Originally Published 2017-02-08 10:51:56 Published on Feb 08, 2017
Trump's tango wih Putin

US-Russia relations have been on a downward spiral since the 2008 Georgian war with Russia. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s acerbic remarks on the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections added to the downward momentum. The Ukraine crisis in 2014 saw relations plummet further. The current nadir was reached after WikiLeaks made public the hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). An official inquiry report, ordered by Barack Obama, even if based on specious inferences, indicted Russia in the hacking. However, Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the US Presidentship has given rise to speculation that Washington’s ties with Moscow will improve. a development that will have significant implications for India.

Supporters of this view cite Trump’s yearning, expressed in campaign speeches, to collaborate with Moscow to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh, his stated inclination to consider withdrawal of sanctions against Russia in return for cooperation on nuclear weapons reduction, and a lukewarm approach to NATO and other allies if they do not pay more for US security guarantees as reasons for relations improving between the White House and Kremlin.

Their opponents argue that the situation on the ground is too complex to be encapsulated in a few campaign speeches. They say that Trump will soon find out that Russian interests run contrary to US interests because, fundamentally, Moscow is opposed to a US-led world order based on Western liberal values. Therefore, goes their narrative, be it West Asia or Europe, there are limits to US cooperation with Russia.

That the truth, as usual, is somewhere in between was indicated in the first formal, almost one-hour long, conversation between Trump and President Vladimir Putin last week. Trump’s desire to reduce US military involvement around the globe is likely to see some cooperation — direct or indirect — in Syria. The complication here is that one of Russia’s allies in Syria is Iran, a country that Trump views as the prime destabiliser in West Asia. On the other hand, Turkey — a NATO member — has already signed on attempts to stabilise Syria along with Russia and Iran. This may be a precursor of how cooperation against the Daesh will unfold. This cooperation could also extend to Afghanistan — a possibility that should pique India’s interest. In Europe, the circumstances for greater cooperation exist but the atmospherics may limit the scope of this collaboration. All the countries, except Ukraine, participating in the sanctions imposed on Russia after the 2014 crisis are in favour of easing the sanctions, particularly since the sanctions haven’t had any demonstrable effect. The Minsk agreement is a road map for stabilising the situation in Ukraine that is acceptable to all parties. The sticking point is Crimea, which; as everyone agrees, Russia is not going to give up. The solution could probably be to place it on the backburner and invoke the US approach to the Baltics after World War II. Then the US refused to recognise the Baltics as part of the USSR, but continued dealing with the Kremlin.

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The problem is that this may be perceived as a victory for Putin, something the Europeans would be loath to accept. Therefore, any chance of the sanctions against Russia being lifted and Moscow making concessions elsewhere, would depend on Trump finding a way to finesse this dilemma between reality and perception. US-Russia ties will also greatly depend on Trump’s ability to resist efforts to circumscribe his manoeuvrability and overcome the resistance of the foreign policy establishment, including his closest advisors, majority of the members of the Congress, and many vocal opinion makers.

Also, Russia is not seeking a deal with the US at any cost. Russia seeks a multi-polar world with no clear hegemon. It will not accept a deal that undermines that strategic goal.

As for India’s policy makers, an improvement of US-Russia relations, in their view, should increase Delhi’s space to improve relations with both. An added bonus would be, in their eyes, it also keeps Russia from getting into a bear hug with China.

This commentary originally appeared in DNA.

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Nandan Unnikrishnan

Nandan Unnikrishnan

Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation New Delhi. He joined ORF in 2004. He looks after the Eurasia Programme of Studies. ...

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