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Yearender: Russia-linked probe to haunt Washington-Moscow ties in 2018
Last Updated: 2017-12-26 11:40 | Xinhua
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Despite the personal chemistry between Russian and U.S. presidents and their pledges to revive bilateral ties, the Russia-U.S. relations have hardly advanced in 2017 thanks to the ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in combination with other factors.

According to experts, the so-called "Russiagate" probe, believed to be the top issue weighing on Moscow-Washington interactions in 2017, will continue to overshadow bilateral ties in the coming year.

ESCALATION OF TENSIONS

Investigations started in June 2016 after accusations piled up against Russia over its "influence campaign" and alleged mail hacking aiming to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The campaign team of U.S. President Donald Trump was arraigned on its suspected link with Russia for the final win in the election. Trump's inner sanctum members like his eldest son and son-in-law were also interviewed as part of congressional probes.

It seemed the turning point came after former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller's appointment in May as special counsel to oversee the investigation into Russian election interference and related matters.

In October, Mueller's office charged Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, Manafort's deputy Rick Gates, and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos with lying to the FBI. While Manafort and Gates pleaded innocent, Papadopoulos admitted the charges.

On Dec. 1, former U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding improper contacts with Russian officials, becoming the first member of the Trump-led administration to be found guilty in the ongoing probe into alleged collusion between Trump's campaign team and Russia.

"Mueller's investigation has certainly unsettled theWhite Houseas he has been able to bring charges against several key players - including Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn," said Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of Congress and the Presidency, a Washington-based think-tank.

"The White House has cooperated with the investigation, yet at the same time President Trump and many in conservative media have sought to delegitimize the investigation. Any action against Mueller would likely trigger a major constitutional and political crisis, so it will be something to continue to watch closely in 2018," Mahaffee told Xinhua.

The so-called Russian intervention in U.S. politics also led to the two countries' mutual expulsion of diplomats and banning media organizations.

MOUNTING DISTRUST

"U.S.-Russia ties remain strained as there has been no reckoning on the issue of Russian interference in the U.S. election as the President (Trump) remains convinced that discussions of Russian influence are insulting to his own election victory," said Mahaffee.

"Congress, as well as many in the Trump administration, remain rightly concerned about the Russian threat to theUnited Statesand its key allies," Mahaffee added.

Besides the Russia probe, experts from both countries suggested the Russian-U.S. relations basically suffer as their interests are irreconcilable.

The disagreements between the two countries are "intractable," said a report published in November gathering views of scholars from the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

They also thought Russia and the United States are not likely to emerge as close partners, as the two perceive threats in each other's policies and actions.

According to Andrei Suzdaltsev, a Russian expert, Moscow now practically has no "freedom of maneuver" regarding diplomatic interaction with Washington, which offered preconditions that "are certainly unacceptable for Russia, like abandoning Crimea."

"The U.S. is still demonstrating such, I would say, 'indulgently colonial' approach, which leaves us without a possibility to maneuver," said Suzdaltsev, deputy dean of the Faculty of World Economy and Politics of Russia's Higher School of Economics Research University.

He expressed concern about the fact that almost all communications between the two countries were blocked, except for some "situational contacts." There is also no mutual trust for dialogues to restart, Suzdaltsev added.

DIM PROSPECTS

The U.S.-Russian relations are also believed to be affected by shifting global power dynamics in a broader context.

Besides the four-year-old Ukraine crisis, disagreements over theSyrian crisis and the anti-terrorism war played vital parts in the bitter feud.

Although the Russian intervention in Syria and regional anti-terrorism war saw a gradual drawdown in 2017, Moscow kept two military bases in Syria, the Hmeymim airbase and the Tartus naval base, which, according to Russian Defense Ministry, will guarantee Syria's future stability.

Russia's investment in Syria paid off in the Middle East, right at a time when the United States chose to change its strategy in the region.

Russian President VladimirPutinpaid a whirlwind tour to the Middle East at the beginning of December, amid Muslim nations' rage over Trump's unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital ofIsrael.

The Trump Administration has made a series of decisions which have made it more unpopular in the world's probably most vulnerable region, and which have left a great deal of uncertainty in its relations with Russia.

Considering the strategic importance of and abundant energy resources in the Middle East, as well as the urgency to prevent terrorism spillover, many worry the outlook for U.S.-Russian ties could be bleaker as the two disagree on vital issues in the region.

Mahaffee pointed out that the U.S. Congress is unconvinced that a rapprochement with Russia could solve global and regional issues related to Ukraine or Syria, as well asIranand the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The two world powers are "stretching and testing the limits of what is possible in the world," said the CSIS-RIAC report published in November.

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