The reset of US-Russia relations?

By Syed Qamar Rizvi.

 

Much is being trumpeted in the global print and electronic media that under the new administration of Donald Trump in American, a remarkable reset of US-Russia relations would be observed. But looking through the mirror of ground realities, it appears that not so much will appear to be changed except few venturing developments between White House and the Kremlin.

In the eyes of the Russian leadership, no country signed any obligation to consider the United States the only superpower and therefore nobody should comply with its leadership. This logic explains the confrontations over Ukraine and Syria. For the Kremlin, both were used to demonstrate that there are “red lines” and that there is a need for a new world order. Russian foreign policy analysts have repeatedly claimed that the new US president might be ready to negotiate the creation of a new system of international relations to replace Yalta and the current unipolar model.

The “new Yalta” would redistribute spheres of responsibility to recognised great powers. The Kremlin, of course, sees Russia as one of them (alongside with the US, China, and perhaps Europe).

Time will be the right determiner about what direction US-Russian relations move on. But if history is to have any predictive value, we should not be too optimistic. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama started their presidencies with rapprochement between the two countries – Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, while Obama was eager for a “reset” policy. Both ended their second terms at a low point in relations (with the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and with Syria and the hacking scandal in 2016, respectively).

Trump has alo reiterated his intention to pursue good relations with Russia, pointing out that it would be mutually beneficial and would allow both sides to step up the fight against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL).

“I don’t know Putin, but if we can get along with Russia that’s a great thing, it’s good for Russia, it’s good for us, we go out together and knock the hell out of ISIS, because that’s a real sickness,” he said. Trump again reiterated his intention to pursue good relations with Russia, pointing out that it would be mutually beneficial and would allow both sides to step up the fight against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL).

“I don’t know Putin, but if we can get along with Russia that’s a great thing, it’s good for Russia, it’s good for us, we go out together and knock the hell out of ISIS, because that’s a real sickness,” he said.

The Kremlin said the two men planned to meet soon to discuss “joining forces” in the Syrian conflict and “partnering” to solve global issues. The White House made no reference to a meeting, but said the “positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the US and Russia that is in need of repair”.

The Kremlin and White House statements made no reference to a possible easing of US sanctions on Russia over the Ukrainian conflict. But Moscow said the two leaders agreed on the importance of “restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic links”. “When there’s a change of leadership and other interests coincide, then things can actually improve pretty quickly,” said Robert English, a specialist on Russia and director of the University of Southern California’s School of International Relations. “When there’s a change of leadership and other interests coincide, then things can actually improve pretty quickly,” said Robert English, a specialist on Russia and director of the University of Southern California’s School of International Relations. There’s been a pattern of Russian relations going sour in the past three U.S. presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Some experts suggest Trump and Putin exchanging pleasantries is a positive step but may not be enough to fix the relationship that has suffered from long-standing differences over geopolitical issues.

But the number of contentious issues between US and Russia is large, and goes well beyond fighting ISIS in Syria. Russia annexed Crimea, is involved in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is actively challenging NATO by opposing its eastward expansion and threatening conflict in the Baltic Sea region. These issues don’t seem to be on the list of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy agendaS, but are important to Mr. Putin. Thus one can expect that at least Eastern Europe, if not NATO, will be used as a bargaining chip in achieving a deal over Syria. What will a US-Russia deal over Syria look like? This is so far unclear, but Russia is likely to lead.

On the other hand Russia is an ally of Iran and China. These two countries do appear at the top of Mr. Trump’s agenda. In Mr. Trump’s seven point plan to rebuild the American economy China occupies three spots. Mr. Trump says he intends to have China labeled as a currency manipulator, “bring trade cases against China … [for] unfair subsidy behavior” and “use every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes if China does not stop its illegal activities, including its theft of American trade secrets.” Moreover, Mr. Trump has called the Iran deal the “worst deal ever made” and does not hide his distaste for Iran.

In a recent interview when Mr. Trump was questioned on the nuclear threat emanating from North Korea, he responded that “China controls North Korea” and “the closest partner of North Korea is Iran.” It’s possible that the geopolitical and strategic considerations that shape the US-Russia relationship will dictate the pace and breadth of Trump’s engagement, regardless of his past statements or future intentions.

“I think US policy especially with respect to a big geopolitical actor like a Russia or China is more often driven by the shape of the broader world and US and Russian interests in it than it is driven by the individual proclivities of a US president or a Russian president,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center.

Conclusively, it appears that a new stream in the line of thinking between Moscow and Washington may be marked if Trump’s revisionist approach regarding in Nato’s eastward expansion camp is positively characterized. As for as the Ukraine issue is concerned, Washington may not give any lease to Russian leanings towards Kiev. Yes some trade ties between the two sides might improve therewithal a congenial approach towards searching a solution of the Syrian crises.

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