China's rise provides all the more reason for Trump to seek an alliance with Russia

Vladimir Putin may be an unscrupulous rule breaker and a serial liar, but if the US president wants to build a relationship with him, he must understand how Putin sees himself

Friday 17 August 2018 15:12
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President Trump on his thoughts on Vladimir Putin and US Russian relations

When American President Donald Trump diplomatically declared on Twitter back in July that “relations with Russia have never been worse”, he was proving the old adage that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Indeed, only a few weeks later the Trump administration had imposed fresh punitive sanctions on Russia, in rather belated response to the alleged involvement of the Russian state in the use of chemical weapons on British soil. This came after the Helsinki Summit between the two leaders, which was – despite apparent warmth between Trump and Putin – a flop for numerous reasons.

There has, ultimately, been no ‘reset’ of US-Russia relations: the American media still works overtime to publish agitated takes on the Kremlin’s intentions, and hawks in Washington employ bellicose rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War. However, the single greatest reason that relations have not improved in 2018, is that the two countries are stuck re-fighting old battles.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be an unscrupulous rule breaker and a serial liar, but if Trump wants to build a relationship with him, he must understand how Putin sees himself. After almost 20 years in power, Russia’s Great Leader has not only implanted himself as a strongman ruler; he has become obsessed by his imagined greatness. This latter phenomenon has only been encouraged by how he is viewed and treated by politicians in the West. Not only does he wish to host the US president in a former Imperial Russian palace, but he wants to discuss the world as two Great Powers would. Nothing less will please him.

Although the meeting in Helsinki was private and off the record, from remarks made later we know that Trump and Putin discussed the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the Syrian conflict and alleged Russian interference in the American democratic process. The results of these discussions included Putin’s offer of a referendum in Eastern Ukraine, proposals to limit the Iranian presence in Syria and, of course, Trump’s famous denial that Russia had interfered in his election. I would argue that such an agenda is ultimately pointless: debating these direct conflicts and points of contention will lead to nothing until there is a shift in the culture of distrust between the two countries.

Last month, Trump reportedly accepted an invitation from Putin to visit Moscow; having himself extended the offer of a meeting in Washington. Nevertheless, any future meeting with a similarly conflictual agenda will suffer the same fate as that in Helsinki.

What Donald Trump really ought to do is find an area of shared interest with Vladimir Putin. Instead of banging on about Europe, they should look to the East. The United States’ principal geopolitical adversary is not a weak and backward-looking Russia, but booming and newly-confident China. In the decades to come, the world’s eyes will be on East and South Asia, rather than Europe.

In Moscow, a large part of the political elite is already concerned about the rise of China, but the current tensions between Russia and the West have pushed Russia towards Beijing. In the end though, this alliance with China is not a natural outcome. Granted, Putin receives a great statesman’s welcome in Beijing, and is the star of the BRICS summits, but Russia’s foreign policy infrastructure is built on old assumptions about the US, not new ones about China.

Economic and geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing are clearly on the rise. So why wouldn’t Trump offer Putin some kind of alliance for the Pacific, instead of getting bogged down by unwinnable conflicts in Europe and the Middle East? This would not be some kind of agreement that seeks containment of the Chinese, but would simply seek to establish better economic and political cooperation in the East. I have argued before that the US and Canada are, to a much greater extent than China, Russia’s ‘East’. Russia could serve to redress the balance between the countries on the North American and East Asian coasts that now command roughly equal economic power.

In his book on the “Second World”, Parag Khanna argues, rightly, that Russia will never again become a “First World” power. It might however be able to decide the outcome of confrontations between premier powers through alliances. If the United States were to offer Russia an economic partnership to rebuild Russia’s Pacific coast; if it were to build a coalition with Japan and South Korea to this end; if it were to broker the long-awaited peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo – all of this could result in a diplomatic breakthrough in the East. Such an alliance could also end the culture of mistrust between Moscow and Washington and undermine the Russia-China axis, which we know to be a priority foreign policy aim for the US State Department.

While Russia might appear powerful in the 21st century, in economic terms it is in a highly fragile position. What’s more, the reconstruction of the Russian Far East, a dream of President Putin to this day, will not be supported by China, which fears another Asian industrial competitor. The United States can therefore kill two birds with one stone: it can reset relations with Russia by making it a commercial partner on key issues, and at the same time it can rebalance Pacific politics in its favour and avoid the nightmare of a Moscow-Beijing axis.

While I am by no means an admirer of Putin, it cannot be denied that the source of his fairly durable domestic support is his approach to foreign policy. Sanctions and restrictive measures from the US will not radically change his popularity ratings.

In order to change the narrative, the US needs to shift the main focus of Russian-American relations away from sanctioning activity and towards incentives to cooperate. Donald Trump will find that he has at his disposal the means to elevate Vladimir Putin’s self-image while also defending the interests of America and its allies in Europe. Four years of sanctions have done little; it’s time for something new.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is Director of the Centre for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow

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