MTU prof speaks on U.S.-Russia relations

HOUGHTON — With Russia allegedly sponsoring the hacking of Democratic candidates and operatives, and the inauguration of a president whose relationship with the Kremlin is unclear, the relationship between U.S. and Russia is at a flux point.

Roman Sidortsov, an assistant professor of social sciences at Michigan Technological University, spoke on the relationship between U.S. and Russia during a Inauguration Day lecture at Tech. Sidortsov, who was educated in Russia and U.S., has also done six years of research in the Russian energy sector in the context of Arctic oil and gas.

From the Kremlin’s standpoint, their goal from U.S.-Russia relations would be to further personal interests by expanding the resource base, such as through drilling offshore in the Arctic and go after unconventional hydrocarbon resources and getting money by granting access to Western companies to those deposits. (Exxon, whose former CEO Rex Tillerson is Trumps nominee for secretary of state, was among the first Western companies involved.)

Russia also wants to make sure its longstanding legacy oil fields can continue to produce oil and generate revenue.

“That effectively means just easing the sanctions,” he said. “You don’t have to be super-friendly, just cancel the sanctions.”

What does the White House want from the relationship? “I wish I knew,” Sidortsov said.

Assuming the White House is looking to act in the national interest, Sidortsov said, it’s in the country’s best interest to have a “smart policy” toward Russia, which, in addition to being a nuclear state, has clout in the Middle East, Arctic and global energy market.

“That means avoiding personal insults like calling Russia a ‘Third-World country,'” he said. “That also means being smart about its messaging beyond the official channels, making sure that you do address the screwups that you have in the past.”

If the White House is acting more on personal interests, then it’s a matter of “following the oil, following Exxon.”

“That means probably something along the lines of what the Kremlin wants from the new relationship — cancellation of the sanctions, and to hell with everything else,” he said.

There are some inhibitors to improved relations. Russia would lose a convenient scapegoat and saber-rattling target, which has helped prop up Vladimir Putin’s popularity at home.

“When things were sort of normal, he wasn’t that popular,” he said.

Another structural problem is competition between U.S. and Russian producers in the liquified natural gas sector in southeast Asia.

Oil prices going up might also ease tensions, as Russia might not need to look for “another big bad wolf,” Sidortsov said.

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia escalated during 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and made other incursions into the Ukraine. The U.S. imposed sanctions on a number of Russians in Vladimir Putin’s circle, as well as larger economic sanctions against Russia.

At the time of the aggression with the Ukraine, Putin had seen declining popularity due to economic stagnation. Decrees in 2012 in which state employees received raises proved unsuccessful in improving Russia’s overall economic prospects.

But the sanctions saw Putin’s approval ratings rise to stratospheric levels, Sidortsov said. From a strategic point of view, Putin played “a brilliant game of geopolitical chess,” Sidortsov said. Judged by economic metrics, however, he did “nothing right,” causing a recession that has declined into a full-blown crisis.

The converse is true of the American side. While they were successful in accurately targeting members of Putin’s inner circle and their financial ties, they failed to win the larger rhetorical debate. Sidortsov said the U.S. under President Obama had alienated some Russians who would have been receptive by framing the conflict too starkly: bad Russia versus good Ukraine. By omitting references to its own invasion of Iraq, Sidortsov said, the U.S. also displayed what was perceived as a holier-than-thou attitude.

“The fact that the majority of Crimeans are ethnic Russians and the government of the Ukraine didn’t give a damn about doing anything in Crimea, not providing infrastructure, not encouraging development — didn’t matter,” he said. “…At some point, people who read English and understand nuances and read English-language sources, even they gave up.”

While Russia propped up its two largest oil and gas companies because of the restriction to capital markets, Sidortsov said, the sanctions had the unintended effect of crippling some smaller independent producers that had to close.

“Those sanctions did cripple the Russian economy, but maybe didn’t cause the effect the administration was trying to achieve,” he said.

With Russia’s alleged involvement in the hacking and dissemination of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Democratic operatives, as well as the fabrication of anti-Clinton stories, the relationship between the two nations has grown chillier, with President Obama kicking out 35 diplomats accused of espionage.

The FBI and five other agencies are also investigating Russia’s involvement in the election, including possible covert financial aid to President Donald Trump.

Trump has acknowledged Russia is likely behind the hacks, but denied any cooperation with or knowledge of the activities, or that he benefitted.

Asked about the possibility of a Cuban Missile Crisis-like scenario, Sidortsov said Obama’s relationship with Russia, despite ups and downs, was relatively stable. Trump is friendlier to Putin, but more of a wild card.

“He has a Twitter account,” he said. “I don’t know.”

For Putin as an individual and former KGB officer, Sidortsov said, influencing an election through relatively low-cost measures would be like a “quadruple gold star.” That personal satisfaction might shield him from the irritation he might otherwise feel at perceived insults. When push comes to shove, he said, Putin’s self-interest would probably win out.

“He will play chicken until the last moment, and will probably figure out the backup plan that will tactically be very smart,” he said. “…To advance his personal interests, he’s very brilliant at it.”