Playing the angles, with Russia

If Donald Trump succeeds in what Barack Obama failed to do, which is resetting ties with an aggressive Russia, it could trigger a cascade of geostrategic realignments across the world

Updated - January 02, 2017 12:28 am IST

Published - January 02, 2017 12:14 am IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

John Kerry, U.S Secretary of State, and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, met 14 times and spoke on the phone numerous times in 2016 as both countries sought to work together on some intractable global issues. The relationship between the two has been an extraordinary one, producing a range of outcomes. At one end of the spectrum is the Iranian nuclear deal that both Russia and America agree has capped the Shia regime’s nuclear capabilities. At the other end is the collapse to abyss of Syria, a bloody and grim reminder of the limits of their cooperation. Meanwhile, each consecutive commentary on U.S- Russia relations said they were at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

A new low

The flashpoint in the relationship last week when President Obama announced the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. had been building up for a while. In July, U.S newspaper reports — citing anonymous intelligence sources — accused Russia of trying to influence the outcome of the U.S presidential election. The reports said hackers working for the Russian government obtained the emails of Democratic Party functionaries , which were published by WikiLeaks. Subsequently, emails of John Podesta, the chief of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, were hacked and appeared in the public domain. These leaked emails revealed some details about the internal functioning of the Democratic Party and exposed some facts — for instance, a few paragraphs from one of the several paid speeches Ms. Clinton made to Wall Street firms — that her campaign had tried to conceal.

The Obama administration’s response to the alleged hacking grew progressively strident. The anonymous allegation was made official. From initially terming it as an attempt to discredit the U.S electoral process, the administration concluded that the attempt was to engineer Republican candidate Donald Trump’s victory. And then, Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally held responsible, an allegation that Mr. Obama himself made publicly. All this culminated in a raft of retaliatory measures. The Russian diplomats were given 72 hours to leave. A special Russian plane flew them out from Washington.

The notion of an irreconcilable enemy figure, in a binary world of good and evil, has been the hallmark of American foreign policy for most part of the last century. First it was Nazism, and then Communism.

Reviving Cold War logic

The end of the Cold War made such a distinction difficult to sustain and when George W. Bush declared in 2001, “you’re either with us, or against us”, it was an attempt to resuscitate a dead Cold War logic in the new context of terrorism that would soon invalidate most strategic theories that then existed. As the complexities of the world grew, friends and enemies mutated and fused among themselves to form a galaxy of frenemies around America. Meanwhile, the new threat of Islamism, its rise aided by Mr. Bush’s policies, is not territorially confined as the earlier enemy ideologies, Nazism and Communism, were. For a country used to partners swaying to its will and being able to force enemies to fall in line, this was an unfamiliar world. The U.S’s struggle with this post-Cold War world has been singularly pronounced in its wobbly relations with Russia.

Succeeding Mr. Bush, who set out to change the world according to his vision, Mr. Obama started in 2009 with a scholarly appreciation of the way the world is and spoke about the need “for the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” The Republicans ridiculed his approach as “apologising for America’s success”. President-elect Trump accused him of surrendering American leadership in the world, throughout the campaign last year.

The Russian view

But that is not how Russia and its aggressive leader, Mr. Putin — who has crossed many red lines of international engagement — see Mr. Obama’s tenure. A document titled ‘Foreign Policy Concept’ released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on December 27 noted that “the entire world has to pay a high price for the attempts of a limited number of countries to retain their global ‘leadership’ at all costs”, in a clear reference to the U.S and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners. “The terrorist threat in the belt of instability ranging from North Africa to South Asia’s borders has taken on a systemic dimension…the international community clearly saw the... nature of a unipolar hegemony and... unilateral approaches,” the document said, while calling for a “polycentric world order”,

It said Russia’s relationship with the U.S. “was complicated by an aggressive US policy of systemic containment of Russia, which included the build-up of sanctions pressure, the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) components and provocative military activities on Russia’s western borders and in the Black Sea”. It said the “well-orchestrated campaign to accuse Russia of interference in the presidential election in the United States was designed to whip up anti-Russia sentiments”.

In subsequent explanations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova held Mr. Obama personally responsible for the degeneration in bilateral ties and singled out Mr. Kerry for praise. Terming Mr. Obama’s advisers “a group of foreign policy losers, bitter and narrow-minded”, she wrote on Facebook, “Out of this group of spoilers, I pity only Kerry. He was not an ally. But he tried to be a professional and maintain his human dignity.”

Ms. Zakharova was alluding to the collapse of a ceasefire that Russia and America sought to enforce in Syria, once in February and again in September, before the current deal among Iran, Turkey and Russia began taking shape. The September ceasefire plan was to have a Joint Implementation Centre of Russia and America that would have coordinated a military campaign against identified jihadi groups. The February ceasefire lasted for a few days; the September one could not even begin. Russia and the U.S accused each other of being responsible for the collapse of the ceasefire. A fact, however, is that the Pentagon was less than enthusiastic about joint operations with Russia, a line Mr. Kerry has been promoting since late 2015.

At the core of the Pentagon’s discomfort with Russia is the fact that the NATO alliance is based on Cold War logic — or the pre-Islamism logic if you will — and the U.S military industrial complex has developed accordingly. Technologies and weapons more suitable for combating non-state actors are now developing at a fast pace but not at the cost of more advanced fighters and missile systems. With its continuing military aggression on the border of NATO, Russia qualified to be considered enemy by the U.S. In Warsaw in July, the last NATO summit during the Obama regime, resolved that the alliance has to deal with two distinct threats — on the east from Russia, and on the south and southeast from Islamist groups. On Russia, there is a remarkable convergence between the Republican and Democratic security establishments. Mr. Obama appears to have come around to his 2012 opponent Mitt Romney’s view — which he then contested — that Russia is the U.S’s “number one geopolitical foe”.

Trump’s global perspective

Mr. Trump has some unflinching notions about America’s role in the post-Cold War era, though they don’t add up to a full picture of his view of the world, yet. He believes that NATO has to repurpose itself and focus on fighting Islamist threats . He believes that he can cut a deal with Mr. Putin. He isn’t much bothered about Russia’s human rights track record or its expansionist posturing. Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump believes that Islamist terrorism is an “existential threat” to America, a point on which the Democrats and Republicans diverge. Mr. Trump will challenge his Republican colleagues in the U.S. Congress to choose what to fight first — Russia or the jihadis. Addressing the UN in September 2015, Mr. Putin called for a “genuinely broad alliance against terrorism, just like the one against Hitler”, and Mr. Trump is in complete agreement with this position.

An unstated, but equally important reason that Mr. Trump is seeking a partnership with Russia is China. The Obama years have witnessed an increasing closeness between Russia and China, and Mr. Trump wants to reverse that by tying up with the former. Mr. Putin sent Mr. Trump a year-end greeting card hoping to “take their interaction in the international arena to a whole new level”, in “a constructive and pragmatic manner”. This “pragmatic” deal being proposed by Mr. Putin could span a vast range of regions and issues.

Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump may have no problem in allowing the Assad regime in Syria to continue as a part of a settlement. The problem areas could be Iran and Afghanistan. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he would scrap the Iranian nuclear deal. Mr. Putin, meanwhile, has been using Pakistan and Iran to strengthen Russia’s contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

While Mr. Obama theorised the polycentric world, Mr. Putin appears to have done a good job navigating it, striking strategic and commercial deals with a multitude of countries and gaining influence in the trouble spots of West Asia, far disproportionate to its tumbling economy and ageing military hardware.

Mr. Trump, in an unusual move for a President-elect, said on Twitter, “I always knew he was very smart,” responding to Mr. Putin’s decision not to expel American diplomats in retaliation last week. The Russian leader said he would wait to see the direction of the incoming Trump administration. Mr. Obama’s measures against Russia, which were welcomed by the Republican Congressional leaders, appears at least in part aimed at restricting Mr. Trump’s latitude when he assumes office on January 20. But if he manages to reset America’s ties with Russia — which was attempted by the Obama administration with limited success — it could trigger a cascade of geostrategic realignments across the world.

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