has defended its support of al-Assad by portraying the alliance as a united front against ISIS. In a case of strange bedfellows, both the U.S. and Russia continue to launch airstrikes against the terrorist organization, which controlled up to half the territory of both Iraq and Syria until recent months.
Many observers view Russia's recent military interventions in Syria and Ukraine as a deliberate attempt to regain much of the geopolitical power that was lost with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, is widely seen as actively seeking to reverse Russia's humiliations of the 1990s, a time when its economy lay in ruins, president Boris Yeltsin was an international punchline, and its once-dominant military rusted in pieces. The "hacking" of the U.S. presidential election is interpreted by some to be a calling card of Russia's newfound confidence and technological prowess.
Our new digital age, in which hacked emails and "fake news" may become commonplace, creates a new geopolitical chess board. Like guerrilla warfare, it puts the dominant heavyweight at a disadvantage. When it comes to digital sabotage, America is knocked down to equal footing with smaller and less-well-funded foes. Unable to handle Ronald Reagan's defense spending spree, the USSR was bankrupted. Today, instead of trying to build new fleets of aircraft carriers to compete with us, Russia now flexes its muscles by allegedly swaying our voters through fake news and dirt gleaned from servers.
This type of electronic brinksmanship sets the stage for new winners and losers. If a new Cold War does frost over in the late 2010s, which figures will benefit?
Vladimir Putin - Russia's bare-chested president has been the nation's leader for almost seventeen years, replacing an ailing Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999 when the man unexpectedly resigned. If the judo master and former KGB agent wants to further enhance his reputation as a tough guy, getting the U.S. government riled up is an excellent tactic. Putin looks bold, at least inside Russia. And, with Russia already under sanctions for its interventions in Ukraine, he may feel that he has little to lose by continuing to antagonize the West. But could prompting U.S. retaliation, likely in digital form, be a step too far?
If Putin was looking merely to ruffle feathers and get on some magazine covers, he may have gone too far: Both the FBI and CIA are telling Congress that Putin is indeed responsible for election meddling, leaving the Russian president with less and less plausible deniability. It's one thing to be suspected of being a bad guy - it's another to be caught red-handed. Having a bad-boy aura can be helpful in winning over citizens who are bored with typical politicians, but nobody wants a rogue who might actually bring economic sanctions, or even warfare, down upon them.
Donald Trump - Did the Republican nominee and his team coordinate with the Russian government? Was it ever informed that Putin wanted to lend a helping hand? The news about Russia's hacking doesn't make Trump look good, but it doesn't necessarily hurt his image any more than it already has been. So far, the U.S. government, which is still led by the Obama White House, has yet to try to pin anything on The Donald. But increasingly bad news about Russia's favoritism of Donald Trump may make it harder for him to win any favor with Democrats in Congress or liberal voters, some of whom he will need.
As for Obama's departure on January 20, will Putin inherit a new Cold War? Despite allegedly being Russia's favored candidate, things may cool quickly once Trump's "honeymoon period" in office ends (if, of course, he even has such a period). It's one thing for Russia to get its jollies by stirring the U.S. election pot, but dealing with an aggressive American commander-in-chief is something else entirely. Trump the candidate may have appreciated any help that Putin gave, but Trump the president may be quick to say "nyet!"
Trump could win points by being an outspoken hawk as a new Cold War dawns. He did a lot of tough talk on the campaign trail, and Russia may give him plenty of opportunities to talk more. He could also win points by convincing Russia to back off in Syria, boosting his foreign policy street cred.
But, be wary: Trump's big rewards come with big risk. Vladimir Putin is experienced and wily, and Trump risks underestimating his diminutive Russian counterpart much like Kennedy underestimated the short and portly Khrushchev.
Hillary Clinton - Does the Democratic Party's supposed victim of Russia's digital manipulation receive any sympathy? While Clinton would be seen as a heroic figure if Wikileaks had been her only monkey wrench, there are too many other self-inflicted wounds to make the former Secretary of State very sympathetic. From poor messaging to failure to appear in the Rust Belt, Hillary Clinton cannot pin too much blame for her upset loss on Wikileaks, which allegedly got its dirt from Putin's hackers.
However, Clinton could reappear in a few years as a powerful voice of warning against Russia, insisting on increased cybersecurity to prevent future political candidates from encountering her own fate. If Donald Trump appears to be embracing Russia, Hillary Clinton could become the elder stateswoman who operates as the cautionary tale and voice of reason. It's not a glamorous role, but it could keep Clinton in the news and help her set up a political career for Chelsea.
Barack Obama - As the outgoing president, Obama faces the risk of being seen as the instigator of any new Cold War. However, he may need to engage in some tough talk to push back against his apparent weakness in the face of Syrian atrocities. Obama famously declared that the use of chemical weapons was a "redline," but failed to punish Bashar al-Assad when he used such weapons against innocent civilians. Vowing the punish Russia shows that Obama's no pushover, which might help his legacy at the last minute.
Unfortunately, you probably don't get many points for kicking off a conflict and leaving a month later, as Obama will have to. Come hell or high water, Obama will be flying out of D.C. on January 20, leaving Donald Trump to deal with Russia. Republicans may try to portray Obama as childish and naive, trying to start a brouhaha with the Kremlin right before handing off the bag to his successor.