U.S.-Russian relations: back to square one - Part I

A mere two and a half months after his inauguration Donald Trump acknowledged that ‘we’re not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low’. Even more astonishing is the fact that a ‘reset’ wasn’t even attempted. Why did the ‘grand bargain’, far beyond reality but expected by so many observers, fail to materialize? Political scientist Hannes Adomeit considers the likely reasons why and concludes that only a radical change of course in Moscow may serve to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

by Hannes Adomeit

The pattern is familiar. This is the fourth U.S. administration that starts out with the promise of an improvement in Russian-American relations but ends with new acrimony. This time, the expectations were higher than in the past albeit highly contentious. Contrary to his Republican predecessor George W. Bush a decade and a half ago, who had looked president Vladimir Putin ‘in the eye’, ‘got a sense of his soul’ and found him ‘straightforward and trustworthy’, Donald Trump, after some confusion about the actual state of affairs, admitted that he had never met the Kremlin leader, hadn’t had dinner or hiked with him and ‘wouldn't know him from Adam’.

Tillerson en Lavrov Moskow april 2017
No attempt at a 'reset' during the first visit of Tillerson to Moscow Photo: U.S. State Department

Nevertheless, he repeatedly expressed ‘respect’ and admiration for Putin as a ‘strong leader’. He deplored that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had continuously badmouthed the Russian president, which he found ‘very unwise’. He rejected outright the policies of all previous U.S. governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union to promote change towards a democratic, law-based system in Russia. Concerning international affairs, he expressed understanding for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, downplayed the significance of its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, questioned the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Russia, considered NATO to be ‘obsolete’, put in doubt American commitments to the security of the Baltic countries, denigrated the European Union while praising ‘Brexit’, and attacked multilateral free trade deals as well as the very principles of free trade and a liberal, rule-based international order. Everything appeared to be well in place for some ‘grand bargain’ for a comprehensive reordering of U.S.-Russian relations. To some analysts, however, the likelihood of that happening appeared slim even before Trump’s inauguration.

Indeed, astounding at present is not the fact that the hopes for some and fears for others of a comprehensive deal between Washington and Moscow failed to materialize but that a ‘reset’ wasn’t even attempted. A mere two and a half months after his inauguration and against the background of the U.S. military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump acknowledged that ‘we’re not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low’. White House national security adviser H. R. McMaster agreed and stated that relations with Russia were now at their ‘lowest point’. After the air strikes in Syria and shortly prior to the Moscow visit by U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson and his talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, the Kremlin leader deplored that ‘the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military side, has not improved but most likely worsened’. Prime minister Dmitri Medvedev concurred with Putin and asserted that the U.S. air strikes had ‘completely ruined relations’.

The accuracy of the diagnoses can hardly be disputed. What, one needs to ask, accounts for the expectations about a comprehensive reordering and improvement of U.S.-Russian relations to have proven so inaccurate and to collapse so rapidly? The following considerations may provide some answers.

Personal chemistry

Contrary to the impressions conveyed, what Trump has ever said about the relationship with Russia, be it in the election campaign or after his inauguration, have essentially been vacuous phrases such as ‘it would be wonderful if we had good relations with Russia’ and that ‘only stupid people or fools could think that this would be bad’.

PoetinTrumpCartoonTrump admired Putin as a strong leader. Cartoon Donkey Hotey, 2016. Illustratie Flickr

The admiration for Putin as a ‘strong leader’ and being a ‘tough cookie’ never meant that this would be qualities that would be conducive to easy-going personal relations like, for instance, between Putin and former Western heads of government such as German chancellor Gerhard Schröder or Italian president Silvio Berlusconi. Even before Trump’s electoral victory, perceptive observers like Henry Kissinger shrugged off the idea that close personal relations between the two leaders would be a factor contributing to better relations. Trump, he thought, merely ‘fell into certain rhetoric because Putin said some good words about him – tactically − and he felt he had to respond’.

Asymmetries of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’

Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign and until Trump’s inauguration a huge asymmetry existed between – to state matters in the terminology of Trump the businessman – Moscow’s and Washington’s respective ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ curves. What each of the competitors wanted from the other and what they could or were willing to offer differed substantially – and still differs. Prior to Trump’s election, either explicitly or implicitly, the Kremlin had presented Washington with a long list of demands with respect to spheres of influence, military balance, NATO and the Ukrainian crisis, which, from its perspective, would have to be part of a comprehensive settlement.

But what is it that Putin’s Russia is able or willing to offer – an important question for it would be hard to imagine that Trump as a business man would agree to a deal that does not yield any tangible advantage, or worse, that might give the impression that he was duped. What comes to mind as a potential benefit first and foremost is Trump’s often stated suggestion for close cooperation in the fight against Islamic terrorism and especially ISIS. Even before the U.S. cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base, however, the notion of such cooperation conceivably being able to serve as a catalyst for an improvement in the Russian-American relations seemed far-fetched.

Syria, Iran, and the fight against ISIS

One of the serious problems in the ‘struggle against terrorism’ in the Middle East is that Washington and Moscow by no means agree as to who is the enemy and who are actual or potential allies. Prior to Assad’s nerve gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Trump took the position that although he did not like Assad at all, ‘Syria is fighting ISIS, and we want to get rid of ISIS’. That implied shifting over to the Kremlin’s position that the United States should join Russia’s coalition with Syria and Iran, give up its demand to exclude Assad from a political solution to the conflict and abandon its ‘absurd’ position to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists. With its air strike, the Trump administration has now appeared to revert to the attitude taken by Obama, but on this issue another flip-flop cannot be excluded. The Syrian dictator may as yet have a role in Washington’s contradictory approaches.

Putin AssadSyrian supporters of Assad carry portraits of their president and Putin. Photo Freedom House

The fact, however, is that the controversy over the role of Assad in current or future negotiations is but one but not even the most important source of friction. Russia’s Syria and Middle East policy has, from the very beginning of the popular demonstrations against the regime in Damascus, been consistent in its aim to prevent another ‘color revolution’ in the Arab world, to demonstrate to Washington the limits of its influence in the area and, as the treaties with Syria on the use of naval base in Tartus and the air base near Latakia underline, to reestablish the country for the long-term as a serious player in this region.

Yet another important obstacle to constructive U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East is the active involvement of Iran in the conflict. As Assad’s reconquest of Aleppo has shown, the combined military forces of Russia, Syria, units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iran-supported Hezbollah largely determine military developments. For the Trump administration and the Republicans, as well as a sizeable portion of Democrats in Congress, the Islamic Republic has never left the ‘axis of evil’ discovered by president Bush in 2002. For them, to use the new standard terminology, Iran is the world’s ‘biggest state sponsor of terrorism’.

The regime of the mullahs, according to that view, is even more dangerous than ISIS because it not only has the ability but also the will to produce nuclear weapons. This danger, furthermore, had by no means been banned by the 2015 international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear activities to civilian purposes. As Trump has claimed, the agreement was an utter ‘disaster’ and ‘the worst deal ever negotiated’ that ‘did not block Iran's road to the atom bomb’ but facilitated it.

Russia arms Iran

The Trump administration and a bipartisan consensus in Congress have also taken issue with Iran’s missile program. They have argued that the ballistic missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers were meant not only to intimidate Israel but also Europe and that their range could be extended to threaten the United States some day. Correspondingly, the White House called the medium-range missile test conducted by Iran in January of this year a ‘provocation’ and ‘in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions’, and in the following month imposed new sanctions against Iranian individuals and companies.
Washington’s attitude towards Tehran differs fundamentally from that of Moscow who claims to be engaged with Teheran in a ‘strategic partnership’.

However exaggerated this label may be, the fact is that the two governments not only support the Assad regime politically but cooperate militarily. Thus, the Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missiles launched from Russian war ships in the Caspian Sea to destinations in Homs in October 2015 overflew Iranian territory with Tehran’s consent. For a short time in 2016 Iran even allowed the Russian air force to use its air base in Hamadan in the north of the country for operations in Syria.

Another thorn in the flesh of the United States are the Russian arms exports to Iran. These include the delivery of S-300 missile defense systems to Tehran worth approximately U.S.$ 800 million in execution of an agreement signed in 2007 but suspended because of the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. The deal is part of the Islamic Republic's efforts to modernize its armed forces from the ground up with the help of Russian weapons and military technology.

The China syndrome

In the election campaign and during the transitional period until the inauguration, Trump and his advisors were portraying China as a threat to American national security practically on a par alongside ISIS and Iran. They also contended that China was severely damaging U.S. economic interests and accused the country of engaging in ‘predatory trading practices’ such as product dumping, currency manipulation and theft of intellectual property ‘that have deprived our country of millions of jobs and trillions of U.S. Dollars’.

Trump even made China responsible for the decline in U.S. economic growth, claiming that ‘from 1945 to 2000, the average U.S. economic growth was 3.5 percent but then, after China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), it fell to only 2 percent’. Such claims provided him with the basis for his repeated threat that he would levy a 45 per cent penalty on all Chinese imports.

On international political and security issues, he questioned the U.S. traditional ‘one-China policy’, the very basis of Washington’s relationship with Beijing, warning that ‘everything is under discussion’. He also broke with decades-long U.S. protocol on December 2 when he made a telephone call to Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, thereby reinforcing the impression that he would pursue a new direction in U.S. China policy. He described China's landfill of artificial islands and the proclamation of an air defense zone over an island group in the South China Sea as ‘illegal’.

He made Beijing co-responsible for not stopping North Korea’s nuclear armament and ballistic missile programmes. Security adviser Steve Bannon, relegated by now to a position of lesser influence in the White House, even claimed that war between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea ‘in five to ten years’ to be inevitable.

One of the possible interpretations of Trump the candidate’s and president-elect’s demonstrative friendliness towards Russia and apparent indifference over its assertive and, in Ukraine, aggressive policies may have been predicated on the consideration that Russia could a possible partner against a China. Perhaps he and his advisers were even dreaming of some sort of grand bargain, according to which Russia should ally itself with the U.S. to isolate and put pressure on China and that Washington, in return, would give Moscow a free hand in Eastern Europe.

 china ruslandRussian and Chinese navy during joint exercises in the South Chinese Sea, September 2016. Photo: eng.mil.ru

If such considerations existed, they were built entirely on sand. Like with Iran, the Kremlin demonstratively portrays its relationship with China as a ‘strategic partnership’. As if to underline its practical significance in the Syrian conflict, in May 2015 the two countries held joint naval maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean. In September 2016, obviously in demonstrative support for Beijing’s territorial claims, Russian warships, along with those of the Chinese Navy participated in military exercises in the South China Sea.

Like on several other important issues, once in the presidency, the Trump team realized the lack of any realistic foundation for its respective approaches to China and Russia and changed course. Three weeks after his inauguration, Trump announced in a letter on China’s New Year celebration that he wanted a ‘constructive relationship’ with the country. In a telephone call on 9 February with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, he went a step further, reaffirming that his government would honour the one-China policy. The White House said that the exchange had been ‘extremely cordial’.

On 19 March, Tillerson paid a visit to Beijing where he subscribed to the Chinese catchphrase about the relationship to require ‘mutual respect’, which in Chinese interpretations has meant that the United States should stay away from issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea − in principle from almost anything China’s Communist Party deems a vital national security concern.

Washington’s revised approach towards China extends to the vexing North Korean problem. Its aim to dissuade Pyongyang from further nuclear and missiles tests is now to be achieved by persuasion rather than by confronting the Chinese leadership with faits accomplis. Evidence of this (and of ‘miscommunication’ between the White House and the Pentagon) may lie in the fact that Trump’s ‘very powerful armada’ in the shape of a naval task force led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was not dispatched to reinforce the pressure on Pyongyang but heading in the opposite direction to participate in maneuvers with the Australian navy.

Whatever further surprises Washington’s policies in Asia may bring, it is safe to assume that messages to be conveyed to Beijing will be delivered directly rather than indirectly through Moscow.

In Part II Hannes Adomeit considers the Ukrainian conflict and the military and economic circumstances which are an impediment for a rapid improvement of the U.S.-Russian relations.

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