Russian Realism

Kremlin and Saint Basil's File Photo

Expert view: Contrary to popular Washington speculation, the Russian foreign policy elite, including Putin, Medvedev, and Lavrov, have no real attachment to or interest in Donald Trump and likely favor Hillary Clinton. They are not stupid or crazy. They are realists. And, to be frank, most of the “hacking” rumor mongering about Putin and the Russian government lacks real substantiation. It reflects the permissive election season in the Washington echo chamber. Some would say a paranoid season. It will, hopefully, soon be gone or at least diminished after the election is over.

Some observations from a westerner who recently attended the Valdai conference:

  • Russia really wants to dial down tensions. Hence, the 30% reduction in army spending and Kirienko’s very public dressing down of Kisyelov. I think the latter is especially significant. We could see a marked change in tone from the likes of RT and Sputnik soon.
  • However, if their attempts at detente are not reciprocated, they may do something major like withdraw from NATO Russia founding act, as a way to get attention.
  • Putin probably would trade Syria for Ukraine with the next US Pres. Trump would surely agree. Clinton might. After all, Ukraine is not a core issue for the US. Syria is not for Russia
  • I spoke to at least 15 Ministry of Foreign Affairs people. All of them expressed a clear preference for Clinton.
  • A number of officials remarked that Putin is tired. Some expressed doubts that he will go on for another eight years, and suggested the recent spate of significant personnel changes in the Kremlin might have been designed to give him the option of going early. There was also talk of Vyacheslav Volodin as his successor.
  • One of the Putin guys I spoke with (at length over a few beers) favored Trump (‘because it’d be so much fun’). The other two said ‘no way.’ There’s a feeling that he might pull the US back home totally. Which isn’t what Russia wants. It wants the US to treat it as a partner. Not abdicate and leave Russia to handle everything alone (especially with Europe totally afloat).
  • Despite all the China rhetoric, Russia’s elite still wants to join the West. But on its own terms. They don’t trust the Chinese. They still admire the Germans. More than one said that the US will eventually wise up to the idea that it needs Russia onside against China long term.
  • Last thing. Compared to what happened in the States after Lehman, the economic crisis isn’t really visible to the naked eye in Moscow At least in terms of social life. Shops and bars and cafes are not closing down en masse. It’s still hard to get a table in good restaurants. I thought this was confined to Moscow, but I had occasion to visit three provincial cities in the past month and the same appears to be true. ‘To Let’ signs are not an overwhelming feature of Main Streets and shopping centres are fully occupied. Construction of housing appears to be uninterrupted. Sure, people are not buying as much imported stuff. And some folk seem to be going back to shopping at open air markets. But, given official figures, you have to ask ‘where they are getting the money from?’ I’ve no idea. Only explanation is that black economy is bigger than we all think. And the same is true of Ukraine of course. The official average Ukrainian wage of around $200 a month wouldn’t even account for the cars on the roads there, let alone everything else. I do feel Russia/CIS analysts fail to take this into account and report on finances in these countries as if they were run on the same rules as the west. They aren’t.