By Abdul Ruff
Among all bilateral ties, the ones between the Cold War foes play most significant place in world politics. Answers to several questions on international tensions could easily be found if one knows the aspects of US-Russia relations. At least for this reason, the relations between these top most rival powers need to be comprehended properly.
Donald Trump is perhaps the only US president who in years since the WW-II never made any criticism of Russia as part of his policy rhetoric. All his predecessors, keeping in view the views of the Neocons and Israeli leadership that speaks through the powerful Jewish leaders in USA, made a special reference to Russian policy to slam that arch rival as US key position.
Upon the unexpected and rather shocking victory of Doland Trump in the US presidential election held in December 2016. In this context there have been ongoing allegations of Russia’s involvement in hacking in the election campaign by the Kremlin meaning thereby on the order of the Russian President Putin, supporting Doland Trump and against the “official” candidate Hillary Clinton. This has been emphatically denied not only by the Russian Government. Even as there is an ongoing debate and controversy, the US President-elect, Donald Trump, has shrugged off allegations that Russia meddled in the election. Thus even as both Putin and Trump have denied wrong doing, both seem to have benefited, according to a few critics.
As White House was battling to stop master of aggressive rhetoric Donald Trump’s arrival as its custodian, President Putin has managed to showcase his leadership quality, often critical, in the media in the USA. Putin has long believed that the United States has sought to manipulate Russia’s political structure, and provided covert support for democratic insurgencies through nongovernmental organizations.
On top of all this is blatant Russian interference in the recent US national election, clearly aimed along partisan lines against the Democratic Party and its candidate, Secretary Clinton.
Every president at one point or other said USA must reset ties with Russia for creating a genuinely peaceful world. But none has been serious about what they say in public. Trump has aloe said it. The Obama regime tried to have a reset with Russia, and ended up badly. The efforts of the George W. Bush administration ended up badly, too. There are fundamental differences in how the USA and Russia view the world. It is very easy to come to the agreement that we collaborate on fighting the Islamic State and other emerging threats. But putting these pledges into real actionable policies is quite difficult.
Alliance or enmity?
Today, Russia is becoming the scandal the Trump regime just can’t shake. A steady drip of revelations regarding the Trump team’s communications with Russian officials is dismaying congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, leading to calls for a more intensive investigation into the circumstances and substance of these connections. In particular, many lawmakers were surprised by a report in The Washington Post that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice spoken with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign. In sworn testimony during his confirmation hearing, Sessions had appeared to say that no such conversations took place.
Trump might not be a thorough politician or authoritative diplomat but he is well versed in business diplomacy. Putin’s shrewd diplomacy is evident from the fact that (as reported by the Russian press on December 30, 2016) after Trump got elected he opted out of a tit-for-tat retaliation against the USA which under Obama’s government in November 2016 had kicked out 35 Russian officials over allegations of hacking aimed at interfering in the US election, espionage, and harassment of US diplomats in Russia. At any rate this has further helped Trump to hold on to his contention in favour of Putin and improve relations with Russia. As a successful businessman Trump knows he would reap dividends from Russia if the ties are strengthened.
President Trump is therefore very interested in trying to figure out a way to improve relations with Russia, while Putin wants all economic sanctions slapped on the Kremlin following the annexation of Crimea, withdrawn. It appears, Trump is not entirely averse to that. But there is a lot of talk in Washington about having a grand bargain with Russia. Trump wants to use Russia to fight ISIS but Russia wants USA to support Syrian Assad but Israel and Neocons warn Trump not fall into the Kremlin’s trap. Israel is unhappy that USA refused to abide by the Zionist demand of attacking Iran.
Throughout the campaign and the initial days of his presidency, Trump has continued to express admiration for President Putin and his desire for warmer relations with Moscow. Though he seemed to backtrack at a press conference in Washington and a weekend rally in Florida, and though Vice President Mike Pence offered boilerplate reassurances at a conference in Munich that Washington intends to hold Russia “accountable” for provocations aimed at undermining NATO and the European Union, Trump himself has clung to his view that closer cooperation with Russia is needed to defeat ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism. “If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me,” he said, “that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
President Trump is yet to make up his mind over foreign policy issues. Against this backdrop, there are what the media call “mixed signals” coming from the White House where Russia, among other topics, is concerned. The president’s attitude (it cannot be called a policy) so far is simply that it is better to have Russia as a friend than as an enemy. The new secretary of state has been silent to date. Our ambassador to the United Nations has taken a traditionally critical position concerning Russia’s actions in opposition to us and our allies. And, perhaps most ominously, senior “strategists” in the White House have signaled, at least indirectly, that they welcome the rise of a right wing, across Western democracies, that identifies with Putin’s nationalism, cultural conservatism, religious orthodoxy, demonization of immigrants and resistance to social toleration.
Given the limited US interests, if the USA were to have some grand bargain with Russia, Central Asia would fall back into the Russian orbit as a place that Trump is not going to focus on. But there is counter-terrorism cooperation between Central Asian states and the USA. Some of the cooperation will remain, but it will be on a limited basis, not any big initiatives.
Compounding the confusion is the appointment of a secretary of state whose considerable interactions with Russian officials have all been corporate and commercial. Conflicts in interests are well known and documented: Russia’s seizure of Crimea and de facto invasion of eastern Ukraine; tacit pressure on the “near abroad,” especially in the Baltic region; troublesome relations between the Putin regime and expanding western European right-wing political parties; and Russian military and political support for the Assad regime in Syria.
Putin’s actions indicate he is seeking to make an effort to reestablish Soviet Union in another form, though the Kremlin continues to deny that. While most former Soviet republics have joined the EU and NATO, even the corrupt Central Asian regimes are also not very keen to return to square one. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stated prior to that meeting that Putin believed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a mistake and disaster. While the disintegration cannot now be reversed, Putin believes in a “new integration in the space of the former Soviet Union”.
Putin’s leadership at domestic and regional levels has assumed significance. On December 26, 2016 Putin met with the leaders of several former Soviet republics in St. Petersburg, a day after the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The Presidents of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were in St. Petersburg recently for the meetings, which included informal summits of the Eurasian Economic Union, that has become a reality in 2015, and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Hence with that objective at that summit Putin expressed his hope that the creation of a favourable business environment was needed to achieve full-fledged development of their economies. He opined that since forming a common market with the other Eurasian Economic Union countries about two years ago, trade between them has already increased significantly. This has been possible since non-tariff trade barriers have been slashed by 30 per cent and a single market for drug and medical products has been created. Thus by 2025 the EEU aimed at the formation of a common financial market and common markets for gas, oil, and petroleum products, with harmonized rules of trade. By this Putin’s objective and vision may partly be achieved. In fact ever since Putin came to power in 1999, his mission has been to make Russia great again and restore its due place in contemporary world history.
Likewise, the Trump government’s attitude toward the Atlantic alliance, especially NATO, is untethered. The new president has called NATO “obsolete,” and costly affair but his secretary of defense confirmed America’s continuing commitment to the alliance to face the “threats”. At the very least, this causes confusion in European capitals. Is the USA committed to its principal post–World War II security alliance, or should each nation make its own arrangement with Moscow? At stake in all this is not simply the future US-Russian relationship, but even more importantly the US relationship with Europe and the democratic world.
Capitalist USA does not trust Russia and other Socialist countries mainly because they oppose capitalist and colonialist ideologies and as such they would perish. Most Americans for sure believe Russia has not fully given up its ideological agenda though the last Soviet President Michael Gorbachev helped Russians shed along with communist-socialist ideals plus implementation and imbibe so-called democratic values being exported by USA and other capitalist nations.
Humanist Gorbachev, however, mistook American political gimmicks for since intent and thought western democracies are sincere about their claim of focusing on creating genuine peace globally but the USA in fact equates its capitalist ideology as mechanism for promoting neocolonialism and universal democratic values. That is the height of nonsense.
President Trump’s visceral belief, that it is better to have Russia as a friend than an enemy, makes sense. On the other hand, it blurs real differences between what Russia views as its interests and what we view as ours. And, for a president with no foreign-policy experience and still-dubious prior relationships with Russia, it can lead to serious misunderstandings and miscalculations.
Trump never criticized Russia or its president openly or rudely as he does with Muslims or even China, thereby leaving a playfield for diplomatic maneuvers. Who then says trump does not know niceties of high level diplomacy?
President Trump has expressed his admiration for the Russian leadership’s quality and strength to deal with problems including fight against Islamic terrorism, which will also be his own policy priority. Moreover there is media speculation whether with improved relations with Putin, Trump will soften Western policy of economic sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. In fact it is important to note that Trump also did not support the media allegation against Putin as a ‘killer’ that was reported by Times Global on February 6, 2017. Russia has demanded apology from the American media persons. Looking back, in 2016 along with Putin’s rising power certain events proved positive for Russia. For instance, the Brexit vote exposed the deep rifts in the European Union that have benefited Russia as some of the EU members are critical of Putin. It may be argued that Putin’s regime has taken careful aim at the soft underbelly of Western democratic institutions. Hence Donald Trump’s victory might pave the way for a break from the traditional Washington policy towards Moscow that Putin has been looking for.
There is a lot of pushback among the Democratic Party in the USA against a better relationship with Russia. The controversy in the U.S. right now over what sort of influence the Russian government had in the US political system during the campaign complicates Trump’s ability to implement his Russia policy. But Trump is, sometimes, unrelenting and he just decides he wants to do it. My inclination is that it might not be a successful one. Like the Obama, Bush and the Trump regimes may find the US-Russia relations end up far worse than when they began.
No one in US Congress wants to take a stand on the Russia question, then be disproved by later events. After all, former national security adviser Michael Flynn initially denied contacts with the Russian ambassador prior to the election. That turned out to be untrue and he was forced to resign. Some ruling GOP members are now joining Democratic members in calling for Sessions to step aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the election, or even appoint a special prosecutor for an independent effort. Such a probe could distract and dispirit the White House for months, as Benghazi and Iran-Contra investigations did for other administrations in different times and circumstances.
Russia boosts image in Mideast
Energy rich Mideast has one major problem-Israel which succeeded in garnering high precision terror goods from USA and Europe, maneuvering the corrupt US politicians cutting across their bi-party mischief.
Notwithstanding mutual tensions, Russia and USA coordinate their pro-Israeli policies to terrorize the Palestinians whose lands they allowed the criminal Jews with a managed legal basis on illegal means to confiscate to create Israel on Palestine and begin slashing the Palestinian population by regular genocide efforts on fake pretexts. That is real strength of Israel in attacking and killing the Palestinians, besieged by both Israeli and Egyptians terror blockades.
Both USA and Russia have been competing for bulk military orders from Arab nations and both enjoy their strong presence in Mideast eminently aided by Israeli provocative politics but now wing the Arab Spring and Nato terror wars in Mideast with Israeli backing USA lost its advantage at least for the time being and Russian has overtaken the upper power in selling terror goods to corrupt Arab nations.
Arrogance and Zionist instincts displayed openly by President Donald Trump leave very little hopes for the humanity and its survival. His anti-Muslim rhetoric has emboldened already criminalized Israel. As one of first foreign “dignitaries”, Trump welcomed Zionist criminal PM Netanyahu at White House who speaks American English fluently facility that the Palestinians leaders badly lack. Trump, like a prominent Israeli lobbyist Mrs. Clinton would have done, would even embark upon his first foreign trip to the Zionist nation.
Image of Putin’s Russia as becoming a very important military power has become explicit with its interventions in Crimea, East Germany, Syria. It is a matter of great global significance that Putin has been able to bring about a ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict. On December 28, 2016 the Syria ceasefire deal was signed and Russia and Turkey were ‘Guarantors’ for the same. Putin, having signed the ceasefire agreement with Turkey, stated that the Russian military would scale down its presence in Syria, but he didn’t say how many troops and weapons would be withdrawn. It appears, both USA and Russia do not vacate the land they occupy and as Putin may not withdraw his forces from Syria at least in the near future because most Russians resent the way the Soviet troops were given the march-back order by Gorbachev and now they don’t appreciate ay withdrawal from Syria. More importantly, Putin has asserted that Russia will continue “fighting international terrorism in Syria” and supporting the Assad Government. The terrorism plank offers Russia the right to stay in Syria as long as it wants. While the West had been critical of Russia’s aggressive acts in Syria during the last couple of years, there has been a drastic change with the signing of the peace treaty in Astana in January 2017. It is opined by some analysts including Vasily Maximov that Moscow’s intervention under the leadership of Putin in Syria has an important dimension and that Russia has succeeded in trying to boost its position in the Middle East and demonstrate its global stature while attaining leverage in negotiations with the West.
In fact Putin is aware that what is binding Russia and China together has been their shared interest in balancing the USA on global issues. Putin has succeeded in increasing convergence between Russia and China on many global issues during the past few years. It is significant that in December 2016 Putin displayed renewed interest in the long-delayed China-Russia highway across the Amur River by extending technical and financial assistance to it; it is to be completed by 2019 and will enhance trade relations. China is thirsty for energy and raw materials from Russia to fuel its economic growth. It needs to be stated that another major factor drawing them together is a mutual dependence because even as Russia, though superior to China in nuclear weapons, is no match as far as the Chinese conventional military weaponry is concerned. Russia’s Look-East policy subsequent to the conflict with Ukraine on the Crimean issue in 2014, which worsened Russia’s political and economic relations with Europe and the USA, was welcomed by Beijing and that was “an axis of convenience” as rightly stated by Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre highlighting Russia-China relations.
Russia is also in recent years growing closer to Pakistan and this is a matter of anxiety, especially at a time that India is trying to isolate Pakistan in this region by supporting USA against funds meant for Pakistan. China is already a strong supporter of Pakistan and with the two major powers involving themselves with Pakistan; it is certainly not good news as far as India is concerned. Russia held its first ever joint military exercise with Pakistan days after the Uri terror strike in September 2016 in the Indian administered State of Jammu Kashmir and at the BRICS Goa Summit, India felt let down by Russia as Moscow did not support Delhi’s stand by publicly naming the Pakistan-based “terror outfits”, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, as opined by Sachin Parashar. It needs to be noted that one cannot deny that both Russia and Pakistan are opening a new era of strategic and political alliance. President Putin’s proposed visit to Pakistan in May of this year will witness the inauguration of the US $ 2 billion LNG North-South Pipeline from Karachi to Lahore, as reported in the International News by Noor Aftab. This is possibly intended by Putin who wants to enhance Russia’s presence and influence in South Asia.
All said and done, a steady drip of revelations regarding the Trump team’s communications with Russian officials is dismaying congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, leading to calls for a more intensive investigation into the circumstances and substance of these connections. A report in The Washington Post notes that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had twice spoken with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign. In sworn testimony during his confirmation hearing, Sessions had appeared to say that no such conversations took place. Some Republican (GOP) members are now joining Democratic members in calling for Sessions to step aside from an investigation into Russian interference in the election, or even appoint a special prosecutor for an independent effort. For Trump administration officials, their deepening Russia problems are a frustration at best. White House is in a fix now as an investigation on the subject, something analogous to the Benghazi inquiry, ostensibly about a 2012 tragedy at a US outpost in Libya, turned up evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted government business on a private email service.
On the domestic front Putin enjoys support and popularity by over 80 per cent of the population. Even as there are some Opposition parties and political leaders, including Alexei Navalny who proposes to contest in the presidential election against Putin, he has made sure that no political Opposition exists to challenge his authoritarian rule. It is worth noting that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has boosted Putin’s popularity at home even as there is strong opposition in the West. Russians constitute a substantial portion of the population in Crimea which has helped in the referendum held for the annexation. Russia claims that all legal processes were in place for that purpose.
In his annual state-of-the-nation address on December 1, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the country is unified like never before and is fully capable of achieving its strategic economic and geopolitical goals. Speaking at the Defence Ministry on December 22, 2016 Putin asserted that Russia’s military is now stronger than any possible attacker but must be prepared to adjust plans to neutralise the potential threats to the country.
It is difficult to imagine normalization of US-Russian relations, either in a traditional sense or on some new, yet unarticulated basis, until the mystery of the president’s personal attitudes toward Putin and whatever background they represent are clarified and laid to rest. It is difficult to disprove a negative, to prove that something that didn’t happen didn’t happen. But the only known way to do that is to turn over every rock, not only where Trump is concerned, but also regarding the several individuals close to him who have dabbled in Russia in recent years. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Unfortunately, one of the rocks that must be overturned has to do with Trump’s taxes, and that seems an immovable stone wall.
For US presidents, no single foreign policy challenge is more contentious, or crucial, than getting Russia right. Under President Donald Trump, Republicans and Democrats have embraced diametrically opposing views on how to handle President Vladimir Putin. Both seem to have got it wrong. Resisting Russian intimidation should be more than a campaign slogan. While almost no one wants a return to the Cold War, a world in which Russian hegemony is unrestrained increases the chance of global conflict.
For Trump officials, their deepening Russia problems are a frustration at best. Many of their attempts to get past the controversy end up feeding it – witness their attempt to enlist the FBI to knock down a previous New York Times story about administration/Russia connections. That only produced more headlines on the subject. In that context, an independent prosecutor could turn the probe into something analogous to Benghazi – much more difficult for the subject of the investigation to limit in time or subject. Remember that the Benghazi inquiry, ostensibly about a 2012 tragedy at a US outpost in Libya, turned up evidence that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted government business on a private email service.
Perhaps a new approach to clearing the air and the deck where the Trump regime and Russia are concerned should be considered. Because of the role it played in the recent election, whatever investigations the FBI is undertaking regarding Russian connections may be suspect or discredited. Congressional inquiries, even with a Republican majority, will be partisan, politicized and media saturated. Consideration, therefore, might be given to a special panel composed of respected statesmen and stateswomen of both parties empowered to compel testimony under oath, inspect personal and classified documents (including tax returns), and issue a public report that either eliminates all suspicion of prior Trump-related activities in Russia or identifies areas of conflicting interest.
Otherwise, it seems inevitable that a cloud will linger for years to come regarding how relations between the current US government and the Putin government are being formulated, and whether in response to some prior arrangements or personal understandings. That will confuse whatever policies are adopted, either to strengthen U.S.-Russian ties, or draw lines against Russian actions in opposition to the interests of the United States and our allies.
Depending on what the investigations in the USA about relations between the Trump campaign and Russia find out, it could have very significant impacts on the Trump presidency and Trump’s ability to engage with Russia. There is harsh anti-America rhetoric in Russia. After this campaign, among a certain sector of the American population, there is harsh anti-Russia sentiment in the U.S. Overcoming that will be challenging.