February 10, 2017

President Trump and Improving US–Russian Relations


In June 2001, having been in office for a mere five months, US President George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin—who had by then governed Russia for over a year—in Slovenia. At the time, Bush astonished the world with his wide-eyed statement: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.

I am who you think I am.

Who I am today is not the same person I was yesterday.

Just as you will not be the same person tomorrow as you are today.

Prince Gabriel, free man, in the Estonian classic film The Last Relic (Viimne reliikvia)

The newly inaugurated President Donald Trump is yet to meet Putin for the first time but he has already managed to tweet praise of the Russian president repeatedly, and in a considerably more naive spirit than Bush.
On the one hand, it is natural that the new master of the White House should try to find ways to mend the bilateral relationship with Russia. This is also what Trump’s predecessors—Bill Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama—tried to achieve. In addition, the confrontation between the Kremlin and the Western world has become increasingly tense, especially due to Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and Syria. However, there might be more to Trump’s words—and even his attempts to mimic Putin.
On the other hand, earlier US attempts to reset relations with Moscow have always taken into account the vital interests of both the US and its allies. Can we expect the same from Trump? His slogan “America First”, along with the repeated statements about an “obsolete” NATO—which are a perfect match for the interests and rhetoric of the Kremlin—raise serious questions among the European allies, including Estonia. What should we expect from US foreign and security policy, and can we even talk about its continuation? The change of power in the US has always brought changes in its wake, but certain core interests and values—which have been supported by both major parties, Republican and Democratic (for instance, the relationship with the North Atlantic Alliance)—have remained intact. Yet it appears that Trump wishes to turn the whole world upside down, contrary to the statements made—hand-on-Bible—by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis in their Senate confirmation hearings. This is a unique phenomenon, which could bring about a fundamental change not only in relations between Washington and Moscow but in the entire Western world, including the future of the European Union and NATO, the vital importance of which to Estonia’s independence, status and development cannot be overstated.

The “Trump Phenomenon”

An extraordinary number of people in the West, including Estonia, are genuinely or slightly less sincerely—perhaps gleefully—thrilled with Trump. Why? Apparently because he is seen as a rebel who is trying to a) bring down a corrupt and degenerate establishment seen as disconnected from the people, b) enliven the political culture, i.e. combat out-of-control political correctness by calling things by their proper names, and c) improve the living, working and business conditions of the “forgotten” and dissatisfied members of the public. In the current context, one must clearly acknowledge that the throngs of Trump voters—in fact, the majority of Americans—do not care about the foreign and security policy of the White House or the US, including whether relations with the Kremlin are friendly or antagonistic. They want Trump to fulfil the promises he made during the election campaign, which mainly concern changes to the tax and healthcare systems to make business easier and more profitable and securing a doctor’s appointment quicker, cheaper and with less bureaucracy.
Ordinary Russians cheered for Trump—naturally inspired by the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus—and were sincerely happy about his victory, but for a quite different reason: “so there would not be a war”; however, they overestimated Trump’s respect for and awe of Putin and Russia, and his willingness to forgive the Kremlin everything and give his blessing to matters concerned with, for example, Ukraine. Russians are mostly enthusiastic about the triumph of populism, which weakens the Western world and opens up new opportunities for Russia, while Americans and Europeans tend to fall largely into three groups. The first are the “optimists” of the new era, who are thrilled with Brexit, Trump and Marine Le Pen, as well as Putin and the “imminent dissolution” of the European Union. The second includes “realistic” wishful thinkers, who hope that Trump and his sympathisers will come to their senses or at least start listening to the voices of reason and things will somehow work out without any great disruption. The third group is made up of “regressive pessimists” who are still trying to find a rational explanation for events and make predictions, issuing warnings about the unfeasibility of promised simple solutions and the populists’ eventual transformation into (a roughly similar) elite.

Mutual Expectations and Requirements

What does the US expect from Russia? Effective cooperation in the fight against terrorism, for sure, especially in the destruction of the so-called Islamic State, but also in creating a safer world, mainly via the reciprocal reduction of nuclear arsenals. In addition to that, the containment of Iran by preventing it from becoming a nuclear state. These are the American priorities to which Russia can contribute and Trump has already publicly presented these proposals to Putin.
How will Moscow respond? On 23 January, the Russian Ministry of Defence prematurely announced a “joint operation” of aircraft from Russia and the (US-led) coalition in Syria, which the Pentagon had to deny. Once again, Trump spoke of a willingness to cooperate. This is an example of the Kremlin trying to “jump-start” Trump. At the same time, trilateral negotiations were held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, between Russia, Turkey and Iran to “avoid provocations” and “strengthen” the ceasefire in place in Syria, in which the US—represented by its local ambassador—had observer status.
All parties understand that the annihilation of the so-called Islamic State is directly linked to many questions concerning the future, including the integrity of Syria and the fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the continuation of the Russian military presence in Syria, the presence and influence of the US in Iraq, the advancement of Iran’s and Turkey’s interests in Lebanon and/or Syria etc. Experience gained from Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that achieving a military victory, i.e. the destruction of the enemy and the occupation of its territory, is a rather easy task compared to the establishment of peace and finding a stable political solution. The risk of terrorists making it out alive and spreading all over Europe and Russia poses another major challenge.
However, nuclear weapons constitute one of Russia’s main claims to superpower status, along with its territorial and mineral resources. It appears that Trump’s proposal does not seem very attractive to Putin, which is why the Kremlin might counter it by demanding that the US abandon the missile defence shield elements in Poland and Romania, if not elsewhere, to “ensure stability”. This is obviously hard for the Pentagon to swallow.
What does Russia expect from the US? The Kremlin has stressed that the lifting of sanctions against Russia is essential if the relationship between the US and Russia is to be improved, and a prerequisite for trustworthy communication. The “withdrawal” of the US from Ukraine would be an enormous bonus for Putin because Ukraine is “everything” to Russia; but what is it for Trump? Germany and France—plagued by impending elections and a possible change of course towards populism and extremism—would not stand a chance against Russia without the US. Moreover, if Trump lifts sanctions, the European Union would not avoid following suit. In addition, Secretary of State Tillerson already has positive experience of conducting business in Russia and, consequently, new large deals and the influx of funds from US investors would be very welcome to rejuvenate Russia’s dwindling economy and depleted state coffers.
Trump may even be considering the removal of sanctions against Russia, perhaps as a gesture of goodwill or the return of a favour. “The problem” is the campaign in Congress to adopt a law that would deny the president an overriding authority to do this. In addition, the sanctions against Russia concern persons or companies/banks that are involved not only in the annexation of the Crimea and the Donbass but also in the death of Sergei Magnitsky [Russian lawyer who died in custody in Moscow in 2009]. Thus far, the West has insisted that the Kremlin implement the Minsk agreements before the sanctions could be lifted. Are they now, despite Russia’s inaction, ready to make a hypocritical statement that the Minsk agreements are not necessary or cannot be implemented at all?
Russia wishes to start using its influence while Trump and other important members of the administration are still relatively inexperienced and willing to make deals, but Americans are probably in no hurry and will first try to practise cooperation in Syria and the fight against terrorism, which will be their first wake-up call.
If the sanctions are lifted, Western oil and gas companies will certainly continue exploiting Russia’s deposits. The influx of Western high technology will be restored and the Kremlin’s treasury will fill up once again, but this will not unfortunately change Russia’s economic model.
Trump’s appreciation—if he ever thinks about this—of how active Russia’s intelligence services are in the US will certainly be a worrying factor. The same can be said of Russian cyber-attacks, whether with the intention of testing cyber-defence systems or of stealing information. Trump regards cyber defence as a high priority, and Estonia might appear useful and show itself in a favourable light in this respect.

Can President Trump be Manipulated by the Kremlin?

The scandal-filled “dossier”—the contents of which have been completely rejected by the US president and ridiculed by Putin—is said to include compromising material about businessman Trump’s visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe contest in November 2013. Trump’s domestic opponents were undoubtedly eager to find any kind of “material” on him. At the same time, it is possible that Russia’s special services started a rumour about the “scandalous dossier on Trump” without actually having any solid evidence against him in order to put the new US president immediately “in a tight spot”—by escalating his dispute with the US intelligence agencies, creating hysteria and increasing the divide between Trump’s supporters and his opponents. The more unsure Trump feels and the more he mistrusts his country’s intelligence services, the easier it is for the Kremlin to conduct business with him and come to agreements that favour Russia.
Nonetheless, it is still possible that the Russians do have kompromat but do not wish to make it public because this would put an end to all discussion of the possibility of improving relations and would trigger firm retaliation—Americans and the intelligence services of other Western countries definitely have more sensitive information about the shady schemes Putin and the members of his inner circle have conducted to misappropriate and move Russia’s state funds than public sources have so far reported.
As a parallel, it is worth recalling how Putin wrapped the newly elected French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, around his finger in June 2007 by supposedly blackmailing him during their first bilateral meeting in the margins of the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany. It was later speculated in relation to Muammar Gaddafi’s supposed financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 election campaign and the French president’s pronounced eagerness to overthrow the Libyan dictator as the Arab Spring broke out in March 2001 that Putin must have known something about this. Sarkozy, who had previously been highly critical about the state of human rights and democracy in Russia, was quick to adopt a more Kremlin-friendly rhetoric—he even agreed to sell two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia and to authorise the construction of a new Orthodox cathedral next to the Eiffel Tower (Putin’s “personal project”). It makes one think. It may not be that easy to “persuade” Trump through flattery and threats—especially if there is nothing serious to be unearthed and used against him. But who knows?
Whatever the truth about the “dossier”, the role of the Russian special services with regard to Trump does not end with it. Nobody denies that the Democratic Party was hit by cyber-attacks and the stolen information was clearly used in a selective, intentional and precisely timed manner to cause maximum damage to Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning. It is understandable that Trump cannot openly agree with the joint conclusion of all the US intelligence agencies that the cyber-attacks against Clinton originated from Russia—straight from the “structures” or through the hackers they hired—since this would be an indirect admission of accepting Putin’s “help”. Instead, Trump claims that the servers of the Republican Party were attacked, too, but were better protected. This way, the Kremlin did Trump “a favour”, albeit of questionable necessity—just as it had done by refusing to reciprocate when President Obama decided [at the end of 2016] to expel 35 Russian diplomats suspected of spying in the US.
Suspicions remain in the air—stemming from Russia’s motives for its eagerness to support Trump and the existence of supposedly compromising material, as well as the uncritical “positive inclusion” of Putin’s Russia on Trump’s side. As long as these suspicions are not discussed and convincingly disproved, they will leave their mark on any cooperation between the US and Russia, especially on delicate issues such as Ukraine, but also on Trump’s own position vis-à-vis NATO and the European Union.
In the end, Trump will probably remain a highly controversial president, insofar as his ideas continue to deviate from the positions of, for instance, his secretaries of state and defence. Even if he is successful in tackling some domestic issues (preferably on tax and healthcare, because the unemployment rate is low as it is) for which he is lauded by some, he may cause significant damage on an international scale. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is the first large question mark. This was concluded in cooperation with the US to make China play by the rules. Australia has already reacted to Trump’s decision to leave the TPP by suggesting that China [not currently a member of the agreement] might assume America’s position, and that their roles may be reversed. And we will be left wondering what Trump might announce at the next NATO summit, if not before.


Trump, Putin and Estonia’s Expectations

Viljar Veebel, Associate Professor at the Estonian National Defence College
In the light of the recent US presidential election results it would be good to consider the possibility that Trump is not the reason for the imminent (unpleasant) changes but, rather, that the shifts in values that have already happened are the cause of Trump’s success: the belief that Trump is just a passing anomaly serves little purpose in seeking to understand US interests and actions in the coming years. It is closer to the truth to say that the number of people in America’s corridors of power supporting former President Obama and President Trump’s world-view is more or less equal. Unfortunately, this also affects US policy towards Russia. The belief that the US administration unanimously condemns Russia’s aggressive policy and stands solidly behind its European allies was our way to see that the glass is half full. Moreover, it would be reasonable to recall that even the first months of Obama’s presidency caused the Estonian and Eastern European political elites such astonishment and surprise that they collectively wrote a public letter of concern.
Nevertheless, Trump has his positive side, especially in terms of nuclear deterrence: compared to Obama and Clinton, Trump is much more likely to respond in the positive to the classic question “would you press the nuclear button?” made famous by the British TV sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. There is also no reason to doubt Trump’s dedication to maintaining and developing US military capability. Furthermore, he has not so far been hypocritical, unlike some of our closer allies who criticise Russia’s aggressive policy while contributing to the construction of a new political gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea over the heads of the Baltic States.
Estonia’s only chance to survive in the world during Trump’s presidency is to accept the fact that the US is the main credible deterrent when it comes to Russia, and therefore there is no other way but to praise the good looks, integrity and innovative ideas of those in power, even if it be Old Nick himself.

Trumpology, experiment no. 2734

Karmo Tüür, researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
Kalev Stoicescu has made a contribution to the most popular “field of research” at the moment—Trumpology (the number of the contribution in my title is, naturally, random). The newly inaugurated US president, Donald Trump, offers valuable material for parodists as well as analysts all over the world. To be honest, this bears a resemblance to a peculiar religious sect, in which each member (including yours truly) attempts to interpret the holy scriptures in their own way.
The article is quite successful in dissecting three facets. It is worth discussing the Trump phenomenon time and time again to understand today’s general election patterns. Despite successfully mapping the mutual expectations of Russia and the US, the article fails to mention Moscow’s main desire—that the US should acknowledge Russia’s right to follow its own agenda in its sphere of influence. However, Russia’s ability to manipulate Trump is captured rather well, especially the idea that compromising material is rarely put into immediate use but is kept for truly special occasions instead.
If one were to nit-pick, one could indeed say that the article failed to answer the so-called main question: what will relations between the US and Russia be like? But, to be fair, it is difficult to tell for certain, considering the extremely controversial personality of the new US president and the sum of the questions that keep on coming from all directions. Trumplogy is still in its infancy.

Andrei Hvostov, writer and publicist
About ten days passed between Kalev Stoicescu’s analysis and my writing this short commentary. During that time, it has been shown that the optimists’ wish for Trump to “normalise” after the presidential inauguration has not been fulfilled: the new US president is an unpredictable, narcissistic populist, and is already being compared to Latin American caudillos by some journalists and analysts familiar with that part of the world.
It is difficult to agree with the calming message of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sven Mikser, broadcast during the programme Reporteritund on Vikerraadio on 24 January, which can be summed up with the statement that our foreign policy is currently “business as usual”. Some may ask what else we can do. The US is the cornerstone of our security policy and this is why we are destined to do everything together with the United States. There was once a time when we justified our participation in the Iraq venture by claiming that we were defending Estonia on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris. The same logic can serve as a basis for the thesis that a wall along the Mexican border will also protect Estonia. This is irony.
Joking aside, we have entered an era in which a comfortable foreign-policy niche within a great bloc (NATO and the EU) is about to be replaced by the “every man for himself” policy characteristic of the 19th century. Trump’s pioneering cry “America first!” expresses exactly that. Are the makers of Estonian foreign policy ready for this kind of development? Being a “regressive pessimist who tries to find a rational explanation for events”, I have not noticed such readiness since the pivotal year 2004 when we joined the End of History—not in the foreign-policy or internal political sense (in relation to the attitude towards Estonian Russians).
Thus, we must be quick to learn. As quick as a tiger.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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