The United States and Russia are locked in a grim state of relations, thanks to the current US presidential campaign and Russian cyber-spying on America's political parties.
LONDON • Since the 1940s, every newly elected United States president has been confronted with the same foreign policy predicament: how to deal with a Russia which on some subjects could be a partner, but in almost all others remained an unbending strategic competitor.
And so will be the case with whoever takes over the White House from Jan 20 next year: she or he will grapple with the same problem no fewer than 13 previous US leaders faced.
But this time, the stakes are higher than they have been in decades. For Russia's unprecedented meddling in the US electoral process presents the American authorities with an immediate challenge to which they have to provide a robust riposte. And there are few viable options apart from greater confrontation between Russia and the US. The future relationship between the two powers looks grim, the grimmest it has been in almost half a century.
Foreign policy never features highly in peacetime US presidential electoral campaigns. And this year's campaign hustings had even less reason to attract serious debates on foreign policy matters, since they come after eight years of the Obama presidency, whose chief purpose was to extricate America from too-onerous foreign policy entanglements.
But to the surprise of almost everyone concerned, US policy towards Russia featured prominently, and even turned out to be one of the key defining matters of this campaign. This was not because many voters in the US cared about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, or about the tragedy in Syria, in which Russia's armed forces are implicated.
Rather, Russia became a key electoral debating point due to the curious position of Mr Donald Trump who, despite espousing far-right political positions on almost any other topic, became the first Republican presidential candidate since World War II to argue that America should abandon the system of military alliances it has created and managed over decades, allow Russia to recreate its sphere of influence and even join hands with the Russians in "bombing terrorists".
Mr Trump's pointed refusal to criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin on any topic and his determination to ignore even confidential briefings from US intelligence agencies which pointed to Russian activities harmful to America's strategic interests around the world earned him the title of the "Manchurian Candidate", a throwback to a fictional character in a 1960s Hollywood movie, who was supposedly brainwashed by Russian spies to take over the US.
However, there is no evidence that Mr Trump has even met President Putin during his lifetime, let alone establish any professional or financial links with Moscow; Mr Trump's affection for the Russian President is partly due to his admiration for anyone who appears to be strong and decisive, and partly the result of Mr Trump's determination to reject all the received wisdom of decades of American diplomacy.
The real sinister developments are not the meandering and often incoherent pronouncements of the Republican nominee but, rather, the activities of the Russian state in supporting Mr Trump's presidential candidature.
Evidence of such activities is partly circumstantial and partly based on technical information which governments are loath to reveal to the public. Still, no Western intelligence agency doubts that the Russian government has repeatedly infiltrated the computers of America's top political parties.
And although the Russians have managed to cling to a veneer of deniability by relying on proxies such as international cyber criminals or WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (who now occupies himself with publishing in the Russian media information stolen from American computers), there is no doubt about the purpose of these activities: to discredit Mrs Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.
Nor is it possible to deny that these activities go well beyond the routine computer hacking and cyber spying considered acceptable between strategic rivals. For, as US Admiral James Stavridis, who commanded all the Western allied forces in Europe, recently remarked, Russia's latest cyber operations in the US "cross an important political and operational threshold by attempting to influence the American public".
Of particular importance is what such actions tell us about the state of US-Russian relations. President Putin is no fool; he must have known all along that Mr Trump's chances of being elected president of the US are not high, and that lending Mr Trump such a public helping hand could rebound on Russia should Mrs Clinton win the White House.
Still, Mr Putin stuck to backing Mr Trump because he calculated that, even if he lost his bet on the Republican candidate, Russia would have succeeded in another objective: heaping ridicule on and even discrediting the American political system. Revelations of backstabbing in the Democratic party, of Mrs Clinton promising donors one thing while offering voters another, all serve as perfect examples for what Mr Putin argued all along: that the US political system is as corrupt as those of other countries, that US democracy is a myth, and that America has no business telling others how to fix their political systems. That, and not the election of Mr Trump, is the key Russian objective, and Mr Putin may have achieved it.
Furthermore, Mr Putin really does not care if, as a result of his activities, he ends up facing after Jan 20 next year a Hillary Clinton presidency determined to corner Russia. For he has long ago concluded that he can expect nothing good from any US administration; as he sees it, the only way Russia will be treated with respect by the US is if Russia is strong and assertive, not if it is cooperative. He not only refuses to be cowed by Mrs Clinton's future wrath, but he also positively welcomes it.
CYBER RETALIATION ON THE CARDS
It is by now an open secret in Washington that, soon after the presidential election is over, President Barack Obama will order a cyber retaliation against Russia. This will be calculated to be proportional, but will seek to remind Moscow that America's cyber capabilities are not to be sniffed at, and that further interference in the US political process won't be tolerated.
But such a "punitive" operation cannot act as a substitute for a new Russia policy which the US must adopt assuming, of course, that the next president is not the property mogul from New York. For the US desperately needs a new Russia policy.
And this will have to start with the simplest and grimmest of all conclusions: that efforts to engage with Russia have largely failed, and at every level, because the premises which underpinned them were wrong to start with. The US either assumed that Russia's political system would change from within and thereby transform Russia into a potential partner, or that the areas of disagreement between Russia and the West could be put to one side, while the two camps cooperate on other topics of mutual interest.
Both assumptions were logical, but ultimately misconceived. For what keeps Russia apart from the West is a sense of humiliation coupled with a determination that Russia must be treated as a big power, on position of equality with the US, and complete with its own empire.
This sense overshadows everything else Russia does, from its undermining of Ukraine's independence, to the military operations in Syria. It is not merely impossible but nonsensical to ignore this Russian feeling, and at the same time expect the Russians to cooperate in other fields.
And it is equally self-defeating to personalise the confrontation by assuming that the current tension is due to President Putin's actions. For, as Mr Thomas Graham, a fellow at Yale University and once the top Russia expert on the US National Security Council, recently put it: "It's also essential to recognise that America's problems with Russia aren't solely because of Putin: They're geopolitical. Neither Putin's departure nor broader regime change in Russia will resolve this challenge."
The next US president will, therefore, have to recognise that the opportunities for cooperation between the two powers will continue diminishing. She will also have to accept that the US will need to increase its military presence in Europe, if only in order to discourage any adventurism, while at the same time maintain some strategic dialogue with the Russians, without expecting quick results.
And she will also have to understand that, at least as far as the Russians are concerned, a new cold war has already started regardless of what the West says or does; the main task is now to prevent it from turning into an acute and prolonged confrontation.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'US and Russia headed for new cold war'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.