By Raghida Dergham
The rush to bet on an “inevitable” deal between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has stumbled on the reality of the rules and strategic interests that govern US-Russian relations.
They go beyond the name and character of the man in the Oval Office. Washington and Moscow are about to get tough. The bets of Trump and Putin are off, or have been reset to square one in preparation for a Plan B, in light of unforeseen events and developments that began with the sacking of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
He was suspected of having unusual ties to Russia. Flynn has now been replaced by H.R. McMaster, an independent general who is said to be good at saying no when that serves US interests. Things did not stop at Flynn’s firing. Outrage has spread among America’s ruling elite and the public, with reports exposing dubious linkages between Trump associates and Putin’s circle.
Deals are allegedly being sought in a way that undermines supreme US interests, most notably on Ukraine, the key to lifting US sanctions triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, the leading issue beyond Ukraine and Crimea is the fate of NATO, which Russia sees as a threat so close to its borders, and thus wants to undermine.
Tensions are rife between Russia and European nations, the latter fearful over Trump’s remarks on the campaign trail and Putin’s measures on the ground, all amid signs of a major shift in trans-Atlantic relations that could vindicate the claim that Russia has outmaneuvered America in the game of nations.
Today, everyone is apprehensive and vigilant in expectation of surprises. Safe states, including some Arab Gulf countries, are wavering between extending bridges and hedging bets. Countries that built their policies on paranoia and distrust find themselves grappling with uncertainty about their positions in the dance between Washington and Moscow, even in the case of a country closely allied to Russia, such as Iran.
Finally, the zones of bloodletting and war are anxious to see how the dynamic between the Americans and Russians will affect them, and what price or gift they will get as a result of escalation or accord.
The mystery surrounding the relationship between Trump and Putin, and the supposed deal they want to strike to foster accord between their two nations, has unleashed a flurry of speculation and assumptions. Some in the two camps accuse the US establishment, intelligence community and media of being bent on thwarting the foundations of American-Russian rapprochement.
Some quickly respond by saying the foundations of US democracy are checks and balances, and claim that there are signs of blackmail by the Kremlin against the White House over secret dealings involving Trump. He, they say, must reveal his tax returns, which will show whether he received funds from Russian sources. All this indicates that confrontation remains the name of the game, and that East-West hostility still has a long way to go before ending.
Under former President Barack Obama, there was a schizophrenic approach to the issues of Ukraine and Syria. It was Obama who let Russia restore its influence in the Middle East, and its international self-confidence, when he decided to lead from behind.
He let Russia develop a view of America as infirm and incapable of resolve and decision. Obama kept mum on Russia’s violations, merely sending his Secretary of State John Kerry to join a dance that his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov led.
So it is unfair to blame the Trump administration even before it has begun its work, and to hold the new president responsible for the current state of US-Russian relations, or for Russia’s ascendancy due to American failures and missteps.
Moscow’s pushback began when the US and European powers in NATO exploited a UN Security Council resolution on Libya to intervene militarily and topple a regime. That was seen by Russia as a clear insult. The Anglo-American sponsorship of the Arab Spring was another slap to Russia’s face and interests, being surrounded by five Muslim republics and still reeling from the Chechen separatist war.
The clocks cannot be set back. Russia today is more influential in the Middle East than the US, at least for the time being. Obama decided to discard traditional alliances with the Gulf Arabs, and chose Iran instead. Trump wants to reverse Obama’s deed, and seems keen to restore balance to the US approach to the Middle East.
Russia will eventually have to choose between Iran and the US, and each option is an obstacle: Iran is a key strategic and military ally in Syria, but it hinders any Russian-American accords. Moscow will not have to choose yet, but it has to chart out a long-term course soon. The Russians do not want to stay permanently and get implicated in Syria’s quagmire, especially if relations with the West sour.
By contrast, the Iranians will want to stay, because this is part of their project that they will not abandon easily. Moscow has to think seriously about what to do with Iran, as it rethinks what it wants to do with the US. It must also consider regional alliances, because the Gulf countries also want to normalize relations with Moscow. But in the event opposing axes begin to coalesce, it is clear on which side the Gulf countries will be.
Under Obama, Iran was the subject of an American-Russian-European convergence through negotiations culminating in the nuclear deal. Today, Europe is divided over Iran’s incursions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Some are regretting the green light they have given Tehran to expand regionally as a reward for the nuclear deal. Others are clinging to the agreement at any cost, including turning a blind eye to Iran’s regional forays.
The Trump administration said it has put Tehran on notice, but has not detailed its policies regarding either the nuclear issue or Iranian encroachments. Russia is clinging to its strategic alliance with Iran for now, but is aware of the eventual conflict of interests and Tehran’s projects.
Iran is reassured by the retreat of what was said to be a new dawn of US-Russian relations. It is well aware that the strategic rapprochement between Washington and Moscow will be costly to both. It is thus welcoming tensions between the West and Russia, and is planning to become indispensable for Moscow, including in the game of Russian-Iranian/American-Gulf axes, even if this ends up being at the expense of Russian interests.
What does Russia want, and what will it do during America’s soul-searching? Some say its main goal is to lead the US to stumble down a path of confusion. If Trump is the instrument to achieve this and erode America’s might, he might prove to be the Kremlin’s most important ally and investment.
What does Russia want, and what will it do during America’s soul-searching? Some say its main goal is to lead the US to stumble down a path of confusion. If Trump is the instrument to achieve this and erode America’s might, he might prove to be the Kremlin’s most important ally and investment”.
Some protest this assumption and say Russian interests are not primarily about prestige and revenge against Western humiliation. Rather, Russian interests are best served by thinking about how to move from confrontation to partnership with the US and Europe.
This requires Moscow to change its understanding of the US, instead of rehashing traditional hostility. The proponents of this view want a qualitative shift that could pave the way for the grand bargain, which serves Russia economically, strategically and politically.
It is too early to determine with certainty whether Trump and Putin will be dragged into a confrontation, or will succeed in closing a grand deal that both men want. What we know is that this will not be easy. Even if they want to go it alone without their institutions, Putin has an advantage as Trump has his hands tied. This is the fundamental difference between them.
The world yearns for a fair and wise accord between the US and Russia, and Russia and the West. Maybe the elephants can stop fighting, the grass can rest and conflicts can die down. Nothing today suggests a major change in the old scene, but we are at the start of the road and there will be surprises, good or bad. This is the time to be vigilant, but hope springs eternal.
• Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989.