Trump open to bromance with Putin, but from a position of strength
The venue chosen by Donald Trump, Republican frontrunner in the US presidential race, to make his major foreign policy speech last Wednesday was significant.
It was the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based public policy think tank that is better known as the Nixon Center, established by late President Richard Nixon.
The Nixon Center is headed by Dmitri Simes, an ethnic Russian Jew who migrated to the US in the early seventies and became a noted Kremlinologist identifiable with the Henry Kissinger school of ‘Old Guard’ pragmatists who advocate strategically useful modus vivendi with Russia.
Indeed, the salience of Trump’s speech is that he shares Kissinger’s views on how the US should manage its relations with Russia (and China). Reproduced below is the passage from Trump’s speech outlining his thinking toward Russia:
- We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia… We have serious differences… and must regard them with open eyes. But we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests. Russia… has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia – from a position of strength – is possible. Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a good deal for America, then we will quickly walk from the table.
Trump’s preferred choice ought to be to negotiate with his Russian counterpart. This stems from a pragmatic outlook on the realities of Russian power and interests and an openness to the idea that a reconciliation between Moscow’s concerns and Washington’s necessities may be possible.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, the most enchanting thing about a Trump presidency would be that it may not be obsessed with America’s ‘exceptionalism’ and is unlikely to push the ‘democracy project’ in Russia.
Washington, under successive administrations starting from Bill Clinton, was devoted to the project to transform Russia into a western democracy. On the contrary, Trump, like Kissinger, would believe that the Kremlin remains always open to wheeling and dealing and the trick lies in putting together the correct alchemy and make an offer that it cannot refuse.
Ukraine becomes a test case. Will a settlement over Ukraine be possible on the lines of Kissinger’s recommendation – namely, a militarily non-aligned Ukraine that satisfies Russian needs of a buffer on its historically volatile western borders, while also assuring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity?
Again, Trump sees the fight against terrorism and ‘radical Islam’ as an arena where he could find “common ground based on shared interests” with President Vladimir Putin. The only issue on which Trump has threatened to use military force is against radical Islamists. His DNA is similar to Putin’s.
Neither loses sleep over the contradictions that spew Islamist radicalism in the Greater Middle East (which includes the Caucasus and Central Asia.) Interestingly, if Tahrir Square erupts all over again, Trump and Putin would share the angst over President Fatah al-Sisi’s survival, since they’d dread the return of the Muslim Brotherhood (even if the Brothers retake power through democratic means.)
However, Trump is unlikely to share the Middle East with Putin, since he considers the region (and its petrodollar states) far too vital to US interests. Thus, Russian diplomacy’s capacity to exploit the fractured alliance between the US and its regional allies – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. – may diminish in a Trump presidency.
But then, Trump can offer a trade-off to Putin with regard to Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Whether the latter will be content with such bit trade-offs remains to be seen. The point is, Russia aspires to play a global role, but there is no evidence that Trump sees Russia as an ‘equal partner’.
A clash between Russia’s vaulting ambitions on the global stage and Trump’s refusal to concede them may ensue at some point. Trump made it clear that he hopes to negotiate with Russia from ‘a position of strength’. For sure, he will take American military superiority over Russia to new heights.
In the present state of the Russian economy, the Kremlin cannot afford an arms race with the US. Again, Trump regrets that President Barack Obama was not pushing robustly enough the deployment of the US missile defence system in Central Europe. Now, that’s a ‘red line’ for Russia – US attempt to establish ‘nuclear superiority’.
Russia’s option lies in edging closer to China. Putin’s forthcoming visit to China next month will show which way the wind is blowing.
Russia has recently begun voicing support for China against the US involvement in South China Sea disputes. Russia keenly harmonizes its stance with China’s on North Korea problem. Russia and China are on the same page in opposing the deployment of US’ ABM system in Northeast Asia.
Significantly, Russia’s Aerospace Defence Force conducted an exercise with China for the first time last week aimed at practising “combined operations” of the two countries’ missile defence task forces to counter potential US attacks with ballistic or cruise missiles.
Trump earlier on gave an impression that he regarded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an archaic relic of the Cold War. But in Wednesday’s speech, he sought to make the alliance more efficient, without doubting the raison d’etre of NATO.
Europe watches the prospect of a Trump presidency with some trepidation but that does not mean the end of history for Euro-Atlanticism. Trump understands the centrality of the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership in its global strategies. He will not brook Russian attempts to weaken the western alliance or to exploit the disarray within the European Union.
There are of course glaring gaps in Trump’s vision. The devil invariably lies in the details. Trump did not take any view on the western sanctions against Moscow, which, from the Kremlin’s viewpoint is the ultimate litmus test of his intentions toward the containment strategy pursued by successive US administrations since the nineties.
The Russian pundits already propagate a ‘bromance’ between Putin and Trump. But that is to underestimate Trump’s grit, as evident from the brutal campaign he waged to get this close to storming the Republican Party citadel.
Trump will unlikely ease the pressure on Russia until the withdrawal of Russian presence in eastern Ukraine is complete, which of course is predicated on a broader settlement. It stands to reason that back channels are at work. In Wednesday’s speech, he steered clear of mentioning Ukraine or Crimea.
Ambassador 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 Asia Times since 2001.