WASHINGTON -- In January 2013, just before she left her position as secretary of state in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, Hillary Clinton offered some parting advice for her boss about ties with Russia.
“In stark terms, I advised the president that difficult days lay ahead and that our relationship with Moscow would likely get worse before it got better,” Clinton recounted in her memoir Hard Choices, published the following year.
She was right: Russia-U.S. ties got worse fast -- and it’s unclear when they might get better.
Clinton may end up in the White House in January, if the majority of polls hold true.
But even if her Republican rival, Donald Trump, pulls off a victory, this much will also be true after November 8: U.S. relations with Russia have fundamentally changed. Now, as it was during the Cold War, Moscow is again at or near the top of the United States’ foreign policy agenda.
“We’re at a much lower plateau in relations than we have been in a long, long time,” said Thomas Graham, a former top Russia expert on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration in the 2000s.
Obama’s first-term bid to “reset” relations with Russia got off to a shaky start when the label on the big red button that Clinton pressed to symbolize the initiative was mistranslated as “overload.”
The gesture came seven months after Russia invaded Georgia and occupied a chunk of its territory. Other controversies, including a Russian law criminalizing gay “propaganda” and a U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russians accused of human rights abuses, also strained ties.
But the big rupture came in 2014, when Russia responded to the downfall of a Moscow-friendly president in Ukraine by seizing the Crimean Peninsula and backing separatists whose war against Kyiv continues despite cease-fire deals. And Moscow has thrown deadly firepower behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war, seeking to prevent his ouster, challenge U.S. clout, and improve Russia’s sway in the Middle East.
“There’s a bipartisan consensus that we’ve got a significant problem with Russia, and if anything the position is we have to be even harder than we were in the past,” Graham said, adding that he does not “see anyone in a new administration coming in and saying ‘well, we need to do a reset, we need to put relations with Russia on a constructive track.”
Trump, the New York real-estate developer, has repeatedly displayed admiration for Vladimir Putin. In September, he said the Russian president has “great control over his country” and has been a leader far more than our president has been.”
He has also lamented what he calls a lack of cooperation between Washington and Moscow on common threats, such as Islamic State (IS) militants and terrorism.
"I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin, and I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia,” he said during a televised forum in September.
Those remarks have been welcomed in Moscow. Putin praised Trump at a business forum this year, calling him a “colorful, talented person, without any doubt,” and pro-Kremlin Russian media have talked up Trump while denigrating Clinton.
Trump’s ties to Russia, meanwhile, have come under close scrutiny. His former campaign chairman Paul Manafort used to represent Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-allied ex-president of Ukraine. Another adviser, Carter Page, reportedly met with top Kremlin officials including those under U.S. sanctions. Page said last month he had left the campaign.
The red button that Hillary Clinton (right) used to symbolically declare a "reset" of U.S. relations with Moscow to her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov (left) in Geneva n 2009.
For her part, Clinton has made clear that she plans a more assertive approach to Russia. Many of her advisers on Russia and European affairs have spoken publicly about the need to push back against Moscow’s actions in Europe, Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Among those heading her Russian advisory team are Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia; Phil Gordon, a former White House and State Department official; and Julie Smith, a former Pentagon official and deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
Also advising Clinton is James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral who was NATO’s commander between 2009 and 2013 and was short-listed to be Clinton’s running mate. He has regularly called for a tougher response to Russia, in Ukraine and, more recently, on the alleged hacking of U.S. election-related institutions.
Even before the allegations of hacking and meddling in the U.S. elections, Clinton made clear that U.S. policy toward Russia would be much more assertive if she were elected.
"We can't dance around it anymore. We all wish it would go away," she said in a speech in 2015. "We all wish Putin would choose to modernize his country and move toward the West instead of sinking himself into historical roots of tsar-like behavior, and intimidation along national borders and projecting Russian power in places like Syria and elsewhere,” she said.
Add to this the fact that there is growing bipartisan consensus in Congress that a harder approach to Russia is merited.
From Moscow’s perspective, there’s little to indicate that Putin’s aggressive moves -- in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, in Syria, and in the Baltic and Black seas -- will stop anytime soon.
“They’re going to continue to run military exercises. They’re going to continue to demonstrate their capabilities,” Graham said. “I don’t think they want the conflict in [the] Donbas to get out of hand, but they also don’t want to lose the ability to use the conflict as a bargaining chip.”
As secretary of state, Clinton was responsible for implementing the Russia “reset” Obama initiated in 2009, when Dmitry Medvedev was keeping Putin’s seat warm as president.
But Putin’s relationship with Clinton became strained even before he returned to the Kremlin in 2012 for his current six-year term. He accused her of inciting the antigovernment protests that broke out in Moscow after 2011 parliamentary elections that were marred by evidence of widespread fraud in favor of his ruling party.
With opinion polls pointing to a Clinton victory, some Russian officials have been expressing hopes that the tough U.S. talk is a fixture of the election campaign and that criticism of Moscow would abate after the vote, giving way to a more pragmatic approach.
“We just have to wait until the end of the election campaign,” Sergei Ivanov, a close Putin ally who until August was his chief of staff, told the London-based Financial Times newspaper in an interview published on October 24. “We have to wait a couple more weeks; we just have to be patient.”
The U.S. election “really cannot come too soon,” Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst with close government ties and editor of the journal Russia In Global Affairs, wrote in a commentary on October 7. “Whoever wins, there will at least be some breathing space.”
But ahead of the vote, Russia put boulders in Clinton’s path toward engagement. The Kremlin pulled out of two symbolic but significant nuclear agreements in October. And Moscow continues to flout American efforts in Syria by backing the Syrian military’s assault on rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
The fiery spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, has accused the Obama administration of conducting a “scorched earth” policy toward Russia -- though U.S. officials believe that sounds more like what Moscow has been doing in the weeks before the election.
Lukyanov said the downturn in relations was part of a cyclical pattern between the two countries and pinned a substantial portion of blame for the tension on Obama, who he said had not built a personal relationship with Putin.
“The cyclical, step-by-step deterioration of the situation has now brought things to a really dangerous brink,” Lukyanov wrote. “The question now is how the transition will go -- and to what.”