Nobody can ever wholly escape the mixture of positive and negative influences of his or her times and country. Neither are politicians across the globe exempt from the deeply ingrained ethical, cultural, and intellectual foibles and prejudices of their respective societies. Accordingly, trust among political leaders of all ages and places has always been either non-existent or of short supply. This dearth of trust, fundamentally rooted in a mutual failure to comprehend the other nation’s mentality, has characterized the over two centuries old history of US-Russia relations too. Avoiding the temptation of expanding on this history, suffice it to state that as Russian domestic and foreign policies could not be understood by the pragmatic, result oriented American mind, so has been the emotional mindset of the Russians mostly incapable to objectively judge the domestic and foreign policies of the United States of America.
The “Cold War” ended with several agreements between the two states. At the Malta summit in December 1989, then President George H. W. Bush assured Mikhail Gorbachev that the United States of America will not take advantage of the unfolding events in Central and Eastern Europe. The same assurance was echoed by then Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Federal Republic of Germany on January 31, 1990, in the Bavarian town of Tutzing. Less than a month later, Secretary of State James Baker’s doubled down on the so-called “Tutzing formula” and declared on February 9, 1990, that NATO will not expand “one inch eastward.”
These unilateral assurances were reiterated ad nauseum throughout 1990 by leading politicians of the most important NATO countries. Clearly, the leaders of the United States, the Federal Republic, Great Britain, and France all struggled to come up with an acceptable solution to manage the rapidly unfolding disintegration processes within the Warsaw Pact countries. This complex endeavor was even more complicated by the expected reunification of the two German states, which in fact meant the integration of the communist Democratic Republic of Germany into the NATO member Federal Republic of Germany.
In this context, President Bush in a telephone conversation on July 17,1990, assured his counterpart in the Soviet Union Gorbachev as follows: “So what we tried to do was to take account of your concerns expressed to me and others, and we did it in the following ways: by our joint declaration on non-aggression (in London); in our invitation to you to come to NATO; in our agreement to open NATO to regular diplomatic contact with your government and those of the Eastern European countries; and our offer on assurances on the future size of the armed forces of a united Germany – an issue I know you discussed with Helmut Kohl (the then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany). We also fundamentally changed our military approach on conventional and nuclear forces. We conveyed the idea of an expanded, stronger CSCE (meaning the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also called colloquially the Helsinki Accords) with new institutions in which the Soviet Union can share and be a part of the new Europe.” In this spirit, as late as on August 1, 1991, then President Bush appealed to the Ukrainians to remain part of the Soviet Union. In his speech dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” oratory, he argued for the maintenance of the status quo.
In summary, the United States of America wanted a relatively painless and smooth transition from the forty five years of military stand-off to a new stable order in Europe and beyond, while maintaining the cohesion of NATO. The Soviet Union desired to take advantage of the end of the continent’s partition and hoped to be integrated quickly into the West as an equal partner. However, because of events partially beyond the control of both parties, political developments took a circular turn in the 1990s.
Most significantly, the new leadership under Boris Yeltsin in Moscow faced a dilemma. Either saving Russia from additional disintegration or allowing the previous Soviet political elite to control both the already existing institutions and the economy. The new President of Russia opted for a hybrid solution. He decided to keep in place most of the Soviet institutions while promoting the rise of a new elite exclusively beholden to him. The era of the Yeltsin oligarchs that was described by the Russian people with a play on the word privatizacia (privatization in English) as prihvatizacia (to steal in English) ended in a spectacular failure. By 1998, Russia was at the throat of financial and economic bankruptcy. Having betrayed his own principles and promises, and nearing the end of his second term in office, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin to manage the transition from his presidency to the new one.
Putin has understood fully the difficulties and dangers of the situation into which Yeltsin’s failures has placed him. He also has possessed a certain depth of vision. This depth of vision about the future course of Russia, combined with his determination not to repeat Yeltsin’s shortcomings of character, and avoid at any cost melancholy and hesitation in his decision making, has driven him to first eliminate the Yeltsin oligarchs one by one. In his foreign policy, Putin initially strove to avoid direct confrontation with the United States and the European Union. Helped by rising oil prices, he concentrated on stabilizing the economy. Thus between 2000 and 2008, Putin was busy restoring a measure of internal peace and stability to Russia. The following four years interregnum under his placeholder Dmitry Medvedev did not yield significant changes domestically or internationally.
During the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, the United States of America and Europe were consolidating the expansion of NATO and the European Union. However, the price that the United States and Europe have paid for the astounding developments of the 1990s and the resulting expansion of their spheres of influence eastward has been the return to an even more confrontational relationship with Russia. Instead of bringing peace and tranquility to the continent, the desire to create a fait accompli around Russia has triggered a counter reaction from Moscow. In turn, the invasion and the subsequent incorporation of the Crimea and the events in eastern Ukraine have resulted in the imposition of financial and economic sanctions on Russia by the United States and the European Union.
Clearly, the Obama Administration did not have a coherent Russia policy. President Obama himself oscillated between his “Reset” and Hillary Clinton’s blatant interference in the 2009 revolts, and the following election campaign for the Russian presidency. In March 2011, NATO forces invaded Libya and caused the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, in spite of repeated assurances to the contrary to the Russian leadership. In 2012, President Obama asked President Medvedev to convey his message to the next president Vladimir Putin that after his reelection he would be able to pursue a more accommodating policy toward Russia. And again in September 2015, Russia has intervened militarily in Syria. As night follows daylight, additional sanctions have been imposed by the United States of America and its European allies.
In Europe, Russia under President Putin has tried to loosen, and if possible, to break up to cohesion of the European Union. Through intimidation, bribery of mostly East and Central European politicians, and the offerings of lucrative energy and infrastructure projects, Moscow has seemingly succeeded to drive a wedge between the rich and poorer members of the European Union. Even more significantly, the anti-Brussels sentiments have spread beyond the newly admitted members to the more established member states, such as Greece, Spain, Italy, and Austria. Presently, the European Union is in total disarray. Most alarmingly, Germany that has been the rock within the European Union has experienced political instability and a rising tide of isolationist nationalism. In Central Europe, the so-called Visegrad Four, namely Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have openly opposed Germany’s open borders policies. The Baltic states have long been nervous about their exposure to Russian intimidation. The southern states have faced serious and protracted economic crises. Meanwhile, President Trump has questioned the current state of affairs within NATO and has demanded repeatedly fundamental changes in financial as well as military contributions from all members states.
Outside Europe, the Middle East is seething and ready for a second even more bloody “Arab Spring.” Peace in the Holy Land is more elusive than ever before. Egypt experiences grave economic problems. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been undergoing fundamental changes under King Salman and his son, the Crown Prince. Iraq is close to being a non state. Syria is in a shambles. Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah. And so on and so forth. In Asia and beyond, China is following an aggressive expansionist foreign policy, challenging the United States of America across the globe. After almost three decades of the so-called “Peace Dividend”, the world has become more unstable and the future more unpredictable than during the “Cold War” period.
Yet, in spite of all the gloom and the enormous challenges facing the United States, President Trump cannot go back to the past but must devise a straight and effective foreign policy that deals with the present state of affairs as they are in reality. Moreover, instead of creating new challenges, he will have to endeavor finding remedies for the existing and possible future problems. One of the most important of these problems and challenges is the relationship between the United States of America and Russia.
Obviously, the status quo is not working. Moreover, the sanctions that have been imposed through the years have had only limited effects on the Russian economy. The reasons for this conclusion are numerous. As for as territory is concerned, Russia is by far the largest country in the world. It has and therefore it can mobilize large natural resources. At the most recent Economic Forum held in June, in St. Petersburg, American businesses were prominently represented. Deals have been concluded. Moreover, the French President, the Japanese Prime Minister, the Head of the International Monetary Fund, the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, and other dignitaries were in attendance. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was accompanied by his Minister of Economic Affairs. The latter undertook a long tour of the eighty seven regions and made on the spot investment decisions. The Prime Minister himself expressed his desire to sign a peace treaty with Russia before he leaves office. Most importantly, an agreement was concluded in principle concerning joint artificial intelligence research and development. Moreover, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is nearing its completion that estimated to double the amount of gas Russia can send directly to Germany. In reality, Russia cannot be contained by sanctions and cannot be totally isolated by surrounding it with NATO member states.
In the upcoming meeting between President Trump and President Putin one major factor must be taken into account. For President Trump the outcome of this summit is important domestically too. For President Putin domestic opinion is negligible, if not totally unimportant. Russia’s overall foreign policy is not based on the quality of the US-Russia relations. Neither is American foreign policy driven primarily by the state of this relationship. Yet, because of the United States constitutional system, the summit is more important for President Trump than for President Putin. In this context, an obvious question arises: Does President Putin want to help President Trump politically? The answer should be a resounding yes. The escalation of the confrontation is bad for both of them. Reconciliation and enhanced cooperation are good for both of them. Therefore, deepening the bilateral relationship between the two countries is mutually beneficial.
Looking at the multilateral factors, it is in the United states of America’s vital strategic interest to prevent a close cooperation and even alliance between Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Clearly, Russia’s President Putin is very concerned about China’s rise of political influence in Asia and beyond. He must be even more uncomfortable with China’s military and economic developments. A sure sign of President Putin’s alarm is the fact that Russia is fast developing Siberia. Beijing has never made a secret of its rejection of the so-called “unequal treaties” and its desire to one day regain most of Siberia. Yet, Russia will never abandon Siberia.
The doors for cooperation in North Korea, in Japan with respect to a peace treaty, in the formerly Soviet Republics of the five Islamic states, especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in the greater Middle East, in particular in Syria and in Iran, are wide open. In Europe, lasting stability can only be accomplished through a gradual reconciliation of mutual interests and principles. For that to be successful, a new Helsinki Conference must be organized. Such a conference is justified by the chaotic situation within the European Union and the worsening economic and financial conditions in Russia. If Europe wants to avoid its newest destruction, everybody, including the United States of America, must understand that lasting peace and prosperity cannot be forced upon the people, but should be agreed on by all those concerned. For this reason alone, the upcoming meeting between the two presidents in Helsinki, on July 17th, 2018, is of utmost importance.