opinion
Implications of the US Midterm Election—Helpful or Harmful to Russia?
By Caleb Larson
Caleb Larson
Caleb Larson holds an MPP degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He is currently living in St. Petersburg, Russia where he writes on US and Russian foreign and security policy,
"Meeting Russia 2018" Alumnus.
Caleb Larson, MR 2018 Alumnus and a specialist in the US and Russian foreign and security policy, presents his point of view on the further development of Russia-United States relations after the US midterm parliament elections. The author suggests that relations between the two countries will remain unpredictable because of the nature of the American president, but Trump's impeachment is still unlikely, so this may play into Russia's hands, despite the continuation of the sanctions policy.
Voter turnout during the 2018 midterm elections was very high, much higher than anticipated, especially for a non-presidential election. The Democratic Party currently holds a slim majority in the House with two seats still undecided, and the Republican Party has an even thinner two-seat lead in the Senate with one seat to be determined in a special runoff election in Mississippi next week. This midterm election cycle was marked by a particularly motivated electorate. Some of the increased civic engagement could certainly be attributed to a backlash against the Trump administration and associated policy decision from the left, while some could likewise be interpreted as an affirmation of administration's policies from the right.

The Democratic Party was favored to win control of the House and did so by a narrow margin. Not all districts have tallied all votes yet, and the special Senate election in Mississippi may shift the state blue—unlikely but not impossible. Despite the unfinished tallies, change could be in store for US foreign policy. But what are the implications for Russia?
Nuclear

Security policy can be less divisive than domestic politics, and relatively widespread bipartisan consensus exists within Congress on many security and defense issues. One area of potential uncertainty is the US nuclear triad. The triad consists of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and strategic bombers. Initiated during the Obama administration, the nuclear warhead components of the nuclear triad began modernization through the development of new nuclear weapons. Specifically, work was done on giving commanders the ability to select the size of the nuclear explosion until just before delivery, essentially reintroducing smaller tactical nuclear weapons to the US arsenal. Although there has been a slight negative reaction in Congress against this modernization, the incoming Congress would unlikely have enough political clout to reverse this process. This modernization program will be a serious obstacle in US-Russian relations, as it would strain the already fragile relationship between the two countries.

Compounding this problem is Trump's stated desire to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. US Congress members have been mixed in their reaction to Trump's proposal. The Democratic Party members have been generally more strongly against it than those of the Republican Party. In any case, they cannot prevent the President from unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty. Despite the unpopularity of withdrawing, it appears that Trump has enough domestic political support (or apathy) to do so without facing a crippling political backlash at home.
Diplomacy

The United States Department of State continues to enjoy widespread support among both parties, despite the disabling budget restrictions initiated by the Trump administration. Going into the next legislative session, the 2020 US federal budget will likely include funding for the State Department on par with what has been passed during previous administrations.

Despite the recent diplomatic expulsions of Russian and American diplomats, more funding for the State Department means more money for US diplomacy. It is not unreasonable to expect moderately more diplomatic contact and future possibilities for dialogue between the US and Russia in the future. A cautiously optimistic analysis indicates that this is perhaps an area in which the consequences of the 2018 midterm elections could benefit Russia via increased diplomatic opportunities and initiatives that historically normal funding levels would allow for.
Cabinet Shake-Up

Trump's firing of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions is perhaps indicative of Trump's anger that the Republican Party lost the House of Representatives, although Sessions has been a thorn in the administration's side from virtually the moment he was sworn in. In any case, other Cabinet positions could also be in danger. Of particular concern is Secretary of Defense James Mattis' cabinet position. Rumors have recently circulated that he may be asked to resign by Trump. Although unproven, this is nonetheless a cause for concern.

Mattis is indeed a Russia hawk. However, his reputation for calm stoicism precedes him. James Mattis served in the Marine Corps for 44 years and having served in an active combat zone, he has proven to be a moderating force for the White House, especially regarding international norms and US foreign policy. He is also a very strong proponent of the use of diplomacy before force, and the use of force only as a last resort. He once famously said, "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately."

He is one of the few voices within the Trump Cabinet that can seemingly disagree with Trump and not hurt his job security. His loss due to a vengeful Trump dismissal would undoubtedly result in a less moderate, and a more hardline voice from the White House. It could also result in an increase in escalatory threats of force and not the exhaustion of diplomacy leading up to a potential conflict. This air of uncertainty could be problematic for Russia and the United States. It is in the interests of both the United States and Russia that he maintains his position as Secretary of Defense. Time will tell if he is able to do so.
Sanctions

There is the very real possibility that the flip of the House of Representatives to Democratic Party control could result in a doubling down of sanctions against Russia.

One US law currently taking up a good deal of airtime is the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act (H.R. 1724). Among other things, this law contains a provision that allows certain congressional committees to request that the President make a determination on the alleged use of chemical or biological weapons. It then requires the President to make a determination. It seems likely that in the coming weeks or months, the congressional committees stipulated will request that Trump make a determination on the Skripal poisoning case based on the information provided by US intelligence agencies.

A bipartisan bill being currently debated is the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018 (S.3336). Contained in this bill are arguably the strictest sanctions ever imposed on Russia, targeting banking, financial transactions, Aeroflot, and the energy sector. This bill has been introduced but so far, no further action is being taken. In order to pass, some provisions would likely need to be reduced in severity by introducing exemptions for US business that operate in Russia. Still, more sanctions would certainly not be helpful for the Russian economy. Consensus on this bill is not yet certain.

Will Trump make a positive determination on the Skripal case? If one thing is certain about this presidency, it is that nothing is certain. However, if we consider his last meeting with Putin in July in Helsinki, Trump faced intense bipartisan backlash at home when he openly disagreed with US intelligence agencies' conclusion regarding election interference. Would he disagree with these same intelligence agencies on their conclusion this time around? Probably not. It is therefore rather likely Trump would determine biological weapons were used in the Skripal poisoning, which would indeed result in further sanctions. Failure to do so could be too high a political cost to accept for the Trump administration.
The picture of Russia has nothing to do with the real country. Meeting Russia with Fyodor Lukyanov. Part 1.
Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of "Russia in Global Affairs" magazine, explains the logic of modern Russia-US relations for Meeting Russia program.
Trump and the Russia Connection

As stated, most Democratic Party campaigns were rather muted on the Trump-Russia question. Does this mean that concerns in Congress about Russia will sit on the back burner? Not at all. It is likely that Russia will face greater scrutiny in the future. Committees in both the House of Representatives the Senate are entitled by law to summon witness and subpoena documents as part of their inquiries—a crucial power to activist committees looking for evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia or other ties between the two. Of utmost importance is that the party in majority has control of these committees. In the case of the House of Representatives that is the Democratic Party. Activist Democratic committees could also use their newfound powers to work more closely with the Mueller Special Council investigation, effectively widening the Special Council's reach.

We can expect to see vigorous House committees actively investigating any real or perceived connections between the administration and Russia. What they uncover remains to be seen but even inconclusive results would serve to muddy the water surrounding the Trump-Russia axis and could cause more suspicion rather than settle any questions.
The Impeachment Question

If Trump were impeached, Vice President Mike Pence would assume the Presidency. The Vice President's language towards Russia has been much more strongly worded than Trump's and a Pence Presidency would surely be more hawkish towards Russia than the current administration.

At a talk given at Harvard prior to the election, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that talk of impeachment as a campaign strategy was not helpful. "I think impeachment…is very divisive". This sentiment was evident in many of the House and Senate races leading up to the election, where Democratic candidates by and large refrained from attacking Trump directly, instead running issue-based campaigns rather than sticking to a purely anti-Trump message.

Legally speaking, impeachment proceedings are initiated in the House of Representatives, where charges for crimes committed are brought forth. Assuming that the incoming members of the House could gather enough evidence to mount a case, charges could theoretically be brought forward. Practically speaking however, impeachment of a US President requires a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Senate. The Republican Party control of the Senate virtually precludes the chances of this happening. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Trump will be impeached even with Democratic control of the House of Representatives.

The 2020 presidential elections are just under two years away and the reality of Pelosi's anti-impeachment stance is unlikely to change. Trump's incredible ability to weather any storm precludes any chance of impeachment, as does the Republican Party's control of the Senate. Oddly enough, Trump remaining in office may be better for Russia than the alternative, a Pence Presidency.
Prognosis

It is important to not overexaggerate the gravity of the midterm elections. President Trump will continue to wield a considerable amount of unilateral power on issues like defense, trade, treaties, and sanctions. His enormous personality and influence will continue to be an unpredictable political wildcard. That being said, it is important to consider what we can say with some degree of certainty.

First, the trend of nuclear revanchism will likely continue. Trump has said he will pull out of the INF. Expect it to happen. Trump is a political juggernaut, but the aforementioned sanctions represent a rare point of bipartisan consensus that Trump would be unwise to go against. Russia should expect more sanctions in response to the Skripal poisoning. Russia should also expect an intensified interest in investigating connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, especially when the new Representatives take their seats. This could aid the Mueller probe as well.

Diplomacy between the US and Russia is arguably at one of its lowest points in history. Likely additional funding for the State Department for next fiscal cycle allows for some cautious optimism regarding the health of the diplomatic relationship between the two.

Less certain but still possible is the ousting of Defense Secretary Mattis. Who would replace him is anybody's guess, but whoever does could lack the tact and moderating effect Mattis has had with President Trump. This could raise the chances of bellicosity and misunderstanding between Washington and Moscow. Moscow should adjust expectations accordingly.

A Trump impeachment is highly unlikely—strangely a good thing for Russia, as a Pence Presidency would be markedly more hawkish in tone and action.

2019 is not yet here, and the Trump's term is not yet over. If recent events and history between the United States and Russia are any guide, expect the unexpected.



The article reflects the personal opinion of the author.