For now, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are both citing Russia and President Putin to suit their respective narratives. The Democratic campaign has accused Mr. Trump of being soft on Mr. Putin, and projects Ms. Clinton as a leader who will stand up to the Russian leader. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said Mr. Putin does not respect President Barack Obama or Ms. Clinton, but would respect him as President. Complicating matters, Mr. Putin praised Mr. Trump during the primaries, and an alleged friendship between the two has become part of the Democratic campaign. “I respect Putin. He’s a strong leader, I can tell you that, unlike what we have. We have a pathetic leader. Pathetic,” Mr. Trump said recently. In his speech on August 15 on combating radical Islam, Mr. Trump named Mr. Putin as a potential ally.
The Clinton campaign has linked the hacking of Democratic National Committee computer network recently to Russian agents and suggested it was an attempt to help Mr. Trump. In turn, Mr. Trump did not help himself when he made a public statement asking Russia to hack and release the “30,000 emails that are missing” from the controversial private server that she maintained while she was Secretary of State. “Hillary Clinton has a proven record of being tough with Russia and getting results. She’s made clear that she knows that “strength and resolve are the only language Putin understands,” says her campaign’s position paper on Russia.
The campaign rhetoric apart, there are strategic considerations related to Russia that do not offer easy and clear-cut solutions to the U.S. It is at the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that the dilemma is playing out. The European alliance was born as a bulwark against Communism. But today, NATO allies of the U.S. are facing two distinct threats — on the east from an aggressive Russia, and on the south and southeast from Islamist groups and the social and political churn triggered by Islamism in Asia and Africa. Acknowledging the two-front threat that NATO faces, and characterising the current moment as “an inflection point in the alliance’s history,” Douglas Lute, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told reporters in a briefing on the recent NATO summit in Warsaw: “From NATO's perspective, the foundation of our relationship with Russia is a balance between strength and dialogue. So we're going to do what we need to do on the strength side of the equation, but we’ll equally be open to dialogue with Russia, because we think that balance represents the right and responsible approach to NATO-Russia relations.”
Mr. Trump had earlier called NATO obsolete and wanted European partners to reimburse America the costs borne by it. “He cosies up to Putin, praises Saddam Hussein, and tells the NATO allies that stood by our side after 9/11 that they have to pay up if they want our protection. Well, America’s promises do not come with a price tag,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Trump, in his address to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in July.
In his August 15 speech, Mr. Trump said he has changed his mind after seeing NATO’s new commitment to fighting terrorism, expressed at the Warsaw Summit. “I had previously said that NATO was obsolete because it failed to deal adequately with terrorism; since my comments they have changed their policy and now have a new division focused on terror threats,” Mr. Trump said.
West Asia and the Russian factor
The Obama administration’s policy appears conflicted, as it tries to walk a tight rope between “strength and dialogue” with regard to Russia, amid the unending flux in strategic equations as all countries keep their options open and often play one against the other. Russian influence in Iran, Iraq and Syria make it an indispensable partner in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) and Islamism. Russia is a key partner in the Iran nuclear deal that both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama display as a key foreign policy success. America’s support to Turkey after it shot down a Russian plane in November 2015 leading to tensions between the two now appears distant as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr. Putin discover a new bonhomie and the Turkish government suspects U.S involvement in the recent coup attempt. Meanwhile, the U.S and Russia are coordinating efforts to hold the recent victories against the IS in Syria. Simultaneously, the U.S. accuses Russia of not focussing its military operations against the IS and warns it against aggression against NATO partners. The Obama administration is “making clear to Russia that we will not tolerate any type of aggression or intervention within NATO's borders,” said Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications for President Obama, recently.
The public opinion in America sees Russia and Mr. Putin as hostile. According to a December 2015 Pew study, Americans’ views of Russia have deteriorated. In 2011, about half of Americans had a favourable opinion of Russia, but in 2015, just 22 per cent expressed such sentiments, the study found.
Threat perception is relative
But Mr. Trump is clear that Islamism is the bigger threat and Russia is an ally in the fight against extremism. By constantly defining his campaign as a combat against Islamism, Mr. Trump is seeking to turn public opinion in favour of his argument. But the view that America should not be trying to fight on multiple fronts, that it must focus exclusively on Islamism and Islamist terrorism and therefore Russia is good partner to have, is not an isolated Trumpian take. For instance, Republican Congressman Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher from California, a critic of Mr. Trump until he won the nomination, has been a long-time proponent of this argument. And in this kind of a proposed recalibration of American priorities, India has a more active role to play, according to its proponents. In a recent conversation with this writer, the Congressman defined the Islamist onslaught in cultural terms. “Russia is an Orthodox country. To win the war on terrorism, the U.S., Russia and India must work together.”
At least two people in the Trump foreign policy team shared similar views with this writer recently. Joe Schmitz, a Trump adviser who was worked in the Department of Defence during the George W. Bush presidency, said, “Don’t forget, we defeated Nazi Germany by allying ourself with a pretty bad guy named Stalin. Okay? But we had a worse guy named Hitler. So we had to do what we had to do to defeat the enemy at hand. So I think it all depends on what the challenges are and what the deal is.”
Steve Yates, another adviser, who was also part of the Republican platform committee, said: “Mr. Trump has a view on Russia and its role in fighting terrorism. I expect there will be some recalibrating, but I can’t say what they’ll likely be. But given India’s close links with Russia and given the fact India is also threatened by terrorism, cooperation between the U.S, India and Russia on fighting Islamism is a desirable direction to take.”
Strength against Russia remains a key talking point of Ms. Clinton, but the future administration that she is more likely to lead than Mr. Trump will have to review America’s policy towards Russia. As Secretary of State in the first Obama administration, Ms. Clinton had led a “reset” effort with Russia, with limited success. The situation and circumstances have changed dramatically since then, making the path forward more complicated now. Or may be not. If the rise of Islamism continues, the choice may become easier for the next U.S. administration.