As the US presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump tightens before polling on Tuesday, American foreign policy debate is focused on just one man — the Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is not often that foreigners are accused of meddling in US politics. Certainly not with the kind of intensity we are seeing this time around, when Putin is being accused of trying to tilt the election in favor of Trump.
The Democratic Party's attacks on Putin may be understandable as part of the campaign heat generated by the email controversy surrounding Clinton and the accusations that Russia has hacked into the Democratic Party's campaign headquarters and leaked them to boost Trump. As the Clinton campaign mounts a no-holds-barred attack on Putin, Trump insists that doing a deal with Russia is good for America. That, in turn, has convinced the Democrats that Putin has a stake in Trump's victory. Clinton has called Trump “Putin's Puppet”. Trump has praised Putin as a strongman who has no respect for weak leaders like Obama and Clinton and claimed that he can better engage Russia.
Whatever their merits, the arguments over Putin mark an important inversion in American foreign policy discourse. The Republicans, after all, are supposed to be the “war party” — more hawkish than Democrats on national security. Democrats are the ones now promising a muscular approach towards Putin.
Eight years ago, when the Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, said that countering Russia' expansionism was an important priority, he was dismissed as a “Cold War relic”. Four years later, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, was laughed out of court when he said Russia posed the greatest external threat to the US. Many leading lights of the Republican foreign policy establishment, who have abandoned Trump as an unworthy presidential candidate, strongly endorse Clinton's criticism of Putin.
Over the last few years, there has been a rapid deterioration of US-Russia relations. Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the continuing tensions in eastern Ukraine did not just put Washington at odds with Moscow. They marked the breakdown of the European settlement between Washington and Moscow at the end of the Cold War. If the West blames Putin's assertiveness for the new impasse in Europe, the Russian leadership blames the US for expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation all the way to the Russian borders. The Russian elites have a deeper resentment — that the West has shown little respect for its interests and sensitivities after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin's more assertive stance towards the West is immensely popular in Russia.
Breakdown of harmony between Russia and the West has inevitably resulted in growing military tension. The idea of a Russian attack is being taken seriously by Moscow's Western neighbors and the US is eager to demonstrate NATO's military resolve. Long forgotten issues relating to nuclear arms control are back in play too. There are new disputes on the implementation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 which set the stage for massive nuclear arms reduction and ending the East-West divide in Europe. America and Russia are also quarreling over an agreement, signed in 2000, on disposing weapons grade plutonium from dismantled weapons. Nuclear saber-rattling too has returned. Last month, Russia moved a battery of nuclear capable missile launchers closer to the three Baltic republics — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. A month before that, NATO flew nuclear capable bombers over Eastern Europe in military exercises.
Beyond Europe and nuclear arms control, regional disputes have also come into focus. Moscow's assertive policies in the Middle East, especially President Putin's military support for Bashar al-Assad, has angered the US. Attempts to find a common ground have not succeeded. As the US steps up criticism of Russian policies across the board, Moscow seems to revel in challenging the US across Eurasia. This election season in the US has turned out to be the last straw on the camel's back.
American realists like Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, have pointed to the dangers of demonizing Putin personally and allowing the Russian relationship to sour beyond a point. They insist that a working relationship with Moscow is critical for the realization of the broader American interest in a stable Eurasian balance of power. Putin too has often signaled his readiness to reset Russian relations with America — quite clearly on terms he would consider honorable.
Skeptics in Washington and Moscow, however, are convinced that US-Russia relations are beyond repair. Even if he wins the election, Trump might find it very hard to normalize relations with Moscow; for there is little visible support for reconciliation with Russia either in the political or policy establishment in Washington. All this is bad news for Delhi.
Realists in Delhi can easily see that both Moscow and Washington will lose from a renewed conflict. Despite the return of images of strategic symmetry from the Cold War, Russian power is not on par with that of America. America's unipolar moment too has passed. Russia's huge potential as a spoiler could significantly weaken America's hand in different parts of the world. The only possible gainer from a new US-Russia stand-off is China. Beijing's bargaining power is bound to improve with both Washington and Moscow as the contest between America and Russia deepens.
The end of the Cold War was a big political boon to India. It allowed Delhi to simultaneously improve ties with all the major powers, without having to look over its shoulder, over the last quarter of a century. Irrespective of who gets elected as US president next week, Delhi should be prepared for new constraints on the conduct of its foreign policy. As it gets ready to cope with new US-Russia tensions, Delhi will have to devote a lot more attention to other powers like Japan in the East and Europe in the West. Discussions with visiting British PM, Theresa May, and the Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, after that in Tokyo should be good opportunities for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to start a new set of conversations on expanding India's room for geopolitical manoeuvre.