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Mainstream, VOL LV No 8 New Delhi February 11, 2017

US-Russia Ties: As Trump moves in, Memory mixes with Desire in Moscow

Sunday 12 February 2017, by M K Bhadrakumar

A close look at the inaugural speech by US President Donald Trump and the outline of the various key plans of his administration that has been published immediately afterward on the White House website on January 20 amply bears out the basis of the cautious assessment in Moscow in recent weeks that while a steady revival of Russian-American relationship is within the realms of possibility, difficulties will remain and there needn’t be any illusions about radical changes.

For a start, Russia will be one of the few countries that would have no reason to feel perturbed about Trump’s emphasis in his speech on ‘America First’ in any decision he takes on trade, taxes and immigration.

Russia’s economic relations with the US and people-to-people relations between the two countries are minuscule. According to the US Government statistics, trade with Russia stood at a paltry US $ 18.7 billion in 2016—a substantial decline from US $ 23.3 billion the previous year.

Ironically, despite Western sanctions, Russia’s share in the European gas market increased by three per cent to touch 34 per cent last year and its number one market, Germany, showed the highest growth in absolute terms—10 per cent growth in one year to touch a whopping 49.8 billion cubic metres, with the Nord Stream pipeline operating to its full capacity.

So, things can only get better in Russia-US economic relations, with energy cooperation at its very centre, especially with Rex Tillerson as the State Secretary. To be sure, Big Oil will be running a fine comb through the conversation between President Vladimir Putin and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller in the Kremlin—by a delightful coincidence on January 20, just a few hours ahead of Trump’s inaugural ceremony in Washington—outlining the vast and ambitious plans of expansion on the anvil in Russia’s oil and gas sector.

Equally, Moscow will readily welcome the three significant political assurances in foreign policy that were held out by Trump in his speech—the “understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their interests first ... we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone”, and, the strong vow to eradicate Islamic terrorism “completely from the face of the earth”.

On the other hand, Trump’s determination to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones” cannot but cause uneasiness in Moscow insofar as it may degenerate into the ‘bloc mentality’ that has been an underlying feature of the Barack Obama Administration’s containment strategy against Russia.

This is where the Trump Administration’s outline of key plans becomes a mixed bag for Moscow. Three policy frameworks out of the six outlined by the White House could affect Russian interests one way or another—America First Foreign Policy, America First Energy Plan and Making Our Military Strong Again.

The America First Foreign Policy elaborates on the approach to defeating the Islamic State and “other radical Islamic terror groups”. There is going to be “aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary”. Russia will welcome this. In the context of Syria and Iraq—and likely in Afghanistan—it may lead to joint or coordinated Russian-American operations.

Again, the Trump Administration will breathe new life into the US-led coalition fighting terrorism, involving NATO partners. Interestingly, elsewhere the policy outline stresses that the US will free itself of dependence on foreign oil; “embrace the shale oil and gas revolution”; and, will remain committed to “achieving energy independence from the OPEC cartel” while also striving to “work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy”.

The correlation between the US’ energy relationship with, say, Saudi Arabia or Qatar (principal backers of radical Islamist groups) with its anti-terrorism strategy in the Middle East is a novel idea. Would Trump be inclined to leverage US’ energy ties to get the Saudis and Qataris to jettison their bad old ways of sponsoring terrorist groups?

If so, it will be a dramatic shift in the US’ decades-old regional policies and Russia cannot but welcome it.

On the other hand, there are going to be three major problem areas. One, Trump’s quest to rebuild the US military is his prerogative but his emphasis that the US’ “military dominance must be unquestioned” impacts the interests of Russia, which expects an ‘equal relationship’ with the US.

Two, the Trump Team says the President will not “allow other nations to surpass our (US) military capability” and to achieving that end, will scuttle the defence sequester (capping of defence expenditure) and go back to the Congress with a new budget “outlining a plan to rebuild the military”.

In essence, it is a return to Ronald Reagan’s approach to speak and deal with Russia wielding a big stick. It is hard to see Vladimir Putin accepting Trump’s thesis. This becomes hugely important because a third template of the White House policy outline specifically underscores, “We will also develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea.”

Russia will not accept this argument. Russia (and China) views ABM deployment as part of containment strategy to deny ‘second strike capability’. Given the US’ superiority in conventional military strength, ‘second strike capability’ becomes non-negotiable for Russia.

Indeed, its capacity to ensure global strategic balance hinges on ‘second strike capability’. (Moscow and Beijing recently agreed to develop ‘joint counter-measures’ against ABM systems and analysts view their plan to establish a joint space centre in Russian Far East from such a perspective.)

In sum, Trump is resuscitating the Reagan Doctrine (sans the ideological baggage). Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Moscow just three days before Trump’s inauguration: As for nuclear weapons, strategic stability and nuclear and strategic parity, this is a key issue in Russian-US relations ... we must keep in mind absolutely all factors that influence strategic stability, and there are many factors besides nuclear weapons. They include strategic conventional weapons, including hypersonic weapons that can destroy targets in any part of the world within an hour even without nuclear warheads. Those who have these weapons do not need nuclear weapons. The second factor is the Ballistic Missile Defence system, which is changing the strategic balance. We need to negotiate this issue so that any changes in strategic balance will not destabilise the situation. One more thing that influences strategic stability is the space militarisation plans of the current and previous US administrations. There are also other variables, including the US’ refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. All these factors ... influence global strategic balance and parity. We are willing to hold talks as soon as the new US Administration assumes office ..., which must be held in a businesslike manner and with full awareness of our responsibility to our nations and to the rest of the world.

The Obama Administration’s refusal to negotiate lies at the core of the derailment of the US-Russia reset. Russia will regard ABM deployment as the touchstone of Trump’s intentions and willingness to abandon the containment strategy.

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).