The president, deeply unpopular and facing a rising tide of scandal, has involved his country in a military action that some see as an effort to deflect his critics from his problems. His election victory is credited to the behind-the-scenes influence of a powerful state suspected of using the president as a puppet to advance their own interests and weaken the country.
Having fired a string of senior government members, he relies on support from figures in the security sector and wealthy allies with dubious histories, but most of all on his closest advisor: his daughter. Erratic, prone to anger and public outbursts, and seemingly unable to cope with the workload, he seems to barely function as a president, creating a vacuum at the heart of the nuclear superpower that alarms domestic and international observers.
For Russians old enough to remember the 1990s, the presidency of Donald Trump must have a familiar feel. Trump is often compared to other political figures from US history, including presidents Richard Nixon and Warren Harding, but perhaps the most striking parallel of all is not with a figure from the American past but with a Russian: Boris Yeltsin, post-Soviet Russia’s first president.
A key player in the collapse of the USSR and one of the most important international political figures of the 1990s, Yeltsin occupied the Kremlin between the end of the Soviet Union in1991 and his resignation in 1999, when he stepped down in favour of his prime minister – the then-unknown Vladimir Putin.
Like Trump, Yeltsin was a deeply divisive figure, a political street fighter who survived by playing individuals and factions against each other and through complex transactional relationships with figures inside and outside government. Yeltsin was a charismatic and unconventional politician who appeared to relish political drama and theatrical public appearances such as his most famous speech, made from the top of a tank during the failed coup by Soviet hardliners in August 1991.
He began by appearing, at least to his admirers, to be committed to radical reform of a corrupt and inefficient political and economic system. Instead, his government’s policies were criticised for benefitting the super-rich at the expense of ordinary people and his presidency ultimately both discredited the democratic process to his domestic audience and diminished the status of, and trust in, Russia abroad. Many of the same claims are made about the current occupant of the White House, with a similar prognosis for America’s political future.
Historical analogies should be treated with caution, of course, and there are obvious limits to the parallels between Yeltsin and Trump. Trump’s loose cannon behaviour and erratic attention to the hard work of being president seems grounded in his past as a celebrity businessman, as well as in his complete lack of previous experience of government. Yeltsin, in contrast, was a highly skilled political operator with decades of experience in negotiating the complexities of Soviet politics, but whose ability to govern was destroyed by the effects of his alcoholism. This is not a likely risk in the case of the famously teetotal Donald Trump – he won’t be too drunk to get off the plane to meet the Irish Taoiseach as Yeltsin was, and the Secret Service won’t find him in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue late at night, drunkenly trying to hail a cab to get a pizza, as they reportedly did when Yeltsin visited Washington in 1994.
More importantly, American political structures are not like those of 1990s Russia and nothing like as vulnerable to the effects of a weak or incapacitated president. The Russian constitutional framework, political system, economy, and society were all in a state of chaos when Yeltsin came to power and Russia’s and Yeltsin’s political frailty amplified each other in a downward spiral of corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism from which the exit was the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
Despite fears about the damage being done to the US constitution and political life by the Trump presidency, the US political and legal systems are robust, and civil society and media freedoms remain exceptionally strong. Although currently under pressure, the constitutional separation of powers across the presidency, Congress, and the judiciary sets limits to the damage that can be done by a president with the authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump.
But while it is easy (and comforting) to spot the differences between Washington now and Moscow 20 years ago, there are also similarities that should not be ignored. These relate particularly to the international impact of the two presidencies.
The decision to launch missile strikes against Syrian chemical weapons targets, announced unexpectedly by Trump after the FBI raided the offices of his lawyer Michael Cohen, appeared to critics to be motivated less by concern for the situation in Syria than by a desire to distract from a particularly damaging development in the scandal consuming his presidency.
The perception that he is willing to use armed force to project a presidential appearance in the face of domestic political crisis recalls Yeltsin’s decision to launch a ‘'small victorious war'' in Chechnya – a war which turned out to be neither victorious nor small.
Whether the claim is unfair in either or both cases is in some ways less significant than the widespread perception that it is, or could be, true. When a political leader is thought to be desperate enough to use military force as a distraction from their political weakness, both domestic and international players are forced to re-evaluate their relationship to him (or her).
The questions of how far the individual is prepared to go to survive, how reliable they are as a partner, and so how far other states can support them, come into play and run the risk of damaging the country’s alliances. As momentum gathers in the various investigations into potential criminality involving Trump’s associates and perhaps the president himself, more surprise foreign policy announcements and headline-grabbing Twitter threats to other states will create more uncertainty and reduce international trust in the US. The abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal this week, which some critics have also suggested is motivated by the desire to distract from domestic scandal, has clearly done both of these things.
The election question is another area where similarities between Yeltsin and Trump pose problems for America. Facing a difficult election battle in 1996, Yeltsin appeared to benefit from American assistance, with then-president Clinton providing various kinds of support that included delaying the announcement of Nato expansion (which was deeply unpopular in Russia) and pushing through large-scale international aid for Russia despite concerns about exactly where it was going. These and allegations of other, more questionable, forms of covert support for the Yeltsin campaign contributed to a perception that the American government interfered to enable the election of an ally – or a puppet, according to many of Yeltsin’s domestic critics.
Whatever the truth of the similar claims in relation to Trump now being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller, the widespread perception that the Russian government’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election may have handed victory to their favoured candidate has been disastrous not only for Trump himself but for America’s global standing. If doubts exist about the legitimacy of the US president’s election, and about what he may owe another government in exchange for it, the US’s reputation is damaged, its position is weakened, and its ability to achieve its international goals is compromised.
These suspicions have been strengthened by Trump’s statements of admiration for Putin and his evident desire to improve relations despite the actions of Russia in Ukraine, in Syria, and in relation to the 2016 election. They have also been reinforced by his surprising attitude towards issues that touch on Russian interests.
One recent example is Trump’s decision to back away from further sanctions against Russia suggested by America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Hayley. Others include his reported anger over the high number of Russian diplomats expelled by the US in response to the Skripal poisoning, and his apparent desire early in his presidency to lift the Crimea-related sanctions imposed on Russia.
Most serious of all is his attitude to Nato, perhaps the main object of the Russian government’s anger and suspicion. During his election campaign Trump claimed that Nato was ‘obsolete’ and indicated that if member states were attacked by Russia he would only honour the principle of collective defence – the core, binding principle of the alliance – if other members ‘fulfilled their obligations’ to the US by ‘making payments’ (an arrangement that sounded less like an alliance system and more like a protection racket).
Although his approach appears to have softened, and the US currently shows no signs of weakening its role in Nato, there remains uncertainty about his commitment to the alliance – whether, in other words, Nato members can still trust the US to stand with them if they are attacked. This is extremely worrying because uncertainty and loss of confidence among allies during periods of heightened global threat create the conditions for misunderstanding and miscalculation. They also raise the possibility that states will look for alternative ways to defend themselves, outside formal alliance structures, creating more uncertainty and more risk. These are the kinds of conditions under which major wars have started in the past.
It is the international sphere, then, where the Yeltsin-Trump parallels are strongest and most damaging. While the US constitution and its democratic political norms are, hopefully, robust enough to stand up to the stress test of the Trump presidency, America’s international standing is much more vulnerable. The perception that the US president is incapable of governing effectively, that he lacks control over either himself or his administration, that he may owe his position to the illegal intervention of another state, create risks both for the US itself and for international stability.
This is because of the unique role that it plays in international politics. Since the end of World War II the US has been the leading democracy, the architect of a liberal international economic system, and the guarantor of its allies’ security. Since the end of the Cold War it has been the most politically, economically, and militarily powerful state in the world. Despite the damage caused by Iraq and other foreign policy misadventures, it maintained a high degree of influence, of ‘soft power’, in relation to other states and their populations. This influence depended on the credibility of US leadership in two senses – both US leadership in international affairs and the president’s ability to effectively govern at home. When both are in question, as now, America’s influence diminishes. This not only has implications for its alliances like Nato, it creates global uncertainty and increases the risk of foreign policy adventurism by states who relish the opportunity to chip away further at America’s global status.
The end of US dominance was forecast long before the presidency of Donald Trump. For many non-American observers it does not, in itself, seem like a bad thing. But the speed and unpredictable trajectory of the decline in the US’s international standing under Trump has accelerated the process in ways that make the world less stable and secure.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Union went through a process of de-Stalinisation to correct the flaws of the past. Washington urgently needs to start a ‘de-Yeltsinisation’ before further damage is done to the US’s international position. At the moment, however, the chances of that seem worryingly remote.
Ruth Deyermond is lecturer in post-Soviet security at King’s College London and specialises in Russian foreign policy and US-Russia relations in the Department of War Studies
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