Beyond the Trump-Putin Warmth, Tough Decisions Lurk

Financial Times
December 6, 2016
By Dr. Ariel Cohen

The mood is festive in the Russian capital, and expectations are high that Donald Trump’s elections may turn a new page in the difficult relationship between Moscow and Washington.

The death spiral of US-Russian ties stretches back through the Barack Obama years to George W. Bush’s second term, when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. Things got as bad as during the darkest days of the Cold War, but now the time may have come to reverse course.

Mr Trump, Moscow’s logic goes, has a warm place in his heart for Russia’s long-serving president, Vladimir Putin. He expresses realpolitik instincts compatible with Putin’s worldview.

There is hope that Russia and the US can fight ISIS together – not a bad idea, but one that has repeatedly gone off the rails in implementation, from Afghanistan to the North Caucasus to Syria.

In the past, Mr Putin actually accused the US of supporting Chechen radical Islamists. The bombings of Aleppo and other cities in Syria have caused massive damage and increased the flow of refugees to Europe. The future of Syria looks grim.

Trump and his team of hard-nosed realists are likely to be guided by America’s – not Russia’s interests, and will espouse a style tougher than Mr Obama’s. In fact, I repeatedly warned my Russian interlocutors to be careful what they wish for. They may yet come to long for the era of a US administration leading from behind, fumbling with the “reset”, and appeasing Iran.

The Trump Administration is likely to apply The Art of the Deal to foreign policy. It may be guided by the president-elect’s dictum that you push your counterpart as far as you can without losing the deal. There will be an emphasis on massive U.S. capabilities, including military, not diplomatic niceties, or principles of international law.

Mr Trump is likely to strong-arm North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, as well as Japan and South Korea, to increase their military budgets to 2 per cent of GDP, or, if the Europeans fear being abandoned, they may boost their armed forces. NATO should win either way.

What stands in the way of such a scenario is a series of elections in Europe which may bring pro-Russian politicians front and center, but Washington has little control over European voters’ will.

Any US administration would keep arms control, non-proliferation, and anti-terrorism as a top priority. But ideas about jointly fighting ISIS or a US re-examination of the Iran nuclear deal are likely to bump up against Russia’s pre-existing realities. Russia, after all, is using Iran to push America’s Sunni Arab allies around in Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, and beyond.

Russian politicians seem to expect the world from Mr Trump: recognition of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea; a green light for hegemony in the former Soviet area, or the “near abroad”; the lifting of sanctions imposed over Ukraine; a curb on anti-ballistic missile systems deployment, and more. But what Russia is willing to give in exchange is unclear.

Mr Trump, though, wouldn’t be Mr Trump if he didn’t have his own list of demands. He will compliment Mr Putin – to get what he needs for America, but it does not mean he won’t see Russia for what it is: a second rate economic power, riven by corruption, with a currency that has devalued 50 per cent over two years. Russia remains overly dependent on raw materials exports and has a limping high tech sector while the best and brightest talent still leaves the country.

My Russian counterparts criticize the country’s dwindling healthcare and education budgets, and crumbling infrastructure. They bemoan that secret police and law enforcement generals becoming key business players and political actors.

Criminal investigations of politically moderate businessmen, such as at Rosnano, tied to the 1990s reformist Anatoly Chubais, and Renova, owned by billionaire Victor Vexelberg, have increased a sense of unease.

Russia boasts the largest territory on the planet, but it lags behind on good governance and attracting foreign investment. It has an abysmal record on the rule of law and is often feared by its neighbors, the Poles, the Baltic States, Ukrainians, Georgians, and many Central Asians. Its relations with Turkey are rocky, and with China, transactional.

Yet, in the two defining relationships the Trump administration will face: China and the Middle East, having a working relationship with Russia is key. In his recent State of the Nation address, Mr Putin did not mention either Europe or Ukraine. Nor did he attack the United States. Clearly, much will be on the table when the Trump foreign policy team is in place.

What is most needed is a clear definition of America’s vital national interests as the global system goes through an inflection point. An in-depth understanding of Russia’s strengths and weaknesses and an assessment of what Russia is – not what we want it to be – is also key. The US requires a systematic co-operation with allies and friends and an array of effective incentives and disincentives.

Without all that, there will be no effective Russia policy. Prepare for a rocky ride – but hopefully, for a safer and more solid relationship.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council

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