The Métropolitain

RUSSIA: SET/RESET/RESET AGAIN

Par David T. Jones le 23 avril 2017

Washington, DC - The United States has a “Russia problem.”  (And to be sure, Russia has a “United States problem.”)

This is not “Cold War II”—much as media always in search of a conflict to which they can attach a tag line might prefer.  The “Soviet Red Army” of the 1980s that we feared for a generation would crash through the Fulda Gap headed to the Rhine—where we would have to fight outnumbered and win for the West’s survival—hasn’t existed since 1989.

To be sure, Russia remains the only country whose nuclear strikes could comprehensively destroy the United States--at the cost of its own annihilation.  But despite this disconcerting reality, we “trust the Russians” to continue to act in sane self-control over their forces.

And, not irrelevant, they trust us to do the same.

What we have, however, is a nationalistic, revanchist Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, who may be the toughest, smartest, and most capable (as well as domestically popular), opponent the West currently faces.  If Putin’s hands are not bloody to the armpits as they were for many Soviet leaders, it is because he can exercise socio-political control with standardized repression of human rights and spot removal of particularly promising opponents.

Since the demise of the USSR, the West/NATO/EU has sought mechanisms to lead Russia to normal, democratic, free market statehood.  We attempted to avoid intimations of “triumphalism” (We Won the Cold War!), but many Russians still felt badly bruised by their “Empire” collapse and newly independent Warsaw Pact client states.  Still, our low key appeared to be working with Russian leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and even Dmitry Medvedev.  The Russian population was satisfied, or at least hopeful, with rising economics fueled by sky-rocketing oil exports.  But the oil crash and the 2008 global recession eased Putin’s path to achieving first power and then political dominance.  

To our credit, over several presidencies, we have reached out to Putin.  We are not looking for enemies, but while we have rediscovered and trumpeted “America First,” Putin has never deviated from “Russia First.”  Putin is determined to rebuild as much of the old USSR as possible, if not by physical reincorporation of Central Asian “stans,” through economic leverage, covert political interference, and selected military action.  

Although “Dubya” Bush reportedly looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a man with whom he could deal, they fell out over proposed US- Poland- and Czech-based missile defenses and welcoming attitudes toward NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.  The Obama administration highlighted “reset” from Bush hostility, but ultimately was unable to stomach the Crimea adventure and efforts to     destabilize Ukraine as well as Moscow’s support for  Syria’s Assad.  Various slanging matches, more-or-less politely diplomatic, ensued, along with sanctions for Russia’s Ukraine actions.

So it was unsurprising that as Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump (who believes himself a master deal-maker), indicated that he would re-reset US-Russia relations.  

Russian involvement in the U.S. election remains murky and subject to a plethora of investigations likely to prove nothing definitive.  Lots of “smoke” but “Where’s the fire?”  

One hypothesis is Putin didn’t expect to elect Trump (nobody reading the polls anticipated anything but a Hillary Clinton triumph), but rather to damage Clinton politically through revealing her questionable use of State Department e-mail and the rough-and-tumble machinations of the Democratic political election team.  He was probably as surprised as anyone with the 8 November result.

During the interact between Trump’s election and inauguration, Obama (citing still-to-be-released intelligence judgments) proclaimed Russia had interfered with the U.S. election and sanctioned/expelled selected Russians.  Adroitly, Putin didn’t respond in kind.  There is good reason to believe that Michael Flynn,  strongly hinted (if not promised) that Trump would drop these sanctions.

Although Flynn didn’t survive as NSC director, the Trump-Putin “bromance” did with no standard calumny coming from either side.  Trump’s campaign skepticism about NATO (“Obsolete”) and rejection of a global Robocop role for the USA would have been violins for Putin’s ears.

Bromance, however, imploded over the Syria sarin attack. Videos of dead babies hit Trump’s outrage button, and cruise missiles striking the offending Syrian base (carefully telegraphed to Russians so they could absent themselves) ostensibly outraged Russians/Putin.  Denials flew and SeccretaryTillerson’s subsequent Moscow visit was frosty.

Still, much remains in play bilaterally.  U.S. astronauts reach the space station on Russian rockets.  Among other issues, Syria, arms control, Ukraine’s future, Arctic activity remain in play.  

Back to carefully calculated realism.