Washington and Moscow: Confrontation or Cooperation?

By June 20, 2017

Executive Summary:

Behind the ongoing media frenzy, America seems deeply divided over whether to pursue a hard line with Russia or to cooperate with it. With Donald Trump favoring the latter course, Moscow “voted” for him in the 2016 elections. But the Kremlin’s cybernetic interference in the election has led to ongoing Russo-gate and efforts by President Trump’s foes to paint him as a Manchurian candidate.

As Trump replaces Obama’s misconceived policy of strategic patience with proactive strategic savvy, the question of US future policies remains open. Seeking answers requires a fundamental reexamination of Washington’s 21st century Middle East wars, where at every turn Russian-American relations formed the hidden context.

The story began in 2001-2002, when new presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin formed a successful partnership during the post 9/11 war against Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan – only to see it unravel over the course of the two superpowers’ interventions in the Middle East and Russia’s interference in Georgia and Ukraine.

Personality has played a key role in the vicissitudes of US-Russian relations. Contrary to his common image as a KGB “stone cold killer,” Putin has shown himself to be “a cold calculator of Russian national interests” (to use Henry Kissinger’s words), a Christian autocrat who, like the tsars earlier, uses terror selectively against enemies of the state. By contrast, Presidents Bush and Obama were primarily ideologically driven in their Middle East wars, seeking democratic regime change for people living under oppressive dictatorships. Unfortunately, the fall of dictatorships in Iraq and Libya generated jihadist chaos and political disintegration and worsened Washington’s relations with Moscow, which felt misled into supporting the Libyan intervention. The result was the intensification of Russian support for Bashar Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria.

In 2013, when Obama reneged on his chemical weapon red line in Syria, Putin got a first-hand indication of what “strategic patience” really meant. Thus, when Moscow’s corrupt client, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by popular revolt, Putin responded with the 2014 bloodless invasion of Crimea. A year later he saved Assad with an unprecedented military intervention.

Given this less than exemplary record of US foreign policy, one can only hope that President Trump and his seasoned national security team can establish fruitful deal-making with Putin. Should Russo-gate lead to impeachment, however, American power will be dangerously weakened (as happened with Richard Nixon). This would significantly increase the likelihood of future confrontation with Moscow.

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