Politics | The frozen ground of US-Russia ties is hard to till
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The frozen ground of US-Russia ties is hard to till

M.K. Bhadrakumar February 6, 2017 3:12 AM (UTC+8)
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Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as US Secretary of State must come as comforting news for Moscow. It augurs well for the Russian-American relationship. It leads to ‘de-escalation’ in the tensions, of which incipient signs appear already.

The veteran Russian diplomat heading the Mission to the United Nations in New York, Vitaly Churkin said on Thursday that he could sense the winds of change in his newly-minted American counterpart Nikki Haley (in comparison with her combative predecessor.)

Amid all the speculation on what Tillerson can or cannot — or may not — do with regard to the US sanctions against Russia in the weeks ahead, what is overlooked is that his captaincy of American diplomacy itself can inject much-needed trust, mutual confidence and stability to the overall Russian-American relationship.

Like any experienced tiller, Tillerson will be preparing the frozen ground after a harsh winter. It’s a hard task. But his asset is that he brings into the job an extraordinary understanding of Russia and the Russian people, their culture and society — and what motivates the inner recesses of their mind and behavior — which is unique in US-Russia diplomatic history.

Tillerson has traveled extensively within Russia and has vast negotiating experience with Russian leaders, including at the highest level — something that elevates him to an unusual ‘Kremlinologist’ who combines theory and practice.

Tillerson indeed is an ‘inspired choice’ by President Donald Trump, as Senator Bob Corker who heads the Foreign Relations Committee had remarked more than once during the hearings on his nomination as state secretary recently.

While addressing the state department employees on Thursday, his first working day, Tillerson made a disarming remark:

Before President Trump called me, I thought I would be entering retirement this spring after four decades of business experience. Renda (wife) and I were ready to head off to the ranch and enjoy our grandchildren. But when I came back from my first meeting with President Trump and he asked me to do this, Renda said, “You didn’t know it, but you’ve been in a 41-year training program for this job.” So despite our own dreams, she said, “You’re supposed to do this.” Well, my first day is here. I’m on the job. Hi, I’m the new guy.

Indeed, not being a part of bureaucracy any time — or being career politician (like John Kerry or Hillary Clinton) or ‘Cold Warrior’ (like Condoleezza Rice or Madeline Albright) — always has its advantage. Simply put, Tillerson can afford to be open-minded and pragmatic.

However, Tillerson will run into headwinds. Much is being said about institutional resistance within the US to any attempt to improve relations with Russia. The resistance is no doubt formidable.

The US Congress, security establishment and the media are permeated with Russophobia. Then, there are the faceless interest groups — America’s military-industrial complex — that thrived on ‘East-West’ confrontation.

Trump’s upfront questioning of the projected cost of the F-35 stealth fighter underscores it. Meanwhile, ‘Euro-Atlanticism’ also has its secret charms. The NATO itself is a gravy train. Have gun, will travel. Brilliant careers are made in Brussels.

Further beyond, Germany had pinned hopes on the Berlin-Washington axis to build itself as Europe’s superpower, which are threatened if Trump pushes ahead with his intention to improve relations with Russia.

The anger and frustration in Berlin is palpable. Although camouflaged in the idiom of ‘western liberalism’, the crux of the matter is Germany’s growing ambitions to take its place at the high table as a global power, as evident from its steady build-up as a world-class military power and its quest in recent years in search of a leadership role in resolving global and regional conflicts.

All said, therefore, the improvement of US-Russia relations will be incremental. Russia needs to be patient. The likelihood is that the process will be front-loaded with business ties and cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria. Tillerson would have a road map.

This would, hopefully, generate a consensus in the US and western opinion that constructive engagement of Russia can be productive and can serve western interests — and will be the smart thing to do.

The crunch time, no doubt, will come over Ukraine. The heart of the matter is that the ‘regime change’ in Ukraine two years ago was a precipitate move by the EU (under the supervision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel) and the US allowed itself to be drawn into it, although it had no direct stakes in it.

In politics, admitting mistakes never comes easy, and the West today lacks the leadership with the moral courage to recant. In Ukraine, West knows that Russia has exceedingly high stakes. How Tillerson unscrambles the omelette will be fascinating to watch.

His personal equations with Russian President Vladimir Putin will matter a great deal here, while Trump’s backing of Tillerson will be decisive.

The good part is that Europe will also be electing a new leadership through this year and the probability is that current antipathies toward Russia may give way to a sense of realism. The fact that Obama is no longer there to drum up the enemy image of Russia in the western camp will most certainly help.

If the trans-Atlantic fusion betwixt the unforgiving ‘rejectionists’ — those who seek to bring Russia down on its knees — dissolves through this year, Trump’s Russia policies will advance sooner than one would have thought.

The chances of this happening cannot at all be ruled out. The outcome of France’s presidential election in April will provide some clarity. But the defining moment will be the German elections to the Bundestag in October.

The heart of the matter is that latent German revanchism embraces both the ideological right and the left. In a powerful essay last week, Joschka Fischer, former foreign minister, argued that Germany should deploy its economic prowess to take over the leadership of both EU and NATO. From such a perspective, he visualized a rapprochement between Europe and China.

The bottom line is that the alchemy of French-German relations holds profound consequences to US-Russia détente. Francois Fillon’s existential battle to remain as the front-runner in the French electoral battle adds to the overall fluidity.

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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