Between August and October last years there was a sudden deterioration of the relationship between Russia, the West in general and the US in particular, when the Democratic Party National Committee was hacked by the Russians, the deploy of Iskander-M missils in Kaliningrad and many diplomatic divergences regarding Syrian Civil War. After the US elections, on November 8th, the level of tension dropped down. The news I´ve followed in the internet and comments from political analysts pointed to a rapprochment between then-elected President Donald Trump and his colleague Vladimir Putin, some of his advisers to the Kremlin and a possible Russian interference in the electoral process.
An example of the tension decrease was the Kremlin´s reaction to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US and the requirement to return two complex they used in the states of Maryland and New York. The order was given on December 29, 2016 by then-President Obama, and both mesures should be enforced within two days. Washington also extended executive powers to impose sactions on agents who attack the US institutions. By this way, Obama enlarged the already imposed sanctions on Moscow encompassing the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Main Directorate of Intelligence (GRU) under direct Putin´s authority, four GRU´s members and three companies that provide materials to this intelligence service. An American cybersecurity analyst has defined this Washington´s action as "the biggest retaliatory move against Russian espionage since the Cold War".
A few weeks after Trump´s inauguration on January 20th, the tuning between both the presidents was already suffering interferences. As I commented in this blog in last March, Trump appointed James Mattis, strong NATO supporter, as Secretary of Defense, and at the UN explicitly condemned the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, that was initial cause of the economic sanctions that Washington and the EU imposed on Moscow. This conviction came on February 3rd, just the 14th day of the Trump´s presidency, that still waits for the return of the Crimea to Ukraine and an effective action by Russia to curbe the violence in this country. Because of these attitudes, the White House has shown to recognize Russia as the conflict´s cause in Ukraine. (It should also be noted that on April 11th Trump officialy approved the entry of Montenegro as the 29th member of NATO, countering the Russians in a region sensible to their interests.)
On the other hand, the Trump government began rehearsing a rapprochement with Moscow. US, European and Arab officials have reported the existence of secret US-Russia negotiations for this purpose. According to a lenghty Washington Post report, the United Arab Emirates government has organized a meeting between the founder of security firm Blackwater and financier of Trump´s campaing, Erik Prince, and a Putin´s close associate. The meeting would aim to establish a channel for dialogue between Washington and Moscow behind official contact mechanisms and would have occcured around January 11th in Seychelles Islands, a small country in the Indian Ocean where a member of the Emirates government had a private island. The negotiations agenda would involve reviw Russian alliances in Middle East in exchange of a possible easing on economic sanctions. For the Emirates, the interest would be to cut off Russian support to Iran and Syria, regional rivals of the Persian Gulf monarchy.
Domestic politics may also have weight in the attack on Syria. For Putin an external crisis helps to cultivate his figure of strong man to the Russian people, for Trump there´s vantage that, in opposing the Russian interests in Syria with the attack, he distances himself from the accusation that people of his inner circle would have links with the Kremlin, as well diverting public´s attention from the investigations in the issue.
With Trump´s inauguration, however, Dugin was disappointed with some of his policies, such as the Washington´s decision to demand that Russia give Crimea back to Ukraine, but definitely gave up with the US attack on Syria. For him, Bannon was the "last hope" in Washington, but given the Trump´s action, whom he called "mad neo-con", hopes for and alliance between Americans and Russians disappeared.
Given the above reports, it´s possible to perceive that the great political and military tension between Russia and the Western countries in the second half of 2016 had as one of it´s targets to influence the US elections. It´s difficult to mesure how much the Russians are capable and how much they actually did to interfere in the election, as this interference is under FBI investigation and the USA is a country of continental dimensions. Although American media to be strongly concentrated in a few corporations, people still have a huge variety of media. Therefore, the hypothesis that the Russians have used military pressure as means of influencing the US public opinion is plausible. In uncertanty of domestic efficacy, the explicit external threat was used.
The shuddering of tuning between Trump and Putin began with a series of Washington´s mesures that were against Moscow, such as mantaining the sanctions linked to the annexation of the Crimea, condenming of the Russian action in Ukraine, reaffirming of compromisse with NATO and it´s expansion, and the domestic political struggle. The Trump government has members that were influenced by ideological sources sympathetic to Russia, like Bannon, and people with sympathies and/or the means of approaching both sides, like Flynn. Add to this the Russian influence in US electoral process, destabilizatin factor of the government. Trump has a plenty of reasons not to show his willingness of approaching to the Russians and cover up members ideologically sympathetic to Russia: this avoids attack from opponents and the media (the later has been a harsh critic of the Republican since primaries). So far, however, there was no public desagreement between Washington and Moscow. Or, in Dugin´s words, Trump was still tolerable. Untill the attack on Syria.
Contrary to Dugin´s wishes, Tillerson´s recent meetings with Putin in the Kremlin and Lavrov´s with Trump in the White House show that, despite the crisis in the relationship, Washington and Moscow remain willing to hold talks at the high level. In the same way there´s an attempt to create a deeper and more discret link, such as the meeting held in Seychelles Island, so that the contact is mantained ar at least informally. Two things, however, need to be taken into account: first, that the Kremlin is always a source of uncertainty for a variety of reasons, since the lack of political transparency to the Executive´s relationship with the secret service, and the Trump government, led by a noob in politics, is still seeking to stabilize amid turbulences and domestic adjustments; second, that Russia, following it´s messianic and revolutionary "tradition" of which the present government is heir, is willing to continue the struggle to expand it´s influence throughout the world and subdue the post-Cold War world system. And for this it will have to subdue the USA.
There are also many other elements that would help to complete and improve this text. I could also do other ramifications and deepenings by questioning: a) what happened at the Seychelles meeting and it´s possible consequences (and to what extend the Washington Post report is true); b) the real reason of the attack on Syria; c) the Flynn´s role in Trump government and the possibility of he being a communication channel with the Kremlin; d) possible contacts of the Attorney General Jess Sessions with the Russians during US election (not commented in this text); e) the means and impacts of the Russian trolls a propaganda in the USA; d) the American media´s role, largely critical of Trump, and that possibly exaggerates Russia´s power in Washington and; g) the reasons and consequences of the recent dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, who was responsable for investigating the potential commitment of the Trump government with Russia.
Russia´s actions fit in a global strategy to undermine democracy and liberalism in the West. There are a plenty of reasons to suppose that the Kremlin will continue to do so. But the next steps of the US-Russian relationship are still unpredictable.
* Published in Portuguese on May 21st, 2017.