U.S-Russian Relations: Back to Square One - Part II

After Donald Trump took power a ‘reset’ of U.S.-Russian relations wasn’t even attempted. Why was a ‘grand bargain’, being so far beyond reality, expected at all? After analysing the opposing positions in the Middle East and Far East in his first article,  Hannes Adomeit now considers  the military competition, economic relations and Ukrainian crisis. As long as Putin persists in his policy of confrontation with the West, improvement of the U.S.-Russian relations is not going to happen, he concludes.

by Hannes Adomeit

Prior to Trump’s election, either explicitly or implicitly, the Kremlin had presented Washington with a long list of demands.

 American soldier training in PolandAmerican soldier training in Poland. Photo": U.S. Department of Defense

This included de facto recognition of the post-Soviet space as Russia’s sphere of influence; abandonment of all efforts at ‘regime change’ and the staging of ‘colour revolutions’ in this geopolitical space or elsewhere; a legally binding commitment to stop any further NATO eastward expansion; construction of a European security system that would take into consideration Russian interests (as defined by Moscow); withdrawal of all U.S. troops and associated infrastructure deployed in NATO countries since August 2000; cancelation of plans to station components of the U.S. American missile defense system in Europe; any U.S. nuclear weapons modernization not to detract from the existing strategic parity with Russia; concerning regional policies, in Europe, full implementation of the Minsk II protocol for the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, repeal of all sanctions against Russian persons and institutions taken in response to the Ukrainian conflict, and compensation for all the losses suffered by Russia as a result of the sanctions as well as by the resulting counter-sanctions.

In exchange what would be in it for Trump?

Military competition

Trump wants ‘to make America great again’. The problem with this slogan is that he, like Putin, defines greatness first and foremost in military, ‘hard power’ terms. No matter how vague and contradictory many of his statements of presidential candidate may have been, throughout the campaign and thereafter he has consistently claimed that whereas the ‘Russians and Chinese have rapidly expanded their military capability’, the Obama administration had allowed U.S. military power to deteriorate and that this was one of the reasons why U.S. influence abroad had decreased.

Exercise NATO in LithuaniaNATO exercise in Lithuania. Photo: eucom.mil

To remedy that state of affairs, as the Trump-approved platform of the Republican Party for the 2016 elections stated, the country should ‘rebuild the U.S. military into the strongest on earth, with vast superiority over any other nation or group of nations in the world’. Trump himself later demanded: ‘Our military dominance must be unquestioned’.

As for the relationship with Moscow, Trump has claimed that an improvement was feasible but only ‘from a position of strength’, a point of view that U.S. defence minister James Mattis shared upon his visit to NATO in mid-February in Brussels but that prompted his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to ask for an explanation to be provided at the conference of U.S. and Russian chiefs of staff the following day in Baku.

Evidence of the Trump administration’s determination to build up America’s military power can be found in its fiscal 2018 budget request to Congress. Military expenditure is to be raised by U.S. $ 54 billion – ‘one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history’, according to the president. The hike would bring the total military outlays to U.S. $ 639 billion in the coming year.

The plans and projects to be financed by such huge increases have a bearing also on the military relationship with Russia: U.S. $ 14.3 billion are to be used for the maintenance and modernization of the U.S. strategic nuclear forces. That sum reflects the priority given to nuclear power: whereas the defense budget overall is to grow by 8 percent compared to the previous year, spending for nuclear is projected to increase by 11 percent.

A second major impact on U.S.-Russian military relations is likely to originate from implementation of the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike strategy. Its core idea is to develop a system that can deliver precision-guided airstrikes with conventional weapons anywhere in the world within one hour, in a similar manner to strikes with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. The projects associated with the concept encompass numerous established and emerging technologies, including conventional ground-, air- and submarine-launched hypersonic missiles.

No new 'Reykjavik' in sight

Third, it is not only the build-up of such offensive strategic capabilities that impinges on U.S.-Russian military relations but also America’s defensive potential and projects. In the face of Moscow’s unmitigated opposition, Washington continues with the construction of ballistic missile defence systems both to protect the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia.

Reykjavik summit 2 Reagan libraryGorbachev and Reagan in 1986 during their sensational talks in Reykjavik. Photo: Reagan library

Fourth, one of the major achievements in lessening the nuclear arms competition and contributions to the Cold War military confrontation, the 1987 Washington (INF) agreement for the destruction of all medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles, has been put in jeopardy. The culprit is Russia who has ignored all U.S. representations about the testing of long-range ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the agreement and, according to U.S. government officials, has now deployed two battalions of the prohibited cruise missile. One is said to be still located at Russia’s missile test site at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia near Volgograd. The other was shifted in December from that test site to an operational base elsewhere in the country.

Overall, any ‘new Reykjavik’, the repetition of a meeting between Trump and Putin along the lines of the meeting between presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan to use nuclear arms control talks as a device for a comprehensive reconstruction of the political relationship, is not in sight. What is more likely is that the nuclear arms competition and the controversies surrounding it will continue or even increase in intensity.

Economic potential

Much of the exuberant triumphalism in the Russian ‘Great Power’ and national-patriotic camp about the election of Trump as U.S. president concerned the impressions he conveyed as a candidate about the attitudes and policies he would adopt towards Europe.

With Trump in power Moscow hoped that the business of America is business

To large sections of the Russian foreign policy and security establishment it seemed that Trump as president would put into practice his rejection of ‘nation building’ and ‘regime change’; stop funding programs for the building of liberal, democratic, and law-based political systems and civil society in Russia and in what Moscow claimed to be its sphere of influence in East-Central Europe; lay to rest the idea of Ukrainian membership in NATO; extricate the Western military alliance from any engagement in the solution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine; be open to the recognition of the Crimea as a constituent part of the Russian Federation; and, with or without any agreement on the status of the breakaway parts of Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk provinces, lift the sanctions imposed on Russia.

Given Trump’s insistence of America and American economic interests first as well as president Coolidge’s adage that ‘the business of America is business’, Russian officials and pundits thought that the presumed primacy of politics over economics in Washington would be reversed. The nomination of former Exxon-Mobil chief Tillerson to the position of foreign minister seemed to confirm such ideas.

Lifting the sanctions

Furthermore, a case could be made that U.S.-Russian economic relations were far below their potential and could perhaps substantially be increased. In fact, cumulative Russian foreign direct investment in 2014 stood at a trifling U.S. $ 5.3 billion (Germany by comparison U.S. $ 224.1 billion). The value of U.S. exports to Russia in 2016 was only $ 5.8 billion (compared with U.S. $ 266.8 billion in exports to Canada and $ 231 billion to Mexico).

For Trump, what matters are the creation of jobs in America and the promotion of exports, but on both accounts the promise of substantial benefits to the U.S. economy as a result of an end to sanctions is fanciful given the Russia’s economic downturn even before their imposition. Of course, what remains is the possibility that Trump’s personal and family business interests may profit from the lifting of sanctions and that this may have been one of the reasons for the nice words Trump the presidential candidate found for Putin, but given the evident risk of conflicts of interest and the utterly poisoned atmosphere as a result of the ‘well-established’ Russian interference in the election, even that option would seem to be foreclosed.

The first clear indications to the effect that the Kremlin’s hopes about a possible end to U.S. sanctions were erroneous came with Tillerson’s confirmation hearings on 11 January. Not only did he fail to take issue with the sanctions regime but he called the annexation of the Crimea ‘illegal’. In order to stop further Russian advances, he said, ‘I would have recommended that Ukraine take all of the military assets that it had available, put them on the eastern border ... [and] announce that the U.S. was going to provide them intelligence’. Russia, he thought, would have understood the more robust American response.

Tillerson en Haley at UN 2017Tillerson and Haley walking to a UN-meeting. Photo: U.S.State Department

At the time of the Tillerson hearings, it was still unclear what the president elect really thought and what position he would adopt once in office. The fog lifted on 2 February when Nikki Haley, the U.S. government’s representative, said at the United Nations that eastern Ukraine was ‘not the only part of the country suffering because of Russia’s aggressive actions’. The United States continued ‘to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea’ and warned that ‘Our Crimea related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.’

Finally, at the 12 April joint press conference together with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, after a two-hour meeting with Putin, Tillerson stated that ‘no change in the status of sanctions that have been in place with Russia as a result of certain actions taken in Ukraine’ had been discussed. He even thought that the ‘well-established [Russian] interference with the election’ was ‘serious enough to attract additional sanctions’.

Who is to blame?

From the Russian perspective, the answers to the two perennial questions of ‘Who is to blame?’ and ‘What is to be done’ are self-evident. From Moscow’s viewpoint, the blame for the ‘completely ruined relations’ without any shadow of doubt lies with American politicians, with the ‘anti-Russian Washington establishment’. Prime minister Medvedev confirmed this unbending position after the U.S. strike against a Syrian air force base. ‘This military action’, he concluded, ‘is a clear indication of the U.S. President’s extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, the one that the new president strongly criticised in his inauguration speech.’

From this logically follows the answer to the second question: the United States had thoroughly to revise its policies and depart from its confrontationist stance towards Russia. This is a point that Putin had attempted to impress on the Obama administration. What needed to be done, he wrote in an article for the New York Times, was that ‘we’ (meaning, however, the United States since Russia was blameless) ‘return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political solutions’.

Russian domestic policy is the decisive factor

Contrary to what the Kremlin narrative suggests, however, the slide towards the abyss in U.S.-Russian relations in the eight years of Obama’s presidential tenure is not primarily to be explained by developments in Washington’s foreign policy, including towards Moscow. Russian domestic politics, it stands to reason, has been the decisive factor.

This concerns Putin’s deliberate shift away from the earlier declared commitment to socio-economic modernization and cooperation with the United States and Europe to national-patriotic mobilization and confrontation with the West. The large-scale popular demonstrations after the December 2011 parliamentary and March 2012 presidential elections had convinced the ruling elite that Medvedev’s modernization drive undermined its very power basis. Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine are to a large extent the consequences of that fateful reorientation from cooperation with the West to ‘Eurasian’ integration.

What logically follows from this is that any substantial and lasting improvement of U.S.-Russian is predicated on an abandonment of the chosen course. The policy consequences of that conclusion are equally obvious. In order to make change more likely, the United States or more generally the West must stand firm and demonstrate that continuation of the national-patriotic approach leads nowhere – or, more precisely, to the perpetuation of Russia’s internal stagnation and international isolation.

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