With all the fuss over Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meeting later this week at the G20 summit, many have conspicuously failed to grasp that the monumental task ahead of both leaders has little to do with their own period in government and even less to do with their personalities. These things of course do matter, but their importance is dwarfed by larger historical and present economic and geo-strategic concerns.
With that in mind, here are the giant obstacles that both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will be faced with when they meet.
1. Spheres of Influence
The modern day struggle between Washington and Moscow is an ideological conflict which masks an even more sinister competition for global influence. The fact of the matter is Donald Trump like many Americans, respects Russia’s Orthodox traditions and Russia as a satisfied Orthodox power does not seek to impose its culture or social system on anyone else.
But when it comes to economic and geo-strategic spheres of influence, both countries are in direct competition. This is largely due to America’s hegemonic view that the entire planet is it’s literal sphere of influence.
Russia would be all too happy for America to present Russia with an agreement whereby Russia is entitled to exercise economic, geo-political and commercial influence in its natural spheres of influence while allowing America to exert power over hers.
Russia’s natural sphere of influence is Eurasia including the Caucuses, central Asia, the Turkic world and much of the Arab world. Insofar as this is the case, Russia would have to and is willing and able to cooperate with Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India, countries which are all key regional powers themselves, though not superpowers as the US, Russia and China are.
America would not be asked to forfeit many of its existing goals in these regions, but America would have to go back to the drawing board and accept a commercial relationship rather than an overt political relationship with these regions.
This is of course nearly an impossible task given the geo-strategic thinking of American big business and the deep state. That being said, Donald Trump’s commercial sense means he is more ideally suited to at least discuss this reality than any other realistic would-be US President at this time in history or in the foreseeable future.
Russia’s extremely important alliance with China is a major stumbling block to good US-Russia relations.
It could well be a permanent stumbling block for reasons which predate the existence of the United States and the British Empire from which the US seceded on the 4th of July.
With the exceptions of what in hindsight were minor periods of disquiet in the 17th century and 20th century, Russia and China have always had a good relationship. China and Russia will always be neighbours and the overall historical trajectory of this relationship indicates that China and Russia have generally served as complimentary rather than adversarial neighbours.
It is wise to remember that since the end of the Mongolian Golden Horde, Russia has generally had far better relations with the Asian powers than with any other powers of the world. Russia is largely an Asian/oriental power after all.
The fact that Russia and China have so completely patched up the disputes of the 20th century is a testament to the fact that the Sino-Soviet split was a period of aberrational rather than archetypal relations between the two great powers.
Between Russia and China, two of the three world super-powers dominate the geo-politics and economics of Eurasia and East Asia.
In this sense, the US is both outnumbered and geographically outmatched.
Russia’s relationship with India remains strong in spite of India’s ability as a post-non-aligned power to play China, Russia and America against each other.
While India will doubtlessly continue to do this for short or even medium term historical gain, India’s geography and her economic strengths dictate that in the longer term future, it will be necessary for New Delhi to economically cooperate with Beijing. Russia is of course the glue that could hold this marriage of convenience and also of necessity together.
Turning to the Middle Eastern edge of Asia, Russia has had an on-again off-again relationship with Iran. It’s past wars, particularly those of the 18th and early 19th century were territorial disputes which have long been put to bed. For this reason alone, let alone many other more pressing current matters, Iran and Russia’s partnership looks set to last.
Turkey by contrast has been Russia’s historic Eurasian enemy, one which often bound Iran and Russia together against a common foe.
Turkey’s position in NATO means that Turkey has the ability to play both sides against one another, but unlike India which has economic interests with China, Russia and the American led west, Turkey is increasingly finding its economic interests to be squarely in line with Russia and with Russian partners.
While Turkey is a key Eurasian power, ultimately she still needs to choose to be allied with one of the super-powers. Just as sure as America has pushed Turkey away, Turkey has learned that its economic future is more closely linked with Russia than with any of the other superpowers.
The conclusion of this is a ‘New Silk Road’ by default. The fact that China with Russia’s support is building such a project by design, the One Belt–One Road project, is simply a manifestation of how each of the aforementioned countries are aware of the inevitability of a new silk road as something necessary for the prosperity of each nation. While getting all the powers with their own histories of disputes to cooperate in respect of building the New Silk Road is no easy task, it is actually an easier task than getting Russia and China to submit themselves to America. It is no longer 1989, such an idea is fantasy in 2017.
In this sense, while there will be some bumps along the New Silk Road, it will be build and Russia and China will lead the way with India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey leading very close behind.
In this sense, historic trends have automatically shut America out of much of Asia. The only two real Asian allies the US still has are South Korea and Japan.
Pakistan is increasingly looking for opportunities elsewhere and due to the wisdom of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines has decided to align itself more closely with China, which also allows Manila to develop close ties with Moscow as in the 21st century, having mutually good relations with Moscow and Beijing is no longer a conflict of interests for Asian powers as it was through much of the 20th century.
Duterte was the first leader of a medium sized Asian power to realise that the choice is between that of US post-colonial style domination or showing respect to the real king of the region, the super-power of China which in turn offers Asian countries more in pragmatic terms than the increasingly distant US is capable of offering.
In this sense, it is not up to Putin or Trump whether America gets its much coveted Asian prize. Asia is China’s and China and Russia are co-equal allies.
America can fight this if it wishes to experience infamy or it can accept this if it wants to play some role in the commercial future of a region it no longer has the ability to dominate or even subdue.
In other words, in respect of America giving up on Asia “We can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way”.
Whereas America ought to realise that it has no overarching future in Asia or Eurasia, Russia has bravely realised it has no future with Europe other than a few commercial transactions, mainly in the field of energy.
Europe is one of the few places on earth where hatred of Russia is in the collective political DNA.
It was Europe which fought more wars against Russia than any other region. The hatred of Russia in the elite circles of its former battle field adversaries in Warsaw/Vilnius, Stockholm, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London has not gone away. In recent years it has increased. Europe has increasingly little to offer Russia and the inverse is also largely true. Europe has willed it so.
The exceptions to this trend are in southern Europe. The Orthodox powers of the Balkans have always looked to Moscow as a spiritual guide and increasingly, as the EU’s position in the Mediterranean becomes untenable, it is highly likely that in future decades Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and possibly even Roumania will look more to Moscow than to Berlin or Paris–let alone London. As this is a part of the world which holds no appeal to Donald Trump, he is better placed than many to allow this to happen without much of a fight.
His visceral hatred of the Germanic EU is yet another boon to such a future phenomenon.
Catholic Southern Europe may not feel a fraternal connection to Russia as the Orthodox countries of southern Europe do, but nor do they harbour any real ill will towards Russia.
Likewise, the two small Muslim countries of southern-Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania are totally removed from the issue. Bosnia is already a neo-Turkish colony in all but name and if America eventually gives up on its aggressive project for an imperial Albania, Turkey would likely step in to fill the gap. In many ways Turkey is readying itself for such an eventuality.
The burgeoning relationship between Turkey and Russia means that a Turkish-Russian “partnership” could if anything help restrain Albanian aggression against Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Macedonia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hinted at such a stance when he publicly condemned the Greater Albania project for regional Albanian imperial aggression.
The recent spat between the major European powers and the US over possible US sanctions that would prohibit the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to the EU demonstrates just how weak and compromised Europe is vis-a-vis both Russia and the United States.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin could foreseeably bond over their ability to play Europe against itself in a tug of war between Europe’s pathological anti-Russian hatred and its greedy desire for cheap Russian gas delivered via a regional pipeline vis-a-vis American liquefied natural gas which would be coming from the other side of the Atlantic.
Unlike most European elites, America’s elites generally do not have a pathological hatred of Russia. They often adopt it with Hollywood like zeal, but many are personally unconvinced of it. Many more simply do not care, most Americans know nothing about Russia, something which is actually an asset when it comes to pragmatic businesslike relations that Europe is incapable of due to its inability to let go of the past.
The CNN producer who recently admitted that Russiagate is “bullshit” is typical of the American opportunist who will say and pretend to believe anything for publicity but in reality will share a beer with anyone at the local bar–including a Russian, something which cannot often be said for the more zealous Europeans. This applies to Donald Trump, only the beer will be a Diet Coke.
If Trump and Putin can exploit Europe mutually, it would go a long way towards calming tensions, especially on Russia’s borderlands which NATO seeks to subdue, though for little practical economic gain. Unlike Asia, eastern Europe has little of value in the 21st century for any major power. If anyone can realise this, it is Donald Trump. Asia is a prize America simply cannot win. The streets of Riga and Lvov are nothing to be desired for any major power at this stage–not Russia nor the United States. It is only the US who is trying to claim this non-prize at this point in history.
4. Latin America and Africa
Russia’s post-Soviet relationship with Latin America and Africa is actually a very helpful model for what America’s relationship with Asia and Eurasia could potentially be.
Russia has economic interests and certain partners in Latin America and Africa, but Russia generally has not been a dominating political force in either continent, especially now that Russia is no longer a Marxist-Leninist power.
Russia’s modern relationship with the powers of both Africa and Latin America is commercial rather than ideological or even geo-strategic.
Since the collapse of Imperial Spain, the United States has generally become the domineering regional power in Latin America and this is unlikely to radically change even though many countries, particularly Venezuela refuse to buy into America’s geo-political ambitions for the region.
Likewise, Africa’s tragic post-colonial experience means that on the one hand, Russia and China are seen as super-powers who did not torment Africa with imperialism, linguistically and legally, African states still are deeply beholden to their former European overlords and it is the United States, not least because it is an English speaking country with a Common Law legal system that has stepped in as Europe declined.
5. Two Men–Many Nations
While Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin may well develop a good personal relationship (I’m inclined to believe that they will), the obstacles between the two have to do with not just the Russian and American political systems but with the realities of every continent in the world.
The western powers have always sought to subdue Russia in order to have a land-bridge to Asia. While this was more true of Europe than America, it is still the guiding force behind the neo-con/neo-liberal imperialist thought which dominates Washington.
The key would be for Donald Trump to accept that it is cheaper in the short term and more profitable in the long term if America develops a relationship with Asia that is similar to Russia’s relationship with Africa and Latin America.
Both countries are capable of economically dividing a broken Europe, much as they did after 1945.
If Putin and Trump can at least come to terms with this balance of power without coming to blows, this could be the start of a very good friendship.
For Putin, the job would be easy as Russia is comfortable with its existing and naturally expanding spheres of influence.
For any American President, the task would be monumentally hard–nearly impossible. But if anyone could listen to a pragmatic argument aimed at understanding that Russia and America have different roles to play in the world and that a lack of competition, rather than a more amorphous idea of ‘fighting terrorism’ is the key to making such an understanding take hold in the future, that man might well be Donald Trump.