October 31, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6657

Director General Of Pro-Kremlin Think-Tank: 'If Hillary Clinton Can Be Compared To The Brain Of The U.S. Political System, Donald Trump Is Its Spinal Cord'

October 31, 2016
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 6657

The Director General of the pro-Kremlin Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Andrey Kortunov, posted on the website of the pro-Kremlin think-tank Valdai Club an overview of the present relations between Russia and the United States. Concerning the suspension of the cooperation on Syria, he observed that from the very start the U.S. Administration was divided over the Syria ceasefire. In particular, the U.S. Department of State and the Pentagon opposed cooperating with Russia on the ceasefire because they were fundamentally suspicious and skeptical about Russia's ultimate goals in Syria. With the Obama Administration's term in office about to conclude, these differences have become more pronounced.. According to Kortunov, Russian-U.S. bilateral consultations on Syria are unlikely to resume in the near future. Much depends on the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. However, Kortunov predicts that America's role in the Middle East is likely to decrease, because Washington is tired of "failed interventions, unreliable partners and dubious friends."

Recently, Russia suspended an agreement with the U.S. on the disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. [1] In a decree, President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of creating "a threat to strategic stability, as a result of unfriendly actions" towards Russia. Moreover, he also set pre-conditions for the U.S. for the deal to be resumed: to rescind the Magnitsky list and anti-Russian sanctions, pay compensation for U.S. sanctions and Russia's counter-sanctions, and dismantle the U.S. military infrastructure on NATO's eastern flank. According to Kortunov, this was an unequivocal political signal, aimed less at the current administration than at its potential successors. Kortunov also stated that the future U.S. president now has a list of Russia's "grievances" that are supposed to be reviewed with Moscow in the future. However, Kortunov wrote that Russia may have overreached by "the presentation of this 'request form' as a public document and a legislative act" because this will encumber the search for a future compromise between Russia and the U.S.

Concerning the two presidential candidates, Kortunov defined Hillary as a "predictable secondary school teacher," whereas Donald Trump is more likely is more likely to surprise the international community, and described him as the "troublemaker in the back of the class." However, regardless of the outcome, Kortunov assessed that the election is bound to put US.-.Russia relations on hold at least to late January.. 

Below are excerpts of Kortunov's article:[2]

Andrey Kortunov (Source:

'The Failure Of The Syria Agreement Shows That... The U.S. Leadership Does Not Consider ISIS A Threat Comparable To The Alien Invasions'

"From the very start, the U.S. Administration was divided over the Syria ceasefire deal between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The U.S. Department of State and the Pentagon took different positions on it. The U.S. military did not want to work with their Russian partners whom they did not trust. They were skeptical of Moscow's ultimate goals in the Syrian conflict. There were divisions before as well but they have become more pronounced now that the Obama Administration is approaching the end of its term. This is eventually what prevented the sides from taking full advantage of the opportunities opened up by the agreement.

"In addition, it is unfortunate that the United States failed to fully separate the moderate 'patriotic' opposition from the radicals or terrorists. Incidentally, many experts believe that this is altogether impossible. There are grounds to agree with Russian diplomats who said the ceasefire agreement was unilateral to a certain extent. Russia managed to convince Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Hezbollah to suspend hostilities whereas the United States failed to fully keep its commitments under the agreement with respect to the opponents of Damascus. To be fair, there are several thousand armed groups - from ideological enemies to common criminals - currently fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and it is hardly realistic to expect even major field commanders to quickly agree on a truce.

"The disruption of Russian-U.S. cooperation does not mean that in choosing between Moscow and ISIS the U.S. is siding with the terrorists. However, the refusal to cooperate with Russia is indicative: the U.S. does not consider the ISIS threat dangerous enough to establish genuine partnership with Russia to counter it. There is no shortage of American movies about alien invasions that galvanize all people on Earth - Americans, Russians and Chinese, to name a few - to forget their grievances and unite against a common enemy.

"The failure of the Syria agreement shows that for the time being the U.S. leadership does not consider ISIS a threat comparable to the alien invasions that spur collective action in Hollywood... It is also obvious that the failure of the talks is a major personal defeat for John Kerry who spent so much time and energy on reaching this agreement. On a personal level, he deserves sympathy. 

'America's Role In The Middle East... Is More Likely To Decrease Than Increase'

"Russian-U.S. bilateral consultations on Syria are unlikely to be resumed in the near future. Time has run out. A great deal depends on the outcome of the presidential elections in the U.S. The positions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Syria and the Middle East in general are far apart, at least judging by their rhetoric.

"That said, I will venture to predict that America's role in the Middle East as a whole is more likely to decrease than increase. The Americans are tired of this region, failed interventions, unreliable partners and dubious friends. Furthermore, the U.S. will soon become energy self-sufficient and, given this reality, the Middle East is losing its status of a foreign policy priority. However, there is still the U.S.-Israeli alliance, détente with Tehran and other factors that link the U.S. to the region.

"Meanwhile, Russian-U.S. dialogue is not the only format for Syrian negotiations. Suffice it to mention the UN Security Council, multilateral Geneva peace talks on Syria, and the tireless UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Incidentally, his group includes one of Russia's best experts on the Middle East, [Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, and Chair at the Faculty of World Politics at the Moscow State University] Vitaly Naumkin, who is greatly respected in the region. Syrian talks will continue at a variety of venues and through some Russian-U.S. channels.

"During the transitional period in Washington after the election, Russia may place more emphasis on cooperation with regional players, such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, probably Israel and even the Gulf countries. Obviously, no Russian-U.S. agreement, even if preserved, would replace a deal with leading regional powers. It will be extremely difficult to find a common denominator but nothing will work without it.

The Suspension Of The Draft Law On Plutonium Is Aimed At Obama's Successor

"The draft law suspending a Russian-U.S. deal on the disposal of weapon-grade plutonium is a very strong and unequivocal political signal, aimed less at the current administration than its potential successors. After all, the same decision could have been formalized differently - 'on the operational level' so to speak, all the more so since the hopes for carrying out this 15 year-old agreement were long gone and neither side has even started the process. However, Russia decided to make a tough stand and explained its decision to suspend the agreement by citing several major political grievances with Washington.

"Russia's arguments to justify its decision to walk away from the agreement on weapon-grade plutonium can be divided into two parts. The first is strictly technical. Moscow is displeased with Washington's mechanism for disposing of this plutonium. There are doubts about the irreversibility of this process and suspicion that, if need be, the U.S. could reverse course and use the plutonium to produce nuclear warheads.

"I do not consider this argument terribly convincing: today U.S. and Russian capabilities are limited by the number of nuclear delivery vehicles rather than the accumulated reserves of weapon-grade plutonium. Even if the Pentagon decided to fiddle with the disposal of plutonium, the U.S. would not gain a decisive nuclear advantage of any kind. That said, it is up to experts to deal with technical issues.

"The political part is much less ambiguous. First, since Soviet times Moscow had been against making its cooperation with Washington on strategic issues dependent on any other aspects of bilateral relations. By and large this principle worked. But Moscow has now departed from its traditional position: to resume nuclear cooperation, the U.S. has to fulfill a long list of political demands that have nothing to do with the agreement.

"Moreover, the nature of these demands (to rescind the Magnitsky list and anti-Russian sanctions, pay compensation for U.S. sanctions and Russia's counter-sanctions, and dismantle U.S. military infrastructure on NATO's eastern flank) makes it absolutely impossible for Washington to accept them. Some would require the consent of Congress, while others would have to be endorsed by NATO and so on.

"To sum up, even if the White House decided to accept this complete and unconditional surrender to the Kremlin and pay reparations to the winner, it would still be impossible to carry out this decision in practical terms. 

'The Future President Now Has A List Of Russia's Grievances That Are Supposed To Be Reviewed... With Moscow'

"... The tough ultimatum to the U.S. should not be viewed as an emotional response to the failure of the Syrian agreement or some other U.S. irritants. By putting the U.S. on notice, Russia was in fact acknowledging that it no longer hopes for any improvements in bilateral relations. In other words, there is nothing good to expect until late January at the earliest, and even then we will have to see.

"As noted above, the draft law on weapon-grade plutonium is probably addressed to Obama's successor rather than him. The future president now has a list of Russia's grievances that are supposed to be reviewed and probably discussed with Moscow in the future. So, if the Russian list is a kind of a 'request form' that implies subsequent bargaining and a search for compromise, Russia's tactics are understandable. However, the presentation of this 'request form' as a public document - and a legislative act at that - is bound to make it difficult to amend in the future.

"Beyond that, much depends on who enters the White House in January, on whether it will be open to dialogue with Moscow, and on foreign policy and domestic concerns of the future U.S. president. However, in any case these are tough terms for resuming Russian-U.S. dialogue and whoever is elected will find it difficult to comply with them. 

'[Clinton] Is A Predictable Secondary School Teacher... Trump Is The Troublemaker In The Back Of The Class'

"If Hillary Clinton can be compared to 'the brain' of the U.S. political system, Donald Trump is its 'spinal cord.'

Hillary has some obvious pluses: enormous experience, extensive political connections, international stature and the support of big business. Of course, she will more or less follow Obama's playbook with some variations and updates - more emphasis on human rights, tougher rhetoric on the Kremlin, and stronger resistance to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. For the time being, a new strategy seems unlikely and those who are completely disappointed in Obama will hardly turn into enthusiastic supporters of his preferred successor.

"Russia will find it difficult to deal with Hillary but at least there will be no surprises. In general, we know approximately what to expect of her and what team she will bring to the White House. She is a foreign policy professional and understands well both U..S capabilities and limitations. She is fairly predictable. She is strict and may be combative, but ultimately she's a predictable secondary school teacher.

"Trump is not. He knows much less about foreign policy but feels more with his 'spinal cord' at the level of intuition. He feels that another eight years of Obama's policies will not solve America's problems and that some unconventional and untraditional approaches are called for. He himself probably does not know what he will do exactly, but there is a demand for change in American society and Trump is trying to tap into it.

"If Hillary Clinton is the schoolmarm, Donald Trump is the troublemaker in the back of the class. People are afraid of him and he is frequently called up to the blackboard to be disciplined, but for all this many admire him secretly and even want to emulate him.

"I think Trump is most likely to surprise us. There will likely be good surprises and bad ones. While he represents a clean break from Obama and his legacy, he inevitably will present risks when making emotional, on-the-spot decisions that won't be well thought out and could lead to serious mistakes.

(Source:, October 20, 2016.)

Caption: About the U.S. elections in  brief.

Trump is portrayed as Perseus, who beheaded the Gorgon Medusa, in this case represented by Hillary Clinton.

'It Would Be Wrong To Trust Their Universal Prediction That Clinton Can't Lose... There Could Be New Political Scandals, Unexpected Leaks...'

"Polls show that Clinton is still ahead of Trump in the number of electoral votes needed to win (not necessarily the number of voters). If the election were held tomorrow, she'd win by a wide margin. Obviously, Trump failed to knock her out during the first debates and her health problems are not serious enough to cause her to drop out.

"But are some poll respondents concealing their intention to vote Trump? For many in America, support for Trump is looked down on, or at least seen as politically incorrect. So we should mentally factor in these timid Trump's supporters. Nobody knows how many of them are out there, but ultimately this is what the outcome of the election will turn on.

"Let's not forget that the overwhelming majority of U.S. media and think tanks are emphatically opposed to Trump. So it would be wrong to trust their universal prediction that Clinton can't lose.

"Last but not least, there is still a month before the election and a lot could change. There could be new political scandals, unexpected leaks and international complications. Most of these uncertainty factors are playing against Clinton. The upcoming debates could also change the landscape.

'The Election Is Bound To Usher In A Pause In [Russia-US] Relations'

"As far as I can judge, Trump is viewed more positively in Russia than Clinton but I doubt we can be certain of who is better for Russia. This is an equation with many unknowns.

"Regardless of the outcome, the election is bound to usher in a pause in our relations. The new administration will require time to assemble a team, make key appointments in the administration, itemize the legacy of predecessors and draft a foreign policy strategy. This usually takes about half a year and sometimes longer.

"It makes sense to look at the appointments made during this period. Much will depend on it. Trump, for one, may appoint a seasoned diplomat as Secretary of State, with greater authority over foreign policy in the administration. This will balance off Trump's own inexperience. In turn, Clinton could appoint to this position a person with moderate and balanced views, including on Russia, for instance, Bill Burns, former U.S. ambassador to Russia (2005-2008), or it could be a hawk from her entourage. It would fall to these people to modulate the campaign rhetoric.

"As things currently stand, it is much more important for Russia to determine its line and interests in relations with the United States, as well as how far we are willing to go to compromise.

The better we prepare for this new stage, the better the chance our relations will at least remain at a mutually acceptable level, if not improve.

During this period, it is very important to refrain from statements or steps that may be seen by the White House as anti-American and requiring immediate response. We should be mindful of the old joke: 'My neighbors are totally crazy. Late at night they start pounding on the ceiling, walls and radiators. Lucky for me I'm not asleep at that hour; that's when I play accordion.'"




[1] The Russian Foreign Ministry commented as follows on the Russian Presidential Executive Order suspending the 2000 U.S.-Russia agreement concerning the management and disposition of plutonium designated as no longer required for defense purposes and related cooperation (PMDA):

"The agreement was signed at a time when our relations with the United States were on an upswing. It entered into force in 2011 during the 'reset' in Russian-U.S. relations. There was considerable hope that the role of force in politics would decline, international tension would lessen and the practice of politically motivated sanctions would become history. Unfortunately, these hopes were dashed. In 2012, the United States adopted the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which applied unprecedented sanctions-related pressure on our country under contrived pretexts.

"Since 2014, following the reunification of Crimea with Russia, the U.S. administration has taken a series of hostile steps aimed at directly undermining our economy and social stability. At the same time, an active build-up of NATO's military infrastructure and the numerical strength of U.S. forces began near Russian borders, which drastically changes the strategic balance in Europe and is fraught with an escalation of military confrontation and tension.

"The administration of Barack Obama has done all it could to destroy the atmosphere of trust, which could have encouraged cooperation. Washington's actions have brought about a fundamental change in Russian-U.S. relations with regard to strategic stability, compared to the situation that existed at the time the agreement was signed and came into force. Under these circumstances, Russia's decision to suspend the PMDA is fully in accord with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969.

"This step that Russia was forced to take is not designed to aggravate relations with the United States. We want Washington to understand that it will not be possible to introduce sanctions against us in areas where that can be done quite painlessly for the Americans while at the same time continuing selective cooperation in areas that are beneficial for them.

"There is another point with regard to the PMDA case. The United States set the course toward altering the plutonium disposition method as agreed with us in the 2010 Protocol to the Agreement, citing the need to save resources and time. Instead of 'burning' plutonium in nuclear reactors, the U.S. intends to use a simplified analogue of the immobilization method, namely, the 'dilution' and burial of plutonium. Meanwhile, this option was considered previously and rejected, since it makes it possible to reverse course. It is telling that the U.S. took this step at a time when we had practically finished building rather costly plutonium disposal facilities.

"We would like to stress that Russia is not abandoning its nuclear disarmament obligations. The presidential executive order provides that Russian plutonium designated as no longer required for defense purposes will remain outside the arms sphere.

"We stress that Russia is not terminating the PMDA but only suspending it. We hope that our position will be duly taken into account and that measures will be taken to restore trust and eliminate the causes that led to the drastic change of circumstances in the sphere of strategic stability. In that case we will be ready to resume the PMDA." (, October 3, 2016)

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented: "I would like to stress that this is a measure of last resort. We considered the agreement an important step towards nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, the United States recently has taken several hostile steps with respect to Russia. Specifically... the United States and its allies openly and freely discuss transitioning to a policy of containing their relations with Russia...Our decision is a signal to Washington that it cannot use the language of force, sanctions and ultimatums with Russia while continuing to selectively cooperate with our country only when it benefits the U.S.... If Washington adjusts its political course and fully eliminates the circumstances it created that adversely altered the political, military and economic balance in the world, we will be ready to resume the agreement." (, October 3, 2016)

[2], October 13, 2016.

Share this Report:


MEMRI is a 501(c)3 organization.  All donations are tax-deductible and kept strictly confidential.