He began the year with the Russian economy badly squeezed by a falling oil price and sanctions. They were imposed by the US and the European Union (EU) after Putin seized Crimea and partitioned the rest of Ukraine.
But at the end of 2016 Putin was sitting pretty. The oil price is rising. The brutal use of Russian airpower to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime and a new alignment with Turkey have made Moscow the main power-broker in Syria. And Putin hopes Trump will be a much better disposed US president than Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Obama has devoted his last days in office to what amounts to a scorched-earth policy aimed at constraining his successor. His most important intervention so far has been a CIA report trailed in the New York Times newspaper.
It said Russian intelligence hacked and leaked the emails of the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton and her team in an effort to deliver the presidential election to Trump.
These claims have been vigorously taken up by Democrats and their counterparts this side of the Atlantic, such as the Guardian newspaper. Russian cyber warfare is becoming the standing alibi for the failures of the neoliberal centre. This stretches from absurd claims about the Brexit referendum to warnings of Russian interference in the German federal elections this autumn.
The hypocrisy involved is stunning. In his massive history of the CIA, Tim Weiner describes how the agency cut its teeth during the Cold War. It did this by—quite illegally—funnelling cash donated by private businesspeople to fund the Christian Democrats’ successful campaign in the Italian elections of April 1948.
James Angleton was the CIA station chief in Rome, and a key figure in postwar US intelligence. He boasted that “he had penetrated the Italian secret service so deeply that he practically ran it. He would use its members as a bucket brigade to distribute the cash.” This was the first of the many elections the CIA has tried to fix on several continents.
The truth about the Russian hacking belongs to the murky world of intelligence. Here, facts are hard to come by and, at least in the case of the CIA according to Weiner, bungling and failure are the norm.
More interesting in this case is Putin’s reaction to Obama’s retaliatory expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. He overruled his own foreign ministry and announced he would do nothing. The Financial Times newspaper explained, “Putin looks past Obama to Trump.” It quoted Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, “America’s way of dealing with Russia was always to change it. Trump is not about to change anybody.
“Both he and Putin hate political correctness, and he is focused on national interest instead. That is exactly what the Russians wanted from the Americans all the time.”
More precisely, what Putin wants from the US is recognition of Russia as an imperial power with its own limited sphere of influence. The Harvard academic Simon Saradzhyan told the Washington Post newspaper, “Putin has succeeded because he only picks fights with the US when Russian vital interests are at stake and Russia has a reasonable chance of prevailing.
“The primary consideration here is whether the United States is willing to commit its full might: In Ukraine, US vital interests were not at stake, and ultimately, he said, the Obama administration decided they were not in Syria.”
Maybe Trump and Putin can collaborate in the Middle East, but conflicts won’t disappear. The row over Trump’s phone conversation with the Taiwanese president underlines that he has China in his sights.
But Putin’s lengthy efforts to court China have recently borne fruit, with joint Chinese-Russian military exercises in the South China Sea. If friction grows between the US and China, Putin may have to choose between his new friends.
What we call “the US”, “China”, and “Russia” are geographically based capitalist power-complexes. Their interests sometimes overlap, but often conflict. Even as dramatic a change of personnel as Trump’s victory isn’t going to dissolve these rivalries.