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US Midterm Election Results: Prospects for US-Russian Relations

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Written by Arkady Savitski; Originally appeared on strategic-culture.org

The midterm elections went  largely as expected. Republicans strengthened their position in the Senate and lost their majority in the House. President Trump was not lucky enough to escape the traditional first-term midterm curse. But the expansion of majority control in the Senate is an important achievement. The party that controls the White House has typically lost Senate seats in midterm elections. That didn’t happen this time. What’s more, some staunchly anti-Trump Republicans are no longer there. For instance, two Republican representatives who have been critical of the president — Barbara Comstock and Mike Coffman — lost their races. Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, other Trump critics, are retiring, which will bolster the president’s position inside the GOP congressional caucus. Control over the Senate gives the president a free hand in foreign policy and diminishes the possibility of impeachment to the point that it can no longer be a serious concern.

US Midterm Election Results: Prospects for US-Russian Relations

Since their blue wave was not completely beaten back, Democrats now have a chance to block every initiative put forward by the administration, such as the allocations for the fence to protect the border with Mexico and other steps aimed at curbing migration, the “giant tax cuts for Christmas” that will be offered to individual taxpayers to continue the tax-cutting trend, and the moves to  bid a final farewell to Obamacare. A partial government shutdown over spending for the border wall is possible as early as December.

It is true that the Republicans’ failure to hold on to the House is nothing in comparison with what happened in 2010, when the Democrats lost 63 seats there. But a loss is always a loss. The speaker of the House is a very important position that will be used to promote the Democratic Party’s agenda. This could breathe new life into the House Democrats’  attacks against the president over his alleged ties to Russia.

All in all, things have taken a turn for the worse for President Trump and his administration — it is always better to have control over both houses than control over just one of them, even if that one has become stronger. Besides, Republicans lost their races for the governors’ offices in the Great Lakes region — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — states where Donald Trump won two years ago. On the other hand, support for the president was evidently decisive for Senator Ted Cruze who won a surprisingly competitive Senate race in Texas. With the president’s help, GOP candidates won Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota.

The results prove that Donald Trump is apparently much more popular than his opponents believed. Democrats won only a relatively small majority in the House. Despite all of the president’s verbal gaffes and missteps, he clearly has the support of a broad sector of American society. And now this is clear to everyone. By adopting a policy of total obstruction, Democratic lawmakers might be paying only lip service to their party. Many things could change during the next two years, but today Donald Trump is in a strong position to win a second term and lead the Republican Party to success in 2020. The strong economy improves his chances.

How does the outcome of the midterms impact US-Russian relations? Even before the election results were known, the State Department had issued a statement saying Russia was to face “more draconian” US sanctions over the alleged “Skripal poisoning.” It read, “Today, the department informed Congress we could not certify that the Russian Federation met the conditions.” The administration knows that anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, and anti-Iranian sentiments are running high in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. Several sanctions bills that will affect the Russian economy will soon be considered by Congress, including the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, which proposes restrictions on both purchases by US citizens  of Russia’s sovereign debt as well as investments in Russian energy projects. These rounds of sanctions will continue to mount.

With a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, “Russiagate” will force the president to adopt a tougher stance toward Moscow. This calls into question the fate of a full-fledged Putin-Trump summit, at least prior to November 2020. It could lower the odds of any progress in arms control.

On the other hand, the president would not be putting himself in any danger by extending the New START Treaty or launching negotiations over a new strategic nuclear-arms agreement. The idea of renewing New START in 2021 seems to be fading, but no one would gain if arms control became a historical artifact. Democratic control of the House does not prevent Donald Trump from addressing this problem. With a Republican majority in the Senate, a new treaty has a good chance of being ratified. Extending New START will strengthen, not weaken, the president’s position.

No summit is needed for doing something as simple as reviving the forgotten 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement or the 1989 Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement. The impasse in the talks on Ukraine does not prevent a dialog on Syria. The situation in Libya is clearly an urgent problem of mutual concern. The deterioration in the relationship does not rule out the possibility of maintaining unofficial contacts, including between groups of experts. If the two countries continue to cooperate in space, they can cooperate in other areas too. The president has his hands tied regarding domestic issues, but he enjoys even greater foreign-policy freedom than before. He could use it to boost his popularity before the 2020 presidential race. Lowering the threat of war is one sure way to gain more voters’ support.

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