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Russia-US Relations in the Trump Era

 
Wednesday, 15 March 2017 07:45
 
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by Gregorio Baggiani
EPOS Insights

 

1) US-Russia Relations and the Changes Trump’s Arrival of at the White House will Bring

A practical realist approach will characterize Trump’s approach to relations with Russia, one that has already shown some early signals. This, however, should not make us forget that particular underlying structural problems cannot be solved only in virtue of a better personal relationship between the two leaders, because these problems have far more complex and comprehensive bases. The two leaders, however, share a wish, due both to temperamental and ideological motives, to subvert or modify the liberal and democratic order that has been the backbone of the international system in recent decades;an international order founded, at least partially, on the norms of international law and evidently thrown into crisisby the Russian invasion of Crimea[1], which is reminiscent of a conception of geopolitics based mainly on power relations and political convenience rather than on the legal norms the international community is responsible for enforcing. This tendency itself, or a lack of leadership, or an excessively “America-centric” leadership, could create disadvantages and changes at the international level[2]; for example an autonomous EU rearmament to better tackle latent and explicit threats on European territory.On this pars destruens Trump and Putin could find an agreement, but one that should not, however, be struck at the expense of another country, i.e. a sort of post-litteramYalta or steel division into spheres of influence to the detriment of other states,as some rightly fear, in particular the Baltic states and Ukraine.

The creation of spheres of influence would inevitably diminish the role of NATO, because it would be forced to abdicate in its role as “de facto”, albeit not “de jure”, guarantor of the safety not only of Ukraine, but of Eastern Europe and Eurasia too, in particular of the southern Caucasus, the Black Sea area[3] – currentlycharacterized by a strong tension between NATO and Russian forces – and the Caspian Sea area, two of the most important unavoidable choking points for the flow and production of energy resources towards the EU and the United States, in turn in strong competition with China for energy supplies towards Eurasia and above all towards Central Asia.It is evident that the United States’ contest with Russia has a “stone guest”, a specter, behind it; China, which has every interest in keeping the US forces divided, as we clearly saw during the Ukrainian crisis[4],on at least two fronts, to prevent them from being concentrated entirely on the South China Sea for effective containment actions against China.Therefore, the contest is of great geopolitical importance and the cards in the hands of the major players haven’t been as yet entirely revealed, except perhaps to top level policy makers.

a) Ukraine

Ukraine is undoubtedly one of the most thorny issues between the US and Russia, albeit not the only one.Obviously, an agreement between Russia and the United States on the question can only be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because Russia’s requests ostensibly require a stop to any reforms in Ukraine and the end of negotiations between Ukraine and NATO, a point that cannot absolutely be renounced for Russia, whilst for the EU a compromise, however difficult, could be found.In exchange, Russia could withdraw its troops from the Donbass region and its support of the independence rebels there. The latter fact is evidenced by the recent attacks against Donbass rebel leaders, and their physical elimination in some cases, who as part of their separatist logics sternly oppose a return of the region within the Ukrainian state, partially for “patriotic” reasons and partially because they are afraid of losing acquired power positions. Plausibly these attacks were carried out by the Russian secret services, given their precision and determination. And considering their political aim, which is to prevent the rebel leaders from trying to influence in any way Moscow’s decisions regarding the definitive destiny of the Donbass territories, which Putin could use as “bargaining chips” in a full and comprehensive agreement with the West, and with the United States in particular.

Moscow’s control over the rebel leaders is crucial to managing the situation according to the will and the interests of the Kremlin, which could accept a return of the Donbass under Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine’s formal relinquishment of any accession to NATO and perhaps even of any reforms and the country’s partial return to the Russian sphere of influence.The priority for the Russian leadership, however, is Ukraine’s abandonment of any ambitions of NATO membership. For Russia, in fact, the “rendering” of the Donbass to Ukraine could turn out to be doubly “advantageous”, because its condition of federated nation within Ukraine benefiting from a special status could block certain political and administrative decisions unwanted by Moscow.

An incorporation of the Donbass into Russian territory, in blatant conflict with international law, like the recent recognition “for humanitarian reasons” by Russia of the “statehood” of the two secessionist Donbass Republics, would contrast such a logic, i.e. maintaining the “frozen conflict” indefinitely – with the related increase in costs, this being a determining factor in examining and understanding the question of this “frozen conflict” in these nominally Ukrainian territories – to prevent any future adherence of Ukraine to NATO and possibly to the EU, as these organizations cannot accept as members states countries with an ongoing conflict in their territory .This said, the main problem remains to determine what bargain could come out of the forthcoming meeting, in the weeks or months to come, between the President of the United States and the President of the Russian Federation.

For the US, giving up Ukraine would mean giving up any support for reforms in that country and hence leaving to the European Union the burden (and future advantages) of carrying forward such a policy. It would also mean abdicating from supplying Ukraine with any military aid, directly or through NATO, in this way arousing serious discontent within NATO and among its European allies, with the risk of causing a rift in transatlantic relations.Any downsizing or dissolution of NATO would seriously damage the United States and their position in the world, even though it would free them temporarily from the resources they dedicate to it[5] and that Trump would like to alter with a revised redistribution of costs, or burden sharing.It is easy to see how a revised burden sharing favorable to the US, who sustain a huge share of NATO’s military budget, would find many supporters both within the Republican administration and even the Democratic opposition. On the other hand, a downsizing of NATO (not to mention a highly unlikely break-up of the organization), would undoubtedly find stern opposition within the Republican Party and the Democrat opposition, as well as the US Army, undoubtedlycontrary to diminishing its traditional function within NATO of countering the Russian military threat and hence representing another major obstacle to Trump’s foreign policy initiatives.

What could Putin offer in exchange for the US substantially abandoning policies of aiding Ukraine militarily and in its pursual of political and economic reforms? The only offset Putin may be able to put on the table is a difficult return to the previous status quo; i.e. the Ukraine in the role of “buffer state”between Russia and the West, with the presence of some sort of Russian influence, but not one that would be predominant or exclusive. Alternatively, the construction of a sort of “Eurasian Union”, granted that this could be realistically possible, would go against the interests of the West, even in the event of a personal business-oriented entente between Putin and the new US administration.

The logic of US intervention in Ukraine has in fact been to broaden the free market and democracy and above all to provoke a weakening of Russia and prevent it from becoming the dominant power in the Eurasian continent through the creation of the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union. A dominance being built up also thanks to technologies supplied by Germany, a country the United States had to “convince” to break off or discontinue economic relations with Russia, also to prevent a Russian-German duopoly of technology and resources. It is evident that for the US to abandon this decades-long fundamental objective would mean a huge defeat of its foreign policy, as it would mean witnessing the rise of a great Power on the continent, however put into difficulty by European and US sanctions – which hamper its economic growth and deny it the necessary technology and investments for the exploitation of the oil and gas fields(for example Sakhalin[6])located in the Russian Far East(DalniVostok), much needed there because of the difficult climatic conditions. This is also an area that is undergoing a slow commercial penetration by China and that could in the future, once military relations have definitively turned in its favor, have territorial claims over the Russian Far East, rich in energy resources and scarcely populated because of harsh life conditions and low local economic development.The blockage of western investments and technologies, as well as the lowering of crude oil prices on the world markets, has several other devastating effects on the Russian economy[7], fracturing to an extent the silent pact[8] of “political passivity” in exchange for a substantial growth of incomes between President Putin and the Russian population[9].

This pact and the ensuing consensus towards Putin works effectively above all in the peripheral parts of the country, which depend almost entirely on the federal budget and have few opportunities for local economic development, rather than in the large metropolitan areas, generally characterized by a middle class more inclined towards liberalism, as the mass demonstrations in Moscow of December 2011 highlighted. This pact has therefore forced the Russian Presidentto adopt a more adventurous foreign policy aimed at ensuring international prestige for himself in the eyes of national public opinion and to acquire substantial equal rights (ravnopravie in Russian) with the United States, together with the economic advantages that could possibly derive from it.

The outlines of the so-called Minsk Agreements[10] are not clear even to experts; and perhaps only the US and Russian government elites know how to find a solution to such an intricate question full of consequences for European and world balances. Because it is obvious that these agreements, to reach a “ceasefire” between the Ukrainian army and the pro-independence forces endorsed by the Russian army, represent only an early pragmatic, but also extremely unstable and temporary, attempt to find a solution to the armed conflict devastating the eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbass region. Crimea, on the other hand, is firmly in Russian hands and is undergoing an expropriation by the Russians[11] of Ukraine’s former properties there, as well as serious violations against the local Tatar minority. All this will end up being, with the exception of the Crimean question – non -discussable for the Russians – an integral part of negotiations between Putin and Trump.A definitive solution to this serious military and political conflict can only therefore come from a general settlement between the United States and Russia; a settlement, however, of which no clear and univocalsignals can be seen.

In Ukraine the match is now one against time too. The Russians, with their “hybrid war”[12] waged with a mix of military actions and misappropriation[13]of the formerly Ukrainian energy resources situated in Crimea and on the Ukrainian continental platform, aim at obtaining Ukraine’s financial default or meltdown so as to be able to negotiate from a position of strength, especially in case the West, and the United States in particular – along with their main international institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund –, decide not to grant loans or favorable economic terms to Ukraine, already plagued by a difficult and expensive war and extremely high levels of internal corruption. The same goes for the Russian economy, however. The sanctions imposed upon it by the West are straining it and Moscow may be forced to find a compromise because of unsustainable political, economic and financial difficulties, all closely related factors.

It is evident that both the economic and financial factors, closely linked to the time factor and the political will factor, will be the decisive elements of a possible Trump-Putin agreement.It must also be stated in this case, however, that whereas Putin can benefit from an almost absolute opportunity to sign a more or less all-comprehensive agreement with Trump, because the Duma and the other Russian constitutional organisms are essentially subjugated to his will, Trump cannot count on such unlimited freedom and could find major obstacles in Congress or even in the Constitutional Court, which are institutions largely independent from the political will of Presidents (the famous checks and balances) and could therefore pose strong obstacles[14].

Putin uses foreign policy as a substitute for the fact that Russia, apart from energy and a few industries such as aeronautics, the arms sector and the civil nuclear sector, is unable to be competitive on the international market. It has to therefore act in foreign policy in such a way as to show a semblance of strength that, in technological terms it doesn’t have, apart from the aforementioned fields. This continuous request by Russia of an equal status with the United States, of a rewriting of “the rules of the game”, is therefore based on shaky foundations from the point of view of the country’s economic strength. In Russia, therefore, we find a wide gap between means and political ambitions, which could in the long run lead Russia to an overstretch[15] internationally and at home. A factor exacerbated by Western sanctions, which represent a powerful “leverage” weapon against Russia and hence one of the most important points in favor of the West in the context of a possible “ Grand Bargain” or “Global Settlement” between the US and Russia.

b) The Middle East

It’s no secret that the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria was aimed at maintaining Russian bases in the country, preventing the rise of an Islamic State there[16], keeping up Russian prestige with the “strong men” of the Middle Eastand at the same time preventing “regime changes” by the West –often a reason for bitter dispute between Moscow and the West over the legitimacy of power and of external intervention to overturn regimes or bring about “colored revolutions” in the post-Soviet space and in other areas of the world –,directing Russian terrorists in theCaucasustowards ISIS to then annihilate them in Syria and, last but not least, renegotiating with Gulf and OPEC countries[17]the prices of energy resources in the Middle Eastfor Europe and the world energy market as a whole[18]. On the latter issues, war on terrorism[19] andenergy, the newly elected President of the United States and the Russian President Putin could find an agreement, however difficult[20]. And one of the difficulties of this hypothetical agreement could be the fact that both have an interest in fighting Sunni terrorism, even if perhaps not in annihilating it altogether because it can ultimately justify military interventions made necessary by circumstances or be used to eliminate regimes considered inconvenient, a form of tactics various countries have used in the area besides the United States. The differences between Putin and Trump are also evident with regard to Iran, a country that Russia strongly supports but the United States violently opposes as an instigator of Shiite terrorism[21]in the areawith the ultimate aim of an expansion towards the Middle-East.

An interesting factor is Putin’s attempt to present Russia as a champion of Orthodoxy at home and abroad as a “friend” of the Arab world, but without choosing between its various currents and geopolitical ambitions. Terrorism, as well as Ukraine and Syria[22], could perhaps make up the basis of a potential agreement between the two leaders, even though it obviously does not look like an easy task. Not with regard to the Middle East at least, because Putin has begun there an expansionist path aimed at increasing Russian power and influence in the region[23]. An influence in turn aimed at influencing the energy market in a substantial agreement with Iran[24], but also with other regional powers in the area, such as Saudi Arabia, which finances and arms Wahhabi terrorism also in the Russian Caucasus and therefore represents a strong element of tension in relations between the two countries.

Even Putin’s attempt to retie relations with Turkey, as a bordering state with common interests backed by an ideological affinity in terms of being anti-West and anti-NATO – Turkey has had ambiguous relations with NATO in recent years, something that Putin has tried to take advantage of to distance the country from the alliance –, will have to consider the existing gap between means, in technological terms too, and ambitions. A gap that characterizes the Russia of today and of the near future and that Trump seems to have fully understood, considering that he wishes to reach a form of agreement with Russia to dedicate himself entirely to the containmentof the Chinese power, irresistibly on the rise in the Asia Pacific area and at the global level.

 

References

[1]Cfr. Territoriality, Self-Determination and Crimea after Badinter, by Cornelia Navari, in “International Affairs” November 2014, Volume 90, Number 6.

[2]https://www.csis.org/analysis/foundation-us-led-order-crumbling

[3]http://www.osservatorioanalitico.com/?p=6497

[4]http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=44243&no_cache=1#.VmLdKb_eAbV

[5]Cfr. for example“The Unquiet Frontier”,  which has a subheading “Rising rivals, Vulnerable Allies and the Crisis of American Power”  byJakubJ.Grygiel& A .Wess Mitchell, 2016 Princeton University Press

[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakhalin

[7]https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-studies/2017-02-06/painful-adaptation-social-consequences-crisis-russia

[8]http://politcom.ru/22094.html “The economic depression and <the window of opportunities >: dynamics of the political and social situation in Russia”

[9]https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pourquoi_la_societe_russe_soutient-elle_la_politique_actuelle_du_kremlin1.pdf

[10]https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/06/23/69023-kak-vyskochit-iz-minskoy-lovushki  “How to escape from the trap of the Minsk Agreements”. An explanation and analysis of the problems surrounding the Minsk Agreements

[11]http://zn.ua/POLITICS/stala-izvestna-data-rassmotreniya-iska-ukrainy-protiv-rf-v-mezhdunarodnom-sude-v-gaage-237761_.html“The date for the examination of Ukraine’s lawsuit against the Russian Federation at the InternationalCourt of the United Nations in The Hague has been made known”

[12]http://gazeta.zn.ua/energy_market/gibridnaya-voyna-kremlya-protiv-ukrainy-i-es-energeticheskiy-komponent-_.html“La guerra ibrida contro l’Ucraina e la sua componente energetica

[13]http://zn.ua/columnists/kakie-iski-protiv-rossii-podast-ukraina-202564_.html“The lawsuits Ukraine is filing against the Russian Federation”

[14]http://politcom.ru/22096.html “Russia and the USA: A crisis of hopes”

[15]http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/66574

[16]http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3202226“No agreements on what is essential”

[17]http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3157525“OPEC has dragged Russia into its ranks”

[18]http://moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=2234%3Athe-agreement-between-opec-and-non-opec-countries&Itemid=151#.WJzDv1qnNtg.twitter

[19]https://jamestown.org/program/us-russian-joint-operation-islamic-state-possible/

[20]http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/resources/docs/CNAS-Report-FutureofRussia-Final.pdf

[21]http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2017/01/31/shia-crescent-middle-east-geopolitics/

[22]http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/66574

[23]http://carnegie.ru/2016/04/05/russia-in-middle-east-moscow-s-objectives-priorities-and-policy-drivers-pub-63244

[24]http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/fdb96b69-91ca-4f63-897c-5641ae74c36a?platform=hootsuite

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

[2]https://www.csis.org/analysis/foundation-us-led-order-crumbling
[3]http://www.osservatorioanalitico.com/?p=6497
[4]http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=44243&no_cache=1#.VmLdKb_eAbV
[5]Cfr. for example“The Unquiet Frontier”,  which has a subheading “Rising rivals, Vulnerable Allies and the Crisis of American Power”  byJakubJ.Grygiel& A .Wess Mitchell, 2016 Princeton University Press
[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakhalin
[7]https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-studies/2017-02-06/painful-adaptation-social-consequences-crisis-russia
[8]http://politcom.ru/22094.html “The economic depression and <the window of opportunities >: dynamics of the political and social situation in Russia”
[9]https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pourquoi_la_societe_russe_soutient-elle_la_politique_actuelle_du_kremlin1.pdf
[10]https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/06/23/69023-kak-vyskochit-iz-minskoy-lovushki  “How to escape from the trap of the Minsk Agreements”. An explanation and analysis of the problems surrounding the Minsk Agreements.
[11]http://zn.ua/POLITICS/stala-izvestna-data-rassmotreniya-iska-ukrainy-protiv-rf-v-mezhdunarodnom-sude-v-gaage-237761_.html“The date for the examination of Ukraine’s lawsuit against the Russian Federation at the InternationalCourt of the United Nations in The Hague has been made known”
[12]http://gazeta.zn.ua/energy_market/gibridnaya-voyna-kremlya-protiv-ukrainy-i-es-energeticheskiy-komponent-_.html“La guerra ibrida contro l’Ucraina e la sua componente energetica”
[13]http://zn.ua/columnists/kakie-iski-protiv-rossii-podast-ukraina-202564_.html“The lawsuits Ukraine is filing against the Russian Federation”.
[14]http://politcom.ru/22096.html “Russia and the USA: A crisis of hopes”.
[15]http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/66574
[16]http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3202226“No agreements on what is essential”.
[17]http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3157525“OPEC has dragged Russia into its ranks”
[18]http://moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=2234%3Athe-agreement-between-opec-and-non-opec-countries&Itemid=151#.WJzDv1qnNtg.twitter
[19]https://jamestown.org/program/us-russian-joint-operation-islamic-state-possible/
[20]http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/resources/docs/CNAS-Report-FutureofRussia-Final.pdf
[21]http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2017/01/31/shia-crescent-middle-east-geopolitics/
[22]http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/66574
[23]http://carnegie.ru/2016/04/05/russia-in-middle-east-moscow-s-objectives-priorities-and-policy-drivers-pub-63244
[24]http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/fdb96b69-91ca-4f63-897c-5641ae74c36a?platform=hootsuite
Last modified on Wednesday, 15 March 2017 08:10
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