The Year of the Bear
At the start of the year the common consensus in the media was that the struggling Russian economy, due to corruption, western sanctions and an oversized military, meant that a liberal pro-western transition was all but inevitable. Politicians and pundits fell over themselves in asserting that Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and Syria did not reflect a resurgence of power, with Obama claiming that Putin’s actions were ‘not out of strength, but out of weakness.’ When Putin’s favourability ratings dropped from around 90% to 80%, establishment newspapers, such as the Economist, predicted that democratic transition was just beyond the horizon. To many liberals, talk of a Russia capable of challenging the West appeared exaggerated, when considering how Nato spends ten times more on defence than Russia, with many remembering how talk of the mythical ‘bomber gap’ in the 1950s and the resulting Military Industrial Complex, was used by neo-cons in the Pentagon to maintain the massive military budget during the Cold War.
Now these same commentators and politicians, predicting the inevitable collapse of the Russian establishment have been left eating their words, as 2016 has seen political upheaval in Europe and America, whilst Putin remains very much in control of Russia. Yet whilst Brexit was an obvious challenge to Europe’s political unity, it came as nothing to Trump’s victory on 8th November. Not only does Trump’s pro-Russian policies and admiration for Putin strike a far better tone for Moscow, than Clinton’s policy of confrontation in Syria, but took a very active role in influencing the outcome of the election. There is little doubt that the WikiLeaks emails of John Podesta, confirming Clinton’s ‘public and private position’ on politics, gave Trump and plenty of ammunition to further weaken her already terrible honest and trustworthy numbers, potentially one of the reasons explaining why nearly six million fewer Democrat voters turned out than in 2012. The Kremlin is now in fact boasting how it had ‘daily contact’ with the Trump campaign and accusations of the now President-Elect being a Manchurian Candidate will probably only grow during his term.
For the leaders of mainland Europe’s democracies, the rug has been pulled out from under them. Both Merkel and Hollande were highly critical of Trump during the presidential election and are now faced with an unenviable position of rebuilding bridges with a country, whose president has expressed racist views and policies categorically opposed to their own liberal values. Even worse for Paris and Berlin is that the British Government’s new priority in trans-Atlantic relations appears, at this stage, to be securing a post-Brexit free trade deal with Trump (who has said Britain will ‘certainly not be back of the queue’), whilst turning a blind-eye to his indefensible rhetoric.
With Britain being prepared to follow Trump’s isolationist foreign policy as a possible cost to Brexit, Putin may well decide that he can build upon his successes in 2017, when France will elect a new president. Whilst the right-wing populist Marine le Pen and the FN party, which has already received multi million euro loans from Kremlin affiliated banks in the past two years, may be polling far behind its establishment opponents, if 2016 has taught us anything it’s how unreliable polling can be in predicting election results. In any event, the fact that Moscow has openly and successfully influenced the election of the most powerful man on earth, sets an extremely dangerous precedent for everyone in the world who respect the values of equality, sovereignty and democracy.