In an article in the Russian daily Kommersant, Russian intellectual Fyodor Lukyanov states that there is one main idea that unites former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump: Russia is non-essential for the U.S. According to Lukyanov, both Obama and Trump wanted to use relations with Russia to "facilitate solutions" to their own problems, but for neither believed that Russia intrinsically possessed "any value".
Lukyanov explains that Trump's chief obsession is global trade, and – in this context – "Russia does not exist for him at all", since it is an insignificant actor in the global economy. While for Obama, as he stressed in 2014, Russia was nothing more than a "regional power."
In the meantime, argues Lukyanov, Putin during his 2012-2018 presidential term invested a major effort to show Washington that Russia is indeed a global player. However, in reconstructing its lost status, Russia, in America's eyes, did not morph into an important "partner", but into a "dangerous opponent". "The chain 'Snowden — Syria — Ukraine — interference in the election' has made the transformation of 'reset' into a new cold war a reality. And this reality is now being enforced," explains Lukyanov.
In this new reality, Russia is no longer considered a "regional player", but has managed to become a "powerful military rival" to the U.S. Furthermore, Russia and the world have entered now an age when everything is back to square one.
Political analyst Liliya Shevtsova explained, in an article titled "Obsession, Or How Russia Got Hooked on America," why Russia wants to prove itself as a power vis à vis Washington. According to Shevtsova, the Kremlin in order to legitimize its "great power statehood" needs to demonstrate its machismo to the U.S., a powerful global force. "References to the U.S. [and] the view of the world through the prism of our relations with the U.S. and its leader have become a confirmation of our status as a great power – the backbone of the Russian autocracy. In short: America has become a systemic factor of existence of present-day Russia," opined Shevtsova.
In this context, a new Cold War seems to be the only way for Russia to be considered as equal to the U.S., one of Moscow's obsessions. As Russian FM Sergey Lavrov stressed at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, today's unipolar world is" unacceptable" and is comparable to the philosophy of antiheroes from George Orwell's dystopia Animal Farm, where all animals are equal but some are more equal than others.
The 2012-2018 Putin's mandate ended with the launch of a new cold war, not a Cold War II, but a "fundamentally different confrontation." Seconding Lukyanov, former Kremlin foreign policy advisor Sergey Karaganov explains that today's tensions do not amount to a sequel, since such a confrontation would require an "ideological component" that at the moment is "lacking" on the Russian side.
However, according to Lukyanov the next six years of Putin's mandate will establish Russia's ideology, which will provide a contrast to the American one. "The liberal order, with all its pluses and minuses, has failed. Just how anti-liberal the order coming to replace it will be, we will discover in the next six years," asserts Lukyanov.
Below are excerpts from Lukyanov's article:
Fyodor Lukyanov (Source: Russiancouncil.ru)
"A week before the 2012 presidential election, candidate for high post Vladimir Putin published a policy article 'Russia and the Changing World', devoted to foreign policy. It was the last in a series of seven publications, where the frontrunner articulated his views on the most pressing issues of the state and the society — from the economy, social policy, and democracy to ethnic issues and security. The foreign policy document that crowned the campaign contained a detailed analysis of the state of the world and a description of challenges facing Russia on the whole and in specific regions and countries in particular.
"Six years later, there is nothing of the kind was released in the lead-up to the election. In fact, the only programmatic statement by the leading candidate was his address to the Federal Assembly, specially moved closer to the electionday. And the foreign policy part of the address was deliberately reduced to a presentation of innovations in the Russian missile and nuclear deterrence potential. Vladimir Putin refrained from philosophizing about the world order (there was something on this subject in TV films that featured him, which had been prepared for the election, but they were more vivid examples than concepts). He informed everybody about Russia's capabilities in a business-like manner and invited anyone who wished to discuss them — without insisting.
"Why weren't any explanations needed this time? Is everything clear without them? In order to understand what has changed over these 6 years, we should go back to that article — to see what the author emphasized then and what happened later.
"The one thing in common over the span of 6 years is the topic of the American anti-missile defense and the U.S.' 'obsession' with the idea of 'absolute invulnerability', which, 'is utopian and unattainable, for both technological and geopolitical reasons.' Putin yet again reminded us about attempts to come to an agreement with the U.S. on anti-missile issues: 'Perhaps it would be useful to pull up the transcripts of the talks in Kennebunkport (George Bush's estate, where he met with Putin in the summer of 2007. — 'О' [Kommersant's observer]). In recent years, the Russian leadership has put forward other proposals to reach agreement over missile defense. These proposals still stand'. This was back in 2012. It intruded in 2018 with a restrained but threatening: 'Nobody listened to us then — so listen now.'
"Today, it is even a little strange to read these lines in Putin's article: 'We have not managed to fundamentally change the matrix of our relations [with the United States], which continue to shifting tides.' But 'we are prepared to go quite far in our relations with the U.S. to achieve a qualitative breakthrough.' In the years since, there have been no high tides, and the constant ebb has returned the two countries to the good old 'matrix' of the cold war — this time not as a metaphor, but as reality.
"A few important premises from Vladimir Putin's article of 2012. 'No one should be allowed to attempt to implement the Libyan scenario in Syria.' It has not been allowed. 'Today, Iran is the focus of international attention,' an international agreement on its nuclear program is needed. It was reached. 'It would be inadvisable to try and test the strength of the new North Korean leader and provoke rash countermeasures.' Tests and countermeasures have occurred, and so far have led to a situation where North Korea, having considerably strengthened its negotiating positions, has almost achieved direct talks with the U.S. Afghanistan — the entrenchment of the American forces there caused concerns. The consolidation continues. 'China's economic growth is by no means a threat, but a challenge that carries colossal potential for business cooperation, a chance to catch the Chinese wind in the sails of our economy.' We continue to catch it, on the whole successfully, especially since this wind in our sails has clearly grown stronger over the 6 years — China has decisively turned towards Eurasia.
"All these are specific topics. But the article contains several fundamental premises.
"'The notion of soft power is being used increasingly often. This is a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence… There must be a clear distinction between freedom of speech and normal political activity, on the one hand, and where illegal instruments of soft power come into play… The activities of pseudo-NGOs and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable.' Putin referred to the Arab Spring at that time; soon, his attention shifted to Ukraine.
"What's interesting here is another thing. The notion of 'illegal soft power' has played an important role in Russian politics over the past six years (its manifestations have been meticulously eradicated), but later it has, in fact, been adopted by the country from where this 'soft power' originated. A report by the American National Endowment for Democracy in December 2017 introduces the notion of 'sharp power'. It's like 'soft power' but proceeds from undemocratic states — primarily Russia and China. They cannot have 'soft power' by definition, therefore, their influence is a subversive tool that must be countered. The circle is closed, everybody is on the same page.
"A series of concerns from the article have been fully justified. 'We need broader, non-discriminatory access to foreign markets like air to breathe. So far, Russian economic actors are finding it tough sledding abroad. Restrictive trade and political measures are being taken against them, and technical barriers are being erected that put them at a disadvantage compared with their competitors…' This was said in 2012. If you look at it from 2018, the situation then seems idyllic compared to the flood of sanctions that surged later. 'We should not forget that Russia can employ symmetrical response measures against those who resort to unfair competitive practices.' We should not forget the food counter-embargo of summer 2014, but as far as all the rest, Russia clearly does not possess the virtues of the 'trade warrior' that, for example, the U.S. has started to display since then — we just don't have enough gear. 'We must also consider more extensive cooperation in the energy sphere, up to and including the formation of a common European energy complex.' A real battle is taking place in this sphere, but not over an energy complex; it was an attempt to drive Russia out of the European energy market altogether.
"'Russia has been the target of biased and aggressive criticism that, at times, exceeds all limits…' No comments here; 'imaginable limits' have expanded for some time, and the intensity that the information and 'image' confrontation has reached in the past years seems unparalleled.
"In a certain sense, this 'exchange of opinions' is a lot worse than during the Cold War — then one could at least feel some subtle respect for the opponent. Now, not in the slightest.
"'Respect for one's country is determined, among other things, by its ability to protect the rights of its citizens and its compatriots abroad.' In 2012, it was difficult to imagine that this valid but rather trivial idea would very soon turn into a rationale for one of the most powerful geopolitical shocks in decades. The Ukrainian crisis turned the topic of 'a divided people' into a political instrument.
"And [here is] another remarkable passage in the article of six years ago.
"'We must seriously discuss how we can most effectively derive the maximum benefit for Russia's objective image from hosting large international events, such as the APEC Leaders' Meeting in 2012, the G20 summit in 2013 and the G8 summit in 2014, the University Games in Kazan in 2013, the Winter Olympic Games in 2014, the Hockey World Championships in 2016, and the Football World Cup in 2018.' Now it is time to seriously discuss the opposite — how to minimize the damage to 'Russia's objective image' caused by such events in the context of a savage information confrontation, and whether they should even be held in the current situation.
"Speaking about the changes over six years, it is interesting to compare two other addresses (which are also annual addresses to legislators), by the American presidents — from January 2012 and January 2018. In both, Russia is mentioned only once–but in totally different contexts. Obama-2012: '…this Congress should make sure that no foreign company has the edge over American producers when accessing financing or new markets like Russia' is concerned. Trump-2018: 'Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values. In confronting these horrible dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defense'.
"The first quotation is referring to the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment of 1974, restricting trade with the USSR because it prevented Jews from repatriating to their historical homeland. By the time Obama mentioned it, the amendment had not simply lost any sense, but, after Russia had joined the World Trade Organization, [the amendment] had become a violation of its regulations and an obstacle for American companies. (Jackson-Vanik was soon abolished, but the Congress adopted the Magnitsky Law, which launched that powerful wave of anti-Russian sanctions, which keeps growing still.) The second quotation is clear. Trump has always admired 'unmatched power', and position papers adopted during his term have officially restored to U.S. political thought the notion of 'great-power rivalry' as the essence of the times.
"What's interesting here is that in general, Trump's chief obsession is what Obama spoke about: a system of global trade and economic relations profitable for American business; or rather, reconfiguring the system along those lines.
"But in this context, Russia does not exist for him at all — it's an insignificant factor in the global economy; but it is a powerful military rival. In contrast, Obama famously said in 2014 that Russia was no more than a regional power, dangerous in its weakness; yet, he considered it necessary to facilitate its joining the WTO to further American business interests. By the way, Donald Trump has publicly called WTO 'a disaster for this country.'
"A comparison between these two statements provides a useful framework for understanding what has happened over these 6 years. One thing remains unchanged: Russia is non-essential for the U.S., and to a large extent instrumental. Strange as it may seem, this fact unites the antagonists Obama and Trump: both wanted to use relations with Russia to facilitate solutions to their own problems, which had nothing to do with Moscow. Both aspired to reshape the system of American priorities — in opposite directions, but for both the one and the other, Russia has no value in its own right. In the meantime, Moscow has painstakingly proved the opposite, and as a result has reconstructed the status… not of an important partner but of a dangerous opponent. The chain 'Snowden — Syria — Ukraine — interference in the elections' has made the transformation of 'reset' into a new cold war a reality. And this reality is now being enforced.
"A cold war, especially in its initial stage (this is the stage we are in now, for it is not simply a continuation of something that happened 40 years ago, but a qualitatively different confrontation), has its own logic and dictates its own laws. This is no time for explanations and persuasions, but for demonstrations — of self-assurance and the 'unmatched power' the U.S. president so much admires . Whether Russian foreign policy in 2012-2018 was successful or not, the point where the world and the country are at now means, to a large extent, a nullification of all that has happened until now; the liberal order, with all its pluses and minuses, has not materialized. Just how anti-liberal the order coming to replace it will be, will be revealed in the next six years."
 Echo.msk.ru, February 5, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6629, Lavrov's Remarks At The 71st Session Of The UN General Assembly: 'Ukraine... Has Fallen Victim Of Those Who Like To Play Zero Sum Games' - Part I, September 27, 2016.
 Globalaffairs.ru, March 21, 2018.
 Kommersant.ru, March 19, 2018.