As Donald Trump edges towards the White House and calls for a deal with Russia, it might help him to assess what sort of deal the Russia would be looking for from him.
There is a vast pall of misunderstanding in the West about this subject in large part because Western coverage of Russia over the last decade has been so intense and distorted that it has distorted the understanding of even the most hardheaded of Western policy makers.
Firstly it is essential to put aside some of the common myths that become encrusted around this subject.
The Russians do not want to re-establish the USSR and nor are they seeking a sphere of influence over the former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe. They do not expect NATO to disappear any time soon, and they do not want the EU to break up. They have no intention of invading the Baltic States. At some point they do want the sanctions the West has imposed on them lifted, but as I have written, this is not for them a priority.
One should also put aside some of the more nebulous claims which are commonly made about Russia.
The Russians do not think of themselves as a superpower coequal to the US, and they do not demand that they be treated like one. There is a huge literature in the West about the offence Obama is supposed to have caused in Russia when he called Russia a “regional power”. Some people in Russia might have been offended, but it is inconceivable that President Putin was because that is what he has repeatedly said himself. As The Saker has written, the whole Russian defence posture is based around that concept, with Russia neither having nor aspiring to a global role.
Russian policy towards the US is not constructed around such grandiose and unrealistic schemes or nebulous feelings, which are the product of Western imagination not Russian reality, and which find no confirmation in the statements of Russia’s leaders. It is based on tough minded calculations of Russian national interest and Russian security.
If one pays attention to what Russian leaders actually say it becomes clear that there are two overriding issues which concern them most, and which lie at the heart of the crisis in Russia’s relations with the West, and a third issue, which for the Russians is of only slightly lesser importance.
The two key issues are NATO expansion into the territory of the former USSR – which has now come to include EU expansion as well, with the Russians coming to see the EU as NATO’s Trojan Horse – and the placement of US anti ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe.
The third issue is the West’s regime change policy, first and foremost as it pertains to Russia, but also as it is applied everywhere else.
Any deal Donald Trump wants to make with Russia has to address Russian concerns about these questions, if it is to work.
Here it should be said clearly that the Russian objection to the extension of NATO into the territory of the former USSR, and the placement of anti ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe, is driven by no other consideration than the Russian belief – which nothing now can change – that these two actions are directed at themselves. Western protestations that NATO is a source of stability in Europe and does not threaten Russia, and that the anti ballistic missile deployments in Eastern Europe are aimed not at Russia but at Iran, cut no ice in Moscow, and the sooner this fact is accepted in Western capitals the better.
Moreover the Russians are absolutely right to see NATO expansion and the anti ballistic missile deployments as directed at themselves, because the reality is of course that they are.
Not only does the shrill propaganda campaign about the fictional threat to NATO’s eastern members from Russia show that NATO is still directed at Russia, but the Ukrainian crisis, with a democratically elected government that wanted to maintain ties with Moscow violently and illegally overthrown in order to bring to power a viscerally anti Russian and pro NATO government, confirms as much.
NATO leaders always react furiously whenever a government of a NATO state seems to be edging closer to Moscow. They should not be surprised if Moscow reacts with equal sensitivity to the far more aggressive Western attempts to overthrow neutral or pro Russian governments in order to install pro Western governments, which can be relied upon to bring their countries into NATO.
On the subject of the anti ballistic missile deployments in Eastern Europe, Russian leaders have expressed their concerns at length, and a careful explanation of Russian concerns has been provided to The Duran by Professor Vladimir Kozin. I would also refer to the recent masterly study of this issue by Robert Bridge, which shows how US President Obama’s extraordinary duplicity on this issue has all but destroyed trust on arms control between Washington and Moscow.
As to why Russia objects to the US’s regime change policy, Russia would object to it even if it did not directly affect Russia, which of course it does, and even if its application had not been consistently disastrous, which of course it has been.
I explained the reason for Russia’s objection to this policy in a study I did of Russian perspectives of the Syrian crisis, which I wrote back in 2012
The key to understanding Russian policy is to look at what has happened in international relations since the end of the Cold War. If one does then it becomes clear that a small group of states, namely the United States and Britain but also occasionally France and some other US allies (but significantly not Germany) have appropriated to themselves a licence to overthrow governments of which they disapprove. They do this through a variety of ways such as by funding and supporting opposition movements and parties (called “democracy promotion”) as happened in Yugoslavia in 2000, by arming rebels as happened in Libya last year and in Syria this year and ultimately by launching military attacks and even invasions of the various states whose governments they want to overthrow. Examples include Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011…..
Though the right to overthrow governments is now taken for granted by the governments of the United States and of Britain and is even passionately believed in by some of their [citizens] its existence is emphatically rejected by other governments in particular those of Russia and China. These two countries and many others see in it a threat to the political independence of states including ultimately their own….
Russia and China have overwhelmingly strong reasons for taking this stand. Firstly the right the United States and its allies claim for themselves represents an extraordinary and extremely dangerous departure from international law as this has been applied and understood since the end of the Second World War. Secondly it privileges a small group of very powerful states over all the others. Moreover and significantly it is a group from which Russia and China are excluded. Thirdly it is a right that is very obviously targeted against Russia and China, It has not escaped Russia’s and China’s attention even if it has escaped the attention of most people in the west that the governments the western powers target for overthrow are invariably governments that are allies or friends of Russia and China. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, as two countries which have suffered heavily from western aggression in the last two hundred years Russia and China will never agree to any modification of international law that might allow or legitimise it.
(bold italics added)
As it happens Russia has been directly effected by the West’s regime change policy in that it is itself the constant – indeed primary – target of this policy. This has taken the form of open and aggressively expressed Western support for members of Russia’s liberal opposition who deny the legitimacy of Russia’s government, and who the Russian authorities see as acting on the West’s behalf, and a relentless campaign of harassment and propaganda directed at the Russian government encompassing everything from the Olympic doping scandal to the sanctions, which is obviously at destabilising and delegitimising it.
Over the course of recent months Western leaders – not just in the US – have acted with hyper sensitivity over (unproven) claims of Russian interference in their countries’ internal affairs. In the US a huge campaign is underway as a result of unproven claims of Russian interference in the US election. Across the West – not just in the US – there is a massive campaign to suppress or silence supposed manifestations of Russian interference in the West’s internal affairs, of which the whole “fake news” hysteria forms only a part.
If Western leaders react with such hyper sensitivity to even the suspicion of Russian interference in their internal affairs, they should not be surprised that Russian leaders react with equal sensitivity to the far greater and far better documented evidence of Western interference in their internal affairs and in those of their allies.
Setting out these central Russian concerns shows how a deal between Russia and a Donald Trump administration might be possible.
None of Russia’s concerns on any one of these issues affects Western security or impinges on the US’s national interests. Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and expressed indifference about the EU’s future. He is clearly uninterested in expanding either into the territory of the former USSR, so he has no reason to feel that he is making any serious concession by agreeing not to do so. Similarly Donald Trump has already foresworn the whole policy of regime change. If so then he is already in agreement with the Russians over this issue too.
The major sticking point will be arms control, with trust badly damaged as a result of Obama’s actions, and the Russians almost certainly insisting on the dismantling of the anti ballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe in return for nuclear weapons cuts. It may not be a coincidence that it was precisely on the issue of arms control that Trump homed into in his interview with The London Times and Bild-Zeitung.
Securing however an agreement to dismantle the anti ballistic missile systems in the teeth of what is likely to be furious opposition from the Congressional leadership, much of the Republican party, and the powerful US armaments lobby, will however be a titanic challenge.
A complex and difficult negotiation lies ahead. Even on the assumption Donald Trump succeeds in consolidating his control of the US government, it is far from clear it will succeed. There is however one overwhelmingly point which argues in its favour: on any objective assessment what Russia wants from Donald Trump it is in the US interest for him to give.
The US loses nothing by agreeing to the things Russia wants because they in no want threaten the US’s security or that of its allies. On the contrary it has been the pursuit of the grand geopolitical strategies of the neocons, with the policies of NATO expansion, anti ballistic missile deployment and regime that go with them, which have brought the US into an impasse. It is in the US interest and in the interests of the US’s allies to give up on them.
Donald Trump’s comments shows that he has at least some understanding of this fact. It remains to be seen how great understanding is and whether he will be able to put into practice.