By Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
The inauguration of Donald Trump does not require a complete overhaul of Russian policy towards the United States, but rather should inspire reflection on opportunities for improvement of the fraught dynamic between these two powers. The illusion that the new president is a friend to Russia must be abandoned, as must the notion that under him relations between Moscow and Washington will be easier than under his predecessor. Relations with Trump will also be difficult, but in a different way than with Obama. Trump’s foreign policy program has not yet been formulated, however, the new president has surrounded himself with many people who are skeptical and some even hostile towards Russia. More broadly, the US political elite has offered Trump a Faustian bargain of acknowledging the legitimacy of his election in exchange for a consensus from his administration that Russia is an enemy of the United States. November celebrations in Moscow should have been for Clinton’s defeat, not for Trump’s victory.
Predictions of “a strong male friendship” between the masters of Kremlin and the White House are unreliable. Moreover, no matter how good the personal relations between the leaders are, their decisions will be based on the perceived best interests of the countries they represent. For the foreseeable future, the fundamental interests of the Russian Federation and the United States remain opposed. The United States will seek to maintain the hegemony of “global leadership”. Russia will likely resist it by building a system of relations in Greater Eurasia free from American domination. This rivalry will remain the central element of Russian-American relations for years to come.
In the future, this divide can only be overcome when and if the American political class – not just Donald Trump – starts to favor the U.S. national interest over that of the system of U.S. global domination, and begins to look for an alternative form of collective global governance with the participation of other big players. Such a foreign policy revolution, however, if it ever happens in the United States, will certainly not happen soon. In the meantime, the protection of the liberal-democratic world order from attempts to limit it from the outside and undermine it from the inside is the strategic objective of the majority of American and allied Atlantic elites. The process of transition from sole US dominance, which began in 2014, to a more complex model of the world order will take an entire era.
In this situation, Russian policy towards the United States faces a number of important tasks. First, to avoid a head-on collision with the United States, which has become increasingly likely given conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Second, to achieve the US de facto recognition of Russian security interests in Europe, thus preventing the emergence of new dangerous crises. Third, to achieve practical results in resolving issues of interest to both parties – from effective responses to international terrorism to strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime and maintaining global strategic stability.
Moscow should not try to beg Washington for concessions. US sanctions against Russia are of secondary importance for the economic development of the country, and personal restrictions against individual officials and businessmen are purely symbolic. The development of the US missile defense system is curbed by the improvement of Russian strategic offensive capabilities. The positioning of a US brigade along with stocks of weapons and military equipment in Eastern Europe, has not yet reached the scale of a serious threat to Russian security. A military coalition involving the US and Russia against ISIS is possible, but only if this is a coalition of equals. Extension of the START-3 Treaty makes sense, but the concept of bilateral strategic arms control formed a half-century ago has exhausted itself and needs to be broadened.
This does not mean that the dialogue with the administration of Trump is useless. On the contrary, the rise of an American nationalist who does not want to pay too high a price for the continuation of the country’s globalist policies opens up some possibilities. Moscow should include the United States in the political process of resolving the crisis in Syria, launched by Russia, Turkey and Iran, or at least ensure that it does not interfere with this process. It is also possible to work towards the practical implementation of the Minsk accords on Ukraine. Russia and the United states can also begin a dialogue on strategic stability, addressing cyber security challenges and discussing issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program. Russia can lead the way for business cooperation in Arctic development by involving US companies engaged in energy and infrastructure projects in the Russian North.
Moscow should not, however, waste time on Helsinki-2 or some other format of a pan-European security agreement. Potential Russian partners in Europe do not appear ready to accept conditions suiting Russian interests. Even though Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU is not a relevant issue, Ukraine will, for the indefinite future, be extremely hostile to Russia. The time for pragmatists in Kiev has not yet arrived. Moreover, Europe has begun a process of change and is searching for a new model and new leaders. Moscow can and should use this opportunity to underscore that it has no interest in threatening the US’s NATO allies and avoid being drawn into a new arms race along the new dividing line in Europe. Under no circumstances, however, should Russia engage in conversations about supporting American policies of containing China. Strategic partnership and cooperation with China and other major Asian countries, such as India, forms the basis of Moscow’s strategy for Greater Eurasia, which is an economic and geopolitical priority for Russia in the XXI century.
Over the last five years, the relationship between the Russian Federation and the United States has been marked by instability, unpleasant surprises and mutual accusations, as well as the almost complete lack of confidence and mutual respect. If Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will be able to find a common language of respective national interests, then in spite of the fundamental differences and the unavoidable rivalry, Russian-US adversity may become more manageable. Under the current circumstances, one could call this an achievement.
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