Global Affairs

US-Russia ties: Missed opportunity for security dialogue

Trump came to office planning to boost ties with Russia, but finds himself hobbled

LONDON • In the concluding days of World War II, the armies of the United States advancing from the west and those of Russia advancing from the east finally met on the soil of soon-to-be-defeated Germany, on the banks of the river Elbe.

The event is remembered as the "Encounter at the Elbe", the one moment when the two powers were given the opportunity of cooperation but chose confrontation instead, and the world experienced four further decades of a Cold War.

Yet over the past weekend and on the banks of the same Elbe river in Germany, US President Donald Trump met for the first time with Mr Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart.

Western journalists, disdainful or largely ignorant of historic precedents, treated the Trump-Putin meeting as just another diplomatic encounter. But Russian journalists duly referred to the meeting as the "Second Elbe Encounter", another historic opportunity for Russia and the US to put their relationship on a better footing.

No historic analogy is ever perfect. Still, the comparison between the US-Russia encounters then and now remains apt. For, just as after the end of World War II, cooperation between Russia and the West remains a requirement for today's global security. But, just as in the past, the will to transform this into reality is absent, so the opportunity will be missed.

There is no question that over the past few decades, Russia was given plenty of options to integrate itself into a new security architecture, yet spurned all of them. It is simply not true to suggest that the West conspired in the Soviet Union's disintegration; a mere few months before the USSR crumbled, the elder US President George Bush travelled to Kiev to advise Ukrainians that they should not seek separation from Russia, a pep talk which was immediately dubbed the "Chicken Kiev speech" because it sounded ridiculous even at that time.

It is also not true that the West refused to help Russia financially - it did, to the tune of many tens of billions in loans and credits - or that it broke a promise not to expand Nato, the US-led military alliance in Europe - into Russia's former satellites; no such promise was ever made, and Nato's enlargement happened because newly freed nations queued to join the alliance, not because they were "enticed" into doing so.

Nor is it true that the current crisis in Ukraine was started by the West; as mass anti-Russian demonstrations erupted in Ukraine, most Western governments still tried to broker a deal under which Ukraine's pro-Russian government could remain in power, and American officials publicly expressed their disdain for the Ukrainian opposition, which they considered as both too divided and too weak to seize power.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

In short, Russia emerged the loser from the events of the past quarter of a century not because of some dastardly Western plot but as a result of its own internal contradictions, as old Marxists were fond of saying. And Moscow never seemed to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for reconciliation with the West.

Still, it is a fact that Western governments have refused to listen to Russia's complaints, despite the fact that these were repeated by President Putin in very explicit terms over the past decade. Instead of trying to address Moscow's dissatisfaction, they simply brushed it aside as irrelevant. And instead of offering genuine cooperation, they merely offered irrelevant diplomatic gatherings.

CHANCES OF NEW DEAL WITH RUSSIA

In theory, chances of a new deal in Russia's relations with the West have seldom been better now. Mr Trump is the first president since World War II to refuse to raise any human rights questions with Russia, so the old obstacles which prevented previous American leaders from cooperating with Moscow have disappeared.

Mr Trump has famously refused to fall in love in Europe, a continent he largely equates with ungrateful nations and that, too, is music to Mr Putin, who thinks about the Europeans in a similar way.

More importantly, both the US and Russian presidents genuinely need cooperation. Although Mr Putin boasted to his counterparts attending the latest Group of 20 summit of industrialised nations in Hamburg that Russia has "now successfully emerged from economic recession and looks forward to solid growth" and sought to portray himself as a defender of free trade, the reality remains that Russia's recovery is fragile, oil revenues on which the Russian economy depends remain depressed and although Mr Putin would be loath to admit it, he badly needs the financial sanctions imposed on his country to be lifted.

Furthermore, despite the fact that nothing will dislodge Russia from its possession of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula which is now incorporated into Russia's own territory, Mr Putin may be looking for a face-saving device to at least freeze the war in Ukraine.

And although there are plenty of people in Washington offering a variety of conspiracy theories to explain why Mr Trump is keen on cooperating with Russia, the reality is that the US President genuinely believes that this cooperation would be in America's own interests.

Still, it is highly unlikely that any serious deal between Moscow and Washington can be reached. For, first, there is the problem of misplaced expectations. The Russian leader is willing to join hands with Mr Trump, provided Russia's right to be consulted in all future European security decisions is acknowledged; Mr Putin is clever enough not to demand a sphere of influence in Europe similar to the one the Soviet Union enjoyed until the late 1980s but, essentially, that's what he's after. This is something which, as Mr Trump made clear during his trip to Poland last week, the US won't grant, largely because it does not have to.

But in return, Mr Trump has an exaggerated expectation of what Russians can deliver as part of a bargain. He believes that, in return for acknowledging Russia's pre-eminent position in Syria, the Russians could be harnessed for the broader battle against international terrorism, as well as reducing the need for America's own heavy strategic engagement in the Middle East.

But that's largely a myth for, when it comes to combating terrorism, Russia is part of the problem rather than the solution. The only thing the Russians can offer is additional firepower, of which the US has plenty, and Moscow has no more ideas of how to isolate and fight global extremist trends than has Washington.

Nor do Russian and American security interests coincide elsewhere in the world. The Russians won't countenance a US-led effort to contain China mainly because they fear that the Americans will double-trick them in the way they did during the 1970s by suddenly doing a deal with China at Russia's expense. And Moscow has zero influence over North Korea, another US global security priority.

There are plenty of other matters on which US-Russia cooperation makes perfect sense and still remains feasible. These include problems such as migration in Europe, organised crime, cyber warfare but also arms control agreements; Europe's current arms control regimes date back decades, and are in dire need of an overhaul.

The tragedy here is that, largely because of what he said or did, Mr Trump has succeeded in making Russia one of the most toxic issues of his presidency.

His refusal to acknowledge that Russia may have interfered in the US election campaign and his inability to clear up all the unanswered questions about links between his associates and Moscow continue to dominate political debate in Washington.

The result is that just about the only matter on which the US Congress agrees is to treat Russia as the enemy and to blame it for almost any ill afflicting America.

And if this was not bad enough, Mr Trump's disdain for Nato and his obvious reluctance to reiterate America's security commitments to Europe means that nobody in Europe is likely to support his rapprochement with Moscow; more than at any time in decades, tensions between the US and Russia are seen as the only reassuring sign of the bonds between the US and Europe, precisely the predicament everyone wanted to avoid.

So, ironically, the one US president who came to office with the most determined plan to improve relations with Russia is now more hobbled in an approach to Moscow than any of his predecessors since 1945.

This is a tragically missed opportunity for a serious strategic dialogue with Russia which future generations will come to regret. Just as they have done after the failure of the first encounter at the Elbe river.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'US-Russia ties: Missed opportunity for security dialogue'. Print Edition | Subscribe