Rush to get along with Russia may end in bad deal for US

For 40 years after World War II, the dominant national security issue for any new US administration was dealing with the Soviet Union. After a quarter-century hiatus, it's deja vu.

US President-elect Donald Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and nominated a secretary of state and a national security adviser with Russian connections. The President-elect has consistently rejected most criticism of Mr Putin, including high-level intelligence reports that Russia illicitly hacked into private e-mails to try to affect US elections.

This has overshadowed the most pressing short-term challenge - battling Islamist terrorism - and the biggest long-term concern, dealing with China, the other 21st-century superpower.

But the most pressing question after Inauguration Day will be Russia and the intentions and motives of the new US president. For secretary of state, Mr Trump ended up picking Mr Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chief executive officer who has done a lot of business with Russia and who was awarded the Order of Friendship by Mr Putin. The runner-up for the job was Mr Mitt Romney, who described Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" when he was the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. (The potential Romney appointment may have been a set-up: A Trump confidant said the President-elect just wanted to "torture" Mr Romney, who had criticised him during the campaign.) It is indisputable that Mr Trump is enamoured of Mr Putin. He really believes that the Russians, who also face a threat from Islamist terrorists, can be important allies in that fight.

Moreover, the President-elect likes authoritarian figures. He has indicated that he believes the world would be less dangerous if Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still in power and that he would have no problem with a Syria deal that keeps dictator Bashar al-Assad in control. Mr Putin has become a folk hero to right-wing white nationalists in Europe and America; many in this group also like Mr Trump.


Mr Tillerson (left), the nominee for secretary of state, has done a lot of business with Russia and was given the Order of Friendship by Mr Putin.

Mr Trump says he wants to "get along" with Russia and expresses little support for the tough economic sanctions that President Barack Obama and the European Union imposed after Mr Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine. Even some supporters of those actions cite the need to bolster US-Russia relations, now at the lowest point since the Cold War.

The US and Russia have the biggest nuclear arsenals and are both major players in the Middle East, so it's hard for them to avoid each another. Sure, Mr Putin is a thug, but so were the Soviet dictators that every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan dealt with.

Mr Dimitri Simes - a Russian emigre, former top adviser to Richard Nixon and advocate of closer ties - argues that "major irritants" in the relationship could be lifted, thanks to the President-elect's aversion to democracy-promotion programmes and military interventions, and scepticism about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's mission.

Nonetheless, there are fears that Mr Trump's excessive eagerness to do a deal could result in an agreement that disproportionately favours Russia - for example, phasing out sanctions in return for Mr Putin's reiteration of a commitment to align with the US in the war against terrorism.

Professor Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Moscow from 2011 to 2014 and now a Russia scholar at Stanford University, says any arrangement along those lines "would be a bad deal for America and a fantastic victory for Putin. He annexed and invaded another country and got away with it". Rather than focus on getting along better, Prof McFaul said the US "should figure out what outcomes we want and when that would involve getting along and when it would involve confrontation". The US and Russia both face threats but have some significantly different approaches to Islamic terrorism and other issues. In Syria, Mr Putin's forces are killing anti-Assad rebels that America considers the preferred opposition.

And, of course, there are the overwhelming indications that the Russians, probably under Mr Putin's direction, interfered with the US presidential election by hacking into the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and top party officials and leaking negative information. Mr Trump has dismissed these intelligence findings.

These tensions will be aired during the Tillerson confirmation hearings where the nominee will have to go beyond simply differentiating between the role of CEO and that of America's top diplomat. If he continues to take a soft line on the economic sanctions and plays down Russian hacking, his approval could be jeopardised.

In the 1980s, Reagan's policy in dealing with the Soviet Union was "trust but verify". Putin critics fear Mr Trump may neglect the second part.

BLOOMBERG VIEW

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Rush to get along with Russia may end in bad deal for US'. Print Edition | Subscribe