Submitted by Robert Berke…
The former Indian Diplomat, M. Bhadrakumar (MB), points out that “The US President Donald Trump’s phone call to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, comes within 3 weeks of the release of the redacted report of the Robert Mueller inquiry into his ‘Russia collusion.
It was a 90-minute phone conversation, which underscored Trump’s determination to foster good relations, despite strong opposition from both Democrats and Republican leaders alike….”
The President’s comment on the call: “Yes, we’re going to have lots of good trade with Russia,” viewed by many as not only a poke in the eye to his critics, but also stating in no uncertain terms that the US is ready to do business again with Russia, and possibly also hinting at sanctions relief.
The phone call leaves one question unanswered. Did the filing of the Mueller report free the President to enter into the close relationship that he has always sought with Russia? The President’s actions and comments seem to indicate that he believes so.
And despite the expected criticism from the Democrats, Republican leaders, many of whom had formerly opposed Trump’s quest for closer relations with the Kremlin, were strangely quiet about the phone call. It’s as if they too believed that Mueller report may have ended Trump’s vulnerability on Russian issues. There are other signs that ‘Russiagate,’ as it recedes as a major political issue, may be removing the taint of dealing with Russia.
Only two weeks after the phone call, Secretary Pompeo was in Sochi, for political talks with Putin and Lavrov (Foreign Secretary). Most surprising was the location of the talks, held in Sochi, Crimea, the former Ukrainian territory that became part of Russia during the Ukraine crisis, and for which Russia now labors under US and international sanctions. The symbolism here is hard to miss, as the Ukraine conflict is shelved to deal with more immediate concerns.
As for Putin’s view of the Mueller report: ” The fact that the Mueller report dispelled that [i.e., election collusion], I think he found useful as a turning point to try and find a better way for conversations between our two countries,” Pompeo pointed out.
As reported in the Telegraph, a major area that was discussed in Sochi was a trade-off, with Russia dropping its military support for Madero’s government in Venezuela in exchange for US military withdrawing its forces from Ukraine. Putin is keenly aware of the importance of Venezuela to Trump’s election hopes in targeting the southern Florida Hispanics, particularly former Cuban refugees that fled Castro’s Cuba, who remain virulently anti-communist.
At the same time, Putin has let it be known that Russia has no interest in backing Maduro, either financially or militarily, and would like to get out of Venezuela and cut its losses. For Putin, a deal that could trade Venezuela for Ukraine, along with easing of sanctions, is, to quote the famous Russian proverb, like trading an apple for an orchard. He also knows that the Trump Administration has shown very little interest in Ukraine, with attention now almost entirely focused on the coming Presidential election.
Attempting a deal over Venezuela is probably only the first step for Trump. Putin holds sway in many other areas that will be important in what is shaping up to be a bitterly contested US Presidential election. Amongst these are: North Korea nuclear weapons, an issue in which Putin is deeply involved as advisor to the NK’s ruler. Putin has already proposed an international consortium to guarantee NK safety from attack, were it to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Putin’s close relations with China, NK’s one true ally, would also be important in assuring that country’s security.
Russia also has a close relationship with Iran, an alliance forged in the heat of the Syrian military conflict. Russia’s strong influence on Iran was seen also in the successful negotiations towards the Obama/Iran nuclear deal, with the US, EU, and UN. There’s little doubt that Russia could be very useful in helping to find solutions to de-escalate the rising tensions between the US and Iran.
As one report has it, “The end of Mueller inquiry…has seemingly opened the way for a new global arms treaty, one that would also include countries like China, Britain, France apart from the US and Russia. Importantly enough, the initiative for a new treaty has been taken by the Trump administration, that is looking at it as its key foreign policy prize before the next US presidential elections.”
It’s also a proposal that would not only be welcomed in Russia and China but could also answers Iran’s and N. Korea’s need for a positive peace gesture from the U.S. to increase trust, enabling both countries to reciprocate. Recall that the new US arms reduction proposal is centered on reducing intermediate range missiles, one of the major issues cited by the US in renewing its conflict with Iran and N.K.
Other areas where Putin’s could be useful in Trump’s election quest is in his influence with OPEC. It’s widely understood that Russia’s influence with the cartel has increased enormously, as a result of its cooperative efforts in helping to stabilize world oil prices.
For election purposes, Trump badly needs a deal with OPEC+ to increase oil production to replace reduced production from US-sanctioned Venezuela and Iran, that could lead to rapidly rising prices. Rising oil prices seldom makes for happy US voters, as it also has ripple effects over the price of everything that moves by ship, train, air, or truck, in other words, the entire economy.
That deal is strongly dependent not only on the Saudi’s cooperation, but also, more than ever, on Russia’s. The US Administration is undoubtedly aware that Russia could also threaten Trump’s election by refusing to increase production and allowing oil prices to rise.
In other words, Russia could help Trump’s election hopes without hacking a single vote. And Trump knows that and means to take advantage of it. He also knows. that he’s playing a dangerous game. That’s what meant when Congressman Nadler said that although Congress is unlikely to impeach Trump, he may impeach himself with his dangerous dalliance with Putin. But Trump is not likely to give up what he sees as a winning hand, particularly as he believes that Russiagate is over.
There are also a host of sudden events occurring to the benefit of Russia that raise suspicions that a thaw toward Russia may already be in the works. Consider the recent EU and state approvals granted to the highly politicized Russian natural gas pipelines to Europe, Nord Stream II and Turk Stream, that has been held up since 2014 over the Crimea referendum, leaving billions in investment on the table.
Despite Trump’s rage against Europe for its continuing dependence on Russian energy, his repeated threats to issue sanctions against European financial partners of Gazprom’s mega pipeline projects, the project has been allowed to continue without obstruction. And while myriad levels of sanctions have been leveled on Russia by the US/EU, nothing was directly aimed at cutting off Russia from the European energy market.
That despite the fact that those pipelines clearly reinforce Russia’s role as the dominant energy supplier, with almost a 40% share of the European market, the world’s second largest energy markets, with the Russia share to rise in the next decade to 45%-50%, with completion of the Nordstream 2 and Turkstream pipelines. That meant that any serious attempt by rivals to undermine the Russia economy had to focus on blocking Russia’s energy deliveries to Europe.
There are other signs of an emerging thaw. Bulgaria recently requested Russia to allow it back into the Turk Stream pipeline deal, that, under pressure from the US, it had formerly turned down. It’s very unlikely that Bulgaria would suddenly reverse its decision without signs of US approval.
What seems to underlie this major reversal was summarized by elder statesman, Henry Kissinger, a foreign policy counselor to Donald Trump. As reported in the Daily Beast, Kissinger, a long-time adviser to the Rockefeller Family and ExxonMobil, has strongly advocated a policy that enables the US to peel Russia away from its growing alliance with China, the country that America views as its prime rival for global dominance.
But many in the foreign policy establishment believe that western military threats and sanctions against Russia had exactly the opposite results, with Russia drawing much closer to China, not only as a financial partner but also as a military ally.
The Russian/China partnership raises a host of challenges for the western alliance. For example, with China flanked by Russia on their 2,600 mile shared border, their budding alliance makes China’s western flank, secured by Russia, virtually invulnerable to attacks from the west, while China’s presence safeguards Russia’s eastern flank from attack.
This eliminates a strategic advantage for the west in terms of dividing the two allies and forcing Russian and Chinese militaries to thin out their forces and armaments, spread over their vast territories in order to defend the borders of the two largest nations on earth.
Instead, both countries are left to defend their most vulnerable border, with Russia mobilizing on its western border against NATO, and China focused on the South China Sea and Indian Ocean against the US and its Asian allies.
Western strategists are also fully aware that energy is China’s Achilles Heel, as the country has recently emerged as the largest global energy importer, where its oil imports are setting all time world records, at an average of 10.6 million barrels per day.
While Russia gains immense economic advantage as the new top supplier for China energy, the Chinese gain great advantage in energy security from Russia’s land-based energy pipeline deliveries, as insurance against the threat of the US Navy cutting off ship-bound oil traffic to China.
The result is that instead of Russia joining the West’s China containment policy, the sanctions have instead created just the opposite, with Russia significantly bolstering China’s economic and strategic strength, while China has become Russia’s major financier.
If indeed a Russian/US/EU thaw is in the works, that could have momentous impact on the direction of international politics as well as on Russia’s fortunes. Consider the fact that Russia, while not only maintaining but also increasing its lead in European energy markets, has also become the lead energy supplier in China, dominating the two largest energy markets in the world.
In China, Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil giant, having recently completed the longest pipeline in the world, is now China’s leading oil supplier, while Gazprom is scheduled to complete its enormous gas pipeline to China in 2019, where it will become the major natural gas provider. These supplies will be buttressed by Novatek’s liquified natural gas deliveries to China from its huge Russian Arctic reserves, with deliveries across the Arctic Northern Sea Route having already begun.
Few experts believe that Russia would renounce its alliance with China or Iran, both of which are fundamental to Russia’s defense against an increasingly threatening western alliance. The consensus is that no matter what soothing words are offered by western powers to Russia, neither Russia, China, nor Iran trust the west.
But foreign diplomacy is seldom balanced between a win or lose decisions. Between these diametric opposites of renouncing or sticking with its allies, Russia has considerable room for maneuver. Consider Russia’s work with N. Korea, to put together an international coalition to guarantee the North’s safety against attack, should NK agree to denuclearize its military. That would obviously be promoted as a victory for Trump in the run up to the election.
Russia could assume the role of broker for a weapons reduction policy that is strategic for the US, while helping to bring aboard the N. Koreans and Chinese, with their own concerns over US nukes. By choosing the middle way, Russia hopes to preserve its alliances while also improving its relations with the West.
Although the Kissinger gambit is unlikely to work in dividing Russia and China, but if, as Trump believes, Russia can increase his election chances by helping to resolve tough issues in Iran, N. Korea, arms reduction, and stable oil prices, the President may also be open to normalizing US/Russian relations. And after Mueller, he may now believe he has the power to do so.