Moscow’s wriggle room shrinking vis-à-vis Trump

Moscow’s wriggle room shrinking vis-à-vis Trump

M.K. Bhadrakumar March 1, 2017 12:40 AM (UTC+8)
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The pall of gloom and uncertainty descending on the Russian mind over the intentions of the Donald Trump administration would only have deepened on Sunday when Washington brusquely demanded that Moscow “and the separatist forces it backs” in Donbas, Ukraine’s breakaway eastern region, should “immediately observe the ceasefire, withdraw all heavy weapons, and allow full and unfettered access to the OSCE monitors.”

The State Department statement warned that Washington is “closely watching the growing violence in eastern Ukraine” and stressed the “imperative” need for the “combined-Russian separatist forces” to honor the ceasefire stipulated under the Minsk agreements and “halt their attacks on civilian infrastructure.”

The statement was forthright in holding Moscow responsible. Importantly, it came soon after the sensational interview by President Trump to Reuters on Thursday where he vowed to maintain US nuclear supremacy over Russia.

Within the space of 72 hours, Trump administration has challenged the Kremlin on two of the most sensitive issues in Russia’s relations with the US – global strategic balance and Ukraine.

Moscow analysts kept a brave face to lighten the import of Trump’s remark – that “we’re never going to fall behind any country” on nuclear power and “we’re going to be at the top of the pack” of the world’s nuclear powers – suggesting that it probably aimed at placating the military-industrial complex and for making out the case for a big increase in defence spending.

But from the demi-official reactions by Kremlin politicians, it is apparent that Trump’s rhetoric made a splash. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of Russian lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, reacted that if Washington seriously aims at gaining nuclear supremacy, a return to cold war and arms race will become inevitable.

His counterpart in the upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, said, “Perhaps, it’s been the most alarming statement by Trump on relations with Russia.” Indeed, Trump’s statement reflected America’s strategic shift from a balance of power to unilateral strategic advantage vis-à-vis Russia, and it could seriously complicate the relations between the two world powers.

Equally, the State Department statement on Sunday regarding Ukraine is tantamount to a blunt rejection of the Russian narrative on eastern Ukraine. The accusation is direct and gives no scope for moderation.

Importantly, Minsk agreements are directly linked to the western sanctions against Russia. Even as of Monday afternoon, Moscow has not reacted.

Quite obviously, the two statements from Washington have come on top of other worrisome developments in the past 10-day period that may necessitate a rethink in Moscow’s approach toward the Trump administration.

First came the exit of Michael Flynn as NSA and his replacement by HR McMaster whose bio-profile would create misgivings as to what kind of Russia policies he’d spearhead. McMaster is in the mold of Defence Secretary James Mattis who views Russia as a military threat.

Moscow nonetheless decided to withhold judgment on Trump’s intriguing choice of McMaster. The Russian comments have been restrained. After all, Russian-American chronicle is replete with instances where things changed phenomenally at the summit level, and President Vladimir Putin is still to meet Trump in person.

However, Trump is also feeling the heat of the immense resistance from the US political elites to his agenda to improve relations with Russia. About half of Americans now feel that Congress should investigate whether Trump’s campaign team kept contact with the Russian government in 2016.

Bloomberg reported over the weekend that the US Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the allegations of Russian interference “is shaping up as an unexpectedly bipartisan effort that could take months to complete.”

Clearly, a war of attrition looms ahead and Trump has no choice but to go slow on Russia. Moscow’s best hope lies in an early meeting between Putin and Trump. The Russian side is scrupulously avoiding any criticism of Trump himself.

On Trump’s part, though, any contact with the Kremlin will remain too “toxic” for a foreseeable future. However, Trump administration is moving ahead to engage with Beijing.

The Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi will be in Washington on February 27-28 at the invitation of the US government. Yang is the first senior Chinese official to visit the US since Trump took office.

Xinhua reported that a China-US summit meeting is on top of Yang’s agenda and he will be discussing with top US officials “when and where the two heads of state will meet as they looked forward to a meeting at an early date.”

Conceivably, the Trump administration is prioritizing engagement with China to explore the basis for a Sino-American strategic understanding that might, as Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in the New York Times last week, encourage Russia to “realize that if it were not included in a Sino-American accommodation, its interests would be at risk.”

Brzezinski advised: “America must also be mindful of the danger that China and Russia could form a strategic alliance. For this reason, the United States must take care not to act toward China as though it were a subordinate: this would almost guarantee a closer tie between China and Russia.”

The bottom line is that the US and Russia have too few common interests, whereas there are fundamental conflicts of interests that make a substantial improvement in the relations an excruciatingly painful and slow process.

In the absence of a new policy thrust toward Russia, and coming under intense scrutiny to prove he is not “pro-Russia”, Trump may fall back on the easy option of “continuity” as the only way out for the present.

But then, as a prominent Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya noted recently, such “continuity”, although intended as a mere starting point in a dialogue with Moscow, might gradually gain the center stage for want of a new US policy toward Russia.

There is a danger that the present “vacuum” in Russian-American relations may be about to get filled up with rhetoric.

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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