Among the questions around President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, one stands out: what is the future of US relations with Russia?
So far, however, Trump and members of his national security team have provided vague, and at times contradictory, replies. What the new administration needs to do first is to decide how to clearly describe Russia. The outgoing Obama administration never made up its mind in that regard.
On occasions, such as the circus around the Iran nuclear dossier and the dodge-ball that Obama played on Syria, Russia was described as “our partner” by both Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry. On other occasions, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea for example, the Obama-Kerry tandem described Russia as “a challenge”.
Russia, however, has had little difficulty in labeling the US as it sees it.
The adjective the Kremlin and the media under its control use to describe the US is “vrag” which, loosely translated means “foe.” That was the label that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used against the US in the 1960s when he came out with his “we will bury you” boast.
More discerning Russians who remember that “vrag” was used to describe Nazi Germany prefer the less dramatic “protivnik” which means “adversary.” More cautious commentators in Moscow suggest the still softer term “nedobrojelatie” (rival).
By coincidence, the label “adversary” was used by the new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to describe Russia during his Senate confirmation hearings.
On a spectrum of relations, a nation might place other nations in different categories. At one end there will be” friends”, nations with which one has close ties and on whose sympathy and support one could count on at all times. At any given time, few nations fall in that category. At the opposite end to “friends” are “foes”, enemies bent on your destruction that must be defeated and destroyed. Again, few nations fit that category at any given time.
The spectrum also includes other categories: adversaries and rivals, as well as partners and allies. To be sure, such categorization isn’t based on hard and fast rules. At times, a “friend” could act as a “rival” on specific issues while an “adversary” might become a tactical “partner” when it is in in its interest. The task of diplomacy is to judge when and how to identify others according to a strategic vision of one’s own national interests. The goal of foreign policy is to isolate and defeat “foes”, and transform “adversaries” and “rivals” into partners, and if possible, even “friends”.
The Kremlin media are wrong that the US isn’t a “foe” for Russia. Even during the Cold War, few in the United States wished to destroy Russia. The US tried three strategies: containment between 1948 and 1968, détente until 1980 and, finally, rollback until the fall of the Soviet Empire.
Tillerson, however, is right: today, Russia is an “adversary” for the United States. Thus, the aim of the new US administration should be to deny Russia the opportunity to pursue adversarial policies while, at the same time, the door should be open for persuading Moscow to downgrade its hostility by becoming, at most, a “rival”.
The sooner that aim is spelled out, the better for all concerned. Right now, many in the Kremlin, and some circles in the West, fantasize about what they believe is President Trump’s soft spot for Vladimir Putin. Some of Trump’s opponents have even tried to cast him as “the Moscow candidate” vulnerable to Russian blackmail. (In 1828 similar charges were leveled against President John Quincy Adams. He was accused of being a procurer for the Russian Tsar during his tenure as US Ambassador to Saint Petersburg!)
I doubt that Trump has a soft spot for Putin or anyone else except himself for that matter, and, even if he did, such affection wouldn’t change the nature of the relationship between the two nations. As for blackmail material, even if Putin did have any against Trump, it is unlikely that the US will sacrifice national interests to keep a lid on any scandal.
Russia is acting as an adversary in a number of ways. It is trying to impose its version of a Monroe Doctrine on nations in the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia with a mixture of proximity pressure, propaganda war, and in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, military intervention.
Moscow has already succeeded in toppling a pro-US president in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, while halting closer ties between the US and such former Soviet republics as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. More recently, Moscow scored another victory by propelling one of its allies into the seat of power in Yerevan, Armenia. In a similar vein, Moscow has “persuaded” Azerbaijan to tone down its pro-US stance while using the tactic of flattery with Kazakhstan towards the same goal. Putin is also trying to drive a wedge between Turkey, in its moment of confusion, and NATO allies.
Russia wants to “Finlandize” its “near neighbors”, which means all the former Soviet republics plus the Islamic Republic in Iran and Afghanistan. (Throughout the Cold War Finland accepted certain limits to its sovereignty in exchange for a guarantee it wouldn’t be invaded by the Soviets.)
Weakening NATO and the European Union, the two military and political pillars of the global strategy of the so-called “Free World” during the Cold War remains one of Putin’s top goals. Trump’s ambiguous statements on NATO and EU have encouraged that strategy. And, yet, the new US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has emphasized the need to “strengthen” NATO while Tillerson has expressed support for the EU.
Putin is playing 19th century strategy, as symbolized by the meaningless 49-year lease he obtained from Bashar Al-Assad for a naval base in Syria, in a 21st century which has no room for imperial projection of power. Obama’s pusillanimity encouraged Putin’s aggressive game to the detriment of both Russia and the US, not to mention other nations affected.
Though Russia is not an “enemy”, disabusing Putin of his illusions would be good not only for the US but also for Russia. Trump should welcome Russia as a rival for the United States, if that is its choice, but should make it clear to Putin that playing adversary will no longer be cast free.