Politics | Don’t ask for whom bell tolls, it tolls for Russia sanctions

Don’t ask for whom bell tolls, it tolls for Russia sanctions

M.K. Bhadrakumar January 31, 2017 11:06 AM (UTC+8)
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Three things stand out in the respective readouts on the phone conversation between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. One, they do not contradict each other in content, while the Russian readout is a more detailed version.

Two, there is absolutely no trace of the grandstanding – or itch for ‘one-upmanship’ – that characterised the recent readouts of Russian-American presidential exchanges during the Barack Obama administration.

Three, both readouts have been couched in a positive tone that would have seemed unthinkable against the backdrop of the stormy relations in the final lap of the lame duck president.

The Russian-American conversations at leadership level have a long history and tradition, and are seldom if ever ‘stand-alone’ events. To be sure, much planning and behind-the-scenes consultations have taken place in setting up Saturday’s phone conversation – not only in choreographing it but also in regard of its ‘talking points’ and in the public projection of it.

Evidently, Trump came under immense pressure in recent weeks. To quote a Carnegie pundit, “US political elite has offered Trump a Faustian bargain of acknowledging the legitimacy of his election in exchange for a consensus from his administration that Russia is an enemy of the United States.”

That is the honest truth – nothing more, nothing less. Suffice to say, Trump has pulled it off brilliantly by sidestepping the “bargain” and asserting both his legitimacy as POTUS and advancing his agenda to open talks with Putin at an early opportunity with a view to improve relations between the two countries.

Yet, Trump embedded the conversation with Putin among his several exchanges in a crowded weekend with the leaders of US’ major European allies, all of whom reportedly cautioned him to avoid any shift in policies toward Russia – specifically, in regard of sanctions, which of course lies at the very core of the Obama administration’s containment strategy against Russia.

Trump heard them out but kept his thoughts to himself. His strategic ambiguity has been masterly.

Neither the Kremlin readout nor the White House readout mentioned the word “sanctions” and both sides later maintained that the topic simply didn’t figure.

Yet, as the Russian readout discloses, the leaders “stressed the importance of rebuilding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties between the two counties’ business communities, which could give an additional impetus to progressive and sustainable development of bilateral relations.”

Now, how could that be possible – to discuss trade and economic ties and allow the business communities to strike deals without some sort of prognosis that the crippling sanctions are not going to be around for long? How could the wagon possibly roll so long as sanctions remain as a Himalayan boulder on the path?

Trump’s salami approach is breath-taking. He is making business ties with Russia an important underpinning of the efforts toward a “progressive and sustainable development” of the overall relationship with Russia.

Once the business dealings begin to get traction, the floodgates get opened and the likes of Senator John McCain get washed away.

The New York Times reported from Moscow on an announcement by the government-run Russian Direct Investment Fund shortly after the call on Saturday that it has arranged 10 projects aimed at drawing American investments to Russia and that it plans to open an office in New York in May.

Most certainly, Trump has begun planning the customary tour of Europe in the first weeks of the presidency. It is a reasonable estimation that his first face-to-face meeting with Putin is sailing into view.

The signals from Moscow suggest that preparations for the summit have already begun. (Lake Bled in Slovenia, birth country of Melania, the new First Lady, is mentioned as possible venue.)

All outstanding issues, including sanctions, will come up for discussion at the summit, which will be based on carefully considered proposals.

Herein lies the paradox. Trump doesn’t have to tilt against the windmill of opposition to lifting western sanctions against Russia. All the needs to do is to sidestep it.

It was Obama’s vigilant, aggressive intervention with EU countries that somehow kept the sanctions in place all this while. With Obama’s departure, the groundswell of opinion in Europe against sanctions will begin to assert and the consensus needed to keep the sanctions in place beyond July will dissipate.

Meanwhile, European politics is in transition. France, Netherlands, Germany and Italy are heading for polls. How far should Trump seriously heed the voice of someone like Francois Hollande whose approval rating is in single digits and who is heading for the exit door in another 90 days?

The writing is there on the wall. Bavarian state premier Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union, sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats has been the latest resounding voice for ending sanctions.

Seehofer told Bild newspaper, “I’m arguing for realpolitik not sabre-rattling. We have to be clear about different positions, such as about the annexation of Crimea, while working to promote sensible business ties.”

Trump refused to rule out dropping sanctions at a press conference with Theresa May, British prime minister, in Washington on Friday – although May insisted, “we believe sanctions should continue.”

Again, there is no reference to sanctions in the joint statement issued after Trump’s call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel although the latter strongly pleaded for keeping sanctions in place.

Trump cannot but be aware that a big chunk of the American people – who include a huge chunk of Republicans – also want the US to work with Russia.

Unsurprisingly, the mood in Moscow is palpably one of satisfaction. The single biggest gain for the Kremlin is that a new format of relations is emerging where it is possible to rebuild trust and candidly discuss the range of issues in the relationship, including difficult issues that may take time to resolve.

The Kremlin readout makes out that the two presidents touched on a wide range of regional and international issues during the 50-minute conversation.

It is entirely conceivable that they even touched on some contentious issues in the relationship, but have preferred to keep that away from public domain.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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