How Russia and the US can reset relations to their mutual benefit
A firm alliance between Russia and America is not only possible, it is both necessary and inevitable since it meets the key, underlying geopolitical interests of both countries
It is a common trope for US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin to warn that relations between the world’s two leading nuclear powers face the most serious crisis since the Cold War’s darkest era. Both men have also reflected on the need to improve their relationship in the interests of peace and global stability. Unfortunately, beyond aggrieved statements and expressions of goodwill, things are not getting better. There are even moments when the positive words collapse into acrimony and the threat arises once again of a peace that is no peace.
The latest warning sign has come from the announcement by the Trump administration that the US is to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), agreed with the Soviet Union in 1987. A Russian senator explicitly accused Trump of “returning the world to the Cold War”. It is clear that this undermining of the Cold War framework for detente and cooperation is dangerous for the world.
Equally concerning was the escalation of the Syrian conflict in Idlib province, where regime forces, supported by the Russian military, were massing to assault the last bastion of rebels and terrorists. Meanwhile, Washington had already pre-emptively accused Bashar al-Assad of the use of chemical weapons and concentrated a naval squadron to be ready for missile strikes. The episode was reminiscent of the Caribbean Crisis of 1962, when controversy about Soviet missiles in Cuba almost led to another world war.
We see the same heated confrontation in Europe where Nato is increasing military infrastructure on its eastern frontiers, including elements of missile defence. Russia is effectively being pushed into an arms race, developing next generation “hypersonic” rockets and a “doomsday submarine”. Considering that both parties have already accumulated significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, such flashpoints could have apocalyptic consequences.
What is perhaps most dangerous is this: both sides are morally ready to push the button. Last spring, addressing the Russian elite with his annual address to parliament, President Putin said: “If anyone has the intention to destroy Russia, we have a legitimate right to answer. Yes, for mankind it will be a global disaster; for the world it will be a global disaster – but as a citizen of Russia, as the Russian president, I want to ask: why should we accept such a world if no Russia will be in it?”
All this happened simultaneously with the deepening sanctions war, launched it should be noted by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama, who in 2015 in his address to Congress, bragged that: “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.” With Trump’s inauguration, the old American establishment has been forced to exit (pursued by a bear?), claiming as its cause celebre the alleged interference of Russians in the 2016 presidential elections. What’s more, the sanctions imposed by America on Russian companies, which have no direct role in squabbles between Washington and Moscow, simply force Russians to look for partners in other parts of the world. And they find one, first and foremost, in China.
Meanwhile, the existential economic and geopolitical threat to almost a century of American global supremacy emanates not from Russia at all. The source of this threat is neither in Europe, nor in the Middle East.
In the 21st century, the Pacific Ocean plays the same role for human civilisation as the Mediterranean did in antiquity. In the countries adjacent to the Pacific Ocean we find the majority of the Earth’s population, producing a large part of the world’s material value. Here too are concentrated the primary centres of technological development. The principal rival of the US in the Asia-Pacific Region (and, therefore, in the world as a whole) is of course China, which, by some estimates, has already surpassed America in size of contribution towards global GDP.
The “Celestial Empire” has become the workhouse of the world, with its almost unlimited human and natural resources. The development of a symbiotic relationship between China and Russia, with its military-industrial complex should concern American analysts.
Russia will create a dominant alliance. In principle, Moscow could take its eastern neighbour, which lacks serious potential in its intercontinental ballistic missile programme, under the “nuclear umbrella” – in the same way as the US did in for its Nato allies – and provide China with modern conventional weapons. National Interest recently described the sale of Russian SU-35 fighter aircraft (“Flanker” under Nato’s classification) to the Chinese Air Force as “a nightmare and a headache” for American forces in Asia.
However, this is not only a question of military superiority: together with other Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), China could put an end to the Bretton Woods system of trade settlements based on the US dollar. In so doing, it would tear down a pyramid of national banks and cast America into a much deeper crisis than the Great Depression of the 1930s.
However, for the Russian bear, friendship with the Chinese tiger holds many dangers as well. First of all, Russia could easily become dependent on China by turning from a primary supplier of raw material to the west – as it was until recently – into a client state. At the same time, migration of Chinese populations to the Far East regions of Russia, which are currently suffering demographic problems, could easily change the ethnic balance there and eventually create a background for territorial claims.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that relations between the two countries were not always as sunny as they are today. Half a century ago, communist China – led by “the great helmsman” Mao Zedong – was preparing for war with the Soviet Union. The battle for the disputed Damansky Island in 1969 was the culmination of months of tension before diplomacy prevailed. If China in the future were to use its increased military power in territorial disputes with its neighbours, or to resolve the question of its relationship with Taiwan, there could be dangerous consequences for Russia.
There can be no doubt that historically and culturally Russia belongs to the European family of nations. However, its uniqueness lies in the paradoxical fact that it is the only European country whose mainland coasts are washed by the Pacific. This in turn creates the civilisational grounds for a global partnership with the United States, another nation that looks out across that great ocean.
Unfortunately, a significant portion of the elites in both Washington and Moscow are fixated today on notions of mutual hostility – especially when that hostility plays a role in domestic political games. However, fantastical as it may sound, a firm alliance between Russia and America is not only possible, it is both necessary and inevitable since it meets the key, underlying geopolitical interests of both countries. In order to understand how such an alliance can come about, we must look at the present contradictions from a new angle.
The major aggravating element in Russian-American relations is in Eastern Europe. Recently published shorthand reports of negotiations between Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton demonstrate that even in the 1990s – when Russian foreign policy largely corresponded to American interests – there existed serious contradictions. The Kremlin tried to resist a cowboy’s swoop by America, which was at the time inebriated by its supposed victory in the Cold War. Yeltsin suggested to Clinton that there should be a “verbal gentlemen’s agreement” that no post-Soviet republic would enter Nato. US and Nato intervention in the Balkans conflicts, and especially the bombing of Belgrade – became a turning point (literally in the case of the Russian prime minister at the time, Evgeny Primakov, whose flight turned around on its way to negotiations with Washington). On March 24 1999, Boris Yeltsin told Bill Clinton in a rage: “There will not be such a great drive and such friendship that we had before. That will not be there again”.
The most painful thing for Moscow was the deliberate expansion of US influence into the western edges of the former USSR, which eventually led to the Ukrainian tragedy of recent years. The protective attitude towards Ukraine on the part of the Russian elite is quite explicable, it should be said. For more than three centuries this territory was a part of Russia, and Kiev was known as the “mother of the Russian towns”. Leonid Brezhnev – one of the most famous communist leaders of the Soviet era, who was at the head of the USSR from 1964 to 1982 – was a Ukrainian, born in the modern Dnepropetrovsk region. Industrial progress in Ukraine was and is the result of the joint efforts of Ukrainians, Russians and representatives of other nations.
The declaration on the state sovereignty of Ukraine, approved during the Soviet Union’s disintegration, sets out the basic principle of the country’s foreign policy: “The Ukrainian SSR solemnly declares its intention of becoming a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs and adheres to three nuclear-free principles: to accept, to produce and to purchase no nuclear weapons.” This principle has been supported in two referendums, and reference to it is in the existing constitution of Ukraine. It explains why the Kremlin in 1991 was tolerant of the fact that Ukraine gained independence within the borders which were artificially drawn by Stalin and Khrushchev. The “buffer” status suited Russia’s interests and Moscow never tried to involve Ukraine in its military-political grouping, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which integrates the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It leased from Kiev the harbour in Crimean Sevastopol for its Black Sea Fleet, which had been located there since the city’s founding in 1783.
However, the United States’ policy towards the former Soviet Union territory was captured by the doctrine of the former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who insisted that America’s mission in Eastern Europe is to confront Russia. He wrote in his book The Grand Chessboard: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. Without Ukraine, Russia ... would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state, more likely to be drawn into debilitating conflicts with aroused Central Asians, who would then be resentful of the loss of their recent independence and would be supported by their fellow Islamic states to the south”.
Brzezinski also wrote that if Moscow were to regain control over Ukraine, “Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia”. Yet this is not the case. Russia, as noted already, did not try to control Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR; and a thesis which assumes that the power of Russia inherently contradicts the interests of America is questionable in any case. However irrational, the persistent desire of some in Washington (and among America’s European allies) to set Ukraine against Russia, and to bring the former into the orbit of American influence, ultimately led to the bloody events of 2014 in Kiev: the overthrow of President Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in the east of the country which has cost tens of thousands of human lives.
Nowadays, the regime in Kiev is under the influence of the US. Next year, presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in Ukraine. The White House, if it takes a step back, can help to ensure that whoever wins those elections is in position afterwards to confirm the neutrality of the country, to stop pursuing anti-Russian sentiment and to guarantee the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s southeast. Russia, in return, would need to assure the reintegration of the restive Donbass regions as autonomous elements within Ukraine, which would be monitored by UN peacekeepers. Indeed, this would be no more than the implementation of the Minsk agreement – adherence to this document has been certified by all warring parties for over four years. A settlement in the Donbass will then open the way for removal of sanctions.
There is also, of course, the Crimean question, which is a discrete matter that need not be dealt with in this settlement of other issues. Russia does not seek any special recognition of its sovereignty over the peninsula, and the US can in due course declare non-recognition of its association to Russia. There are precedents for such a state of affairs: according to the Welles Declaration of 1940 (named after the acting secretary of state Sumner Welles) the US refused to recognise the Baltic Republics as part of the Soviet Union. However, that did not hinder American merchant ships from coming into the ports of Riga and Klaipeda; nor did it prevent President Gerald Ford from confirming – without discounting the Welles Declaration – the inviolability of the USSR’s boundaries in 1975, in Basket I of the Helsinki Final Act at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Similarly, the US, like Japan, has not recognised Russia’s sovereignty over the Southern Kuriles for the last 73 years; yet it does not lead to any constraints or sanctions.
A settlement package on Ukraine would untangle present contradictions and reduce the confrontational atmosphere between the Russian Federation and Nato. A process could then begin to demilitarise on all fronts, and to restore the kind of trusting partnership that was envisaged in the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between Nato and Russia, which the two sides signed in 1997.
Pacification in Europe, in turn, will set the background for broad cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the Asia-Pacific region, which would be a key factor in inhibiting any Chinese ambitions to hegemony. The fate of a divided Europe in 1975 was settled by the Final Act in Helsinki. Kiev holds the key to a Helsinki 2.0 – to determine the fate of the Asia-Pacific region today.
Alexander Lebedev’s family co-own The Independent and Evening Standard titles
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