ISSUE 3-2017
INTERVIEW
STUDIES
Bogdan Oleksyuk Михаил Ведерников Шалала Маммадова Martin Slavik
OUR ANALYSES
Martin Svárovský Роман Темников
REVIEW
Лала Гусейнова
APROPOS
Ондржей Соукуп Игорь Яковенко


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

TOPlist
OUR ANALYSES
CURRENT US RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA (GREAT BARGAIN POSSIBLE OR EXCLUDED?)
By Martin Svárovský | Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Czech Republic | Issue 3, 2017

                                                                                     I’ve made a lot of money. I’ve made great  
                                                                                     deals. That’s what I do. Why would I take  
                                                                                                 sanctions off without getting anything?                                                                                                            (Donald Trump in NYT (13/7/2017)

Introduction

No matter how paradoxical it may sound, the current, firm stance of the US administration under president Trump on Russia[1] is neither a U-Turn nor a major surprise. It is not based primarily on some set of values[2] but rather on a pragmatic, rational consideration originating from a “businesslike” approach towards policy. The logic applied by the Trump administration says that if you like to make business with someone then he needs to have something to offer. Russia has, at least for now, nothing or very little to offer. The following article will explore some of the areas where the Russian and the US interests appear contradictory and therefore Russia cannot offer a deal. The areas are for example some of the following: the oil and gas industry, fight against terrorism, Syria, China, Security Architecture in Europe/strategic stability, trade, Ukraine, North Korea…

The outcome of the policy based on a businesslike approach (or calculation if you like) can - under the current circumstances- lead to some feeling of relief in Central and Eastern European countries (hereinafter as CEE countries) since it does not allow great bargain (or reset 3.0) at their expenses. Nevertheless, the question is how sustainable these circumstances are. I assume that a pragmatic, businesslike approach to the policy will prevail for the whole duration of the Trump administration.

As a result, here is quite good possibility that the outcome of the policy approach based on a pragmatic calculation will be changing depending on the Russian ability to come up with a tangible offer. The following article is meant to concern itself with this crucial issue. [3]

Areas of possible cooperation/clash of interests

Oil and Gas industry

The importance of this field for US-Russia relations is clear, taking into account the dependency of both countries’ economies on fossil fuels, the amount of revenues obtained from the oil and gas market and also usage of hydrocarbons as a foreign policy tool. Yet there is a clear clash of interest between USA and Russia in this field. Due to the “shale revolution”, the USA switched from the position of a big importer to a producer with a good prospect of becoming a major exporter[4].  Moreover, the American shale industry is a very flexible one with an ability to react quickly to any increase or decrease of the price of oil and gas.[5]

This is a very challenging factor vis-à-vis shared interest between OPEC cartel and Russia to maintain the price of oil as stable and profitable as possible.[6] Moreover, the U.S. very well understand the Russian approach under Putin to use oil and gas as a political weapon[7] and thus supports efforts of some European countries to get rid of their dependency on Russia in this field. In particular, the U.S. endorses implementation of the “Southern Gas Corridor” which explicitly aims to diversify European imports away from Russian gas. The same position is also manifested by the firm stance of the U.S. administration against the NordStream II project, which gained its further spin with sanctions approved by the Congress in late July this year[8]. However, already the first round of the sanctions after 2014 led to substantial reduction of the U.S. investment in mining industry on the Russian territory, which created an additional problem for Russia that desperately needs western high-technology of exploration and production equipment. Currently, Russian companies cannot cooperate with Americans to share or develop deep-water, shale or Arctic technologies.[9]

Thus, the field of oil and gas supply now looks like a battlefield rather than a field for cooperation. The point is that even in case there were no sanctions after Russia’s interference into Ukraine’s affairs, only the mere fact of the U.S. and Russia now being competitors in the gas and oil field prevents any geopolitical bargain.[10]  

Fight against terrorism

Fight against terrorism no doubt holds the same importance for the U.S.-Russia relations as the field mentioned above. Russia´s awareness of this fact is demonstrated in its foreign policy concept from 2016 where the plans of how to combat terrorism are listed in detail. [11] Both the USA and Russia have a long track record in this field. The cooperation between them would be natural and the importance of the fight against terrorism suggests that this field is an avenue for further cooperation as well as substantial deals. [12]

On the other hand, there are clear limits to this option. This lies with the Russian way of understanding terrorism[13] and the way of combating it. Hardly any administration of a democratic state could afford to fight terrorism in a way that was used by Russia in Chechnya. There the pro Kremlin puppet dictator implied a horrible regime that conducts atrocities against its own population. Syria as well, where Russia is intervening since 2015, is a problematic case in this regard. Russian military is targeting ISIS only to some extent, with majority of its actions rather being directed to other militant groups. So far Russia has showed in Syria that it has other priorities than to fight against ISIS.[14]

The problem also lies in Russian military capabilities and its usage. Russia is much less ready to  deploy precise weapons and ammunition or Special Forces like USA or Israel that are capable of fighting terrorists in dense populated areas with maximum respect to the civilians. A survey has been conducted, showing that the Russian bombing in Syria has caused far more civilian casualties than the bombing conducted by the US-led coalition against ISIS[15]. For a leader of a democratic country it is politically sensitive if the public is horrified by pictures of civilian casualties[16] This put another serious limit on the possibility of US-Russia coalition in the fight against terrorism.

It cannot be claimed that these limits make the cooperation entirely impossible. Fight against ISIS is of paramount importance which speaks in favor of such cooperation despite the differences in the combat strategy.[17] Nevertheless, the cooperation will have a rather delicate form[18] that might bring Russia some particular gains. I doubt that this would be sufficient for the great bargain[19].

Coordination in Syria?

The topic of Syria was the main item on the agenda of two recent meetings between ministers Tillerson and Lavrov. Both countries, as well as the whole international community, are interested in solving Syrian crisis that has negative consequences beyond the borders of the country. Moreover, the USA and Russia have their own interests in the country and  in the Middle East.

Even though both countries are decisive players in Syria, the real alliance between them cannot be expected.  There are several reasons for that. The point is that as the main clash between US and Russia poses not the fact that Russia supports Bashar Assad but the fact that Russia is cooperating with Iran in Syria. This is a real redline for US that was clearly communicated to Russians on several occasions[20]. It was also the reason for US skepticism on Astana process. But Russia cannot abandon its ally, no matter how problematic one. Russia-Iran relation is full of historical and political differences and conflicts[21]. Nevertheless, the Moscow position in the Middle East is not as strong as the position of the USA. As a consequence Russia badly needs allies in the region, even if the relation with them is based just on the transactional principle rather than strategic cooperation.[22]

Another obstacle for cooperation in Syria is the fact that the substantial military cooperation between US and Russia is restricted by the American legislative. The only way of military cooperation applied on the spot was a sort of coordination in order to avoid incident between two operating militaries.[23] 

Still, Syria today is a complex issue that offers many kinds of international actions. The range of them extends up from the official, formal agreements between states down to pure pragmatic operative deals or even field collusions. Remarkable in this regard are the ongoing talks between US, Russia and Jordan in Amman. One can assume that the talks are not only about de-escalation zones but on broader spectrum of issues[24].

From a strategic point of view, it seems that Russia might accept the fact that Syrian crisis will be somehow solved with significant US contribution. What it cannot accept is firstly that it would be solved without Russia and secondly that the solution would lead to major strengthening of the US position in the region. [25]

The strategic point is that there is a fundamental clash of interest and approach between the USA and Russia in Syria. Had the only priority of both Russia and the USA been the real solution of the Syrian crisis as such, some chance of the US-Russia partnership on Syria might have been there. But Syria today represents rather a “power game” between external powers. Therefore, only partial agreements like the truce in south-west zones of Syria are possible.  [26]

Triangle USA-China-Russia

Could any new model of the so called triangular diplomacy[27] work in current circumstances? Could Russia play this game in a way that would bring it some benefit? Proclamations of the US president at the beginning of his term suggest that China will be an economic as well as a security challenge for his administration to tackle. Would Russia use this situation as a window of opportunity and try to raise its value for the United States?

Anyway, if the United States will not succeed in calming down a bit their relations with China it might result in the situation of the US competing (or confronting) with the second and twelfth largest economy with huge armies at the same time. [28] This can appear to be bit off more than you can chew.

For Russia, the favorable scenario would be if the United States decided to confront primarily China and Russia would try to place itself in a position of a US ally in this specific version of triangular game[29]. But even if this were the case it would hardly work because Russia does not have enough leverage on China. On the contrary, in Russia-China relation Russia is the weaker player.[30] It is manifested by several cases: China used the difficult international situation of Russia after 2014 and demanded very assertively a discount on Russian oil[31]. The same assertive approach might be expected in case of the gas pipeline the “Power of Siberia” which is also dependent on Chinese money, either in the form of prepayments for gas supplies or loans[32].

Russia, on the other hand, has an advantage in terms of weaponry[33]. But there is a prediction that due to the Russian technological stagnation and the Chinese ability of copying, these technological comparative advantages will be lost within couple of years. In the field of nuclear power plants China is already almost self-sufficient with only 20% of services bought from Rosatom. The entire dependency of Russian economy on China’s finances is obvious; today, China is the largest foreign creditor of Russia.[34]

What Russia could offer in the triangular setting is that it would cut off its cooperation with China in terms of both exercises and armaments.[35] Would it be enough? Well, China represents a complex challenge for the U.S., not only in the field of security/military but in the economic, financial, technological and political one as well.  It leads to the conclusion that even in the most convenient scenario Russia could not help the United States much with China in the triangular setting.

Security architecture in Europe / Global strategic stability

In 2008 and 2009 Russia came up with two proposals concerning new security architecture. They were the so-called “Medvedev proposal” on new European security architecture and the so-called “Lavrov proposal” on relations among NATO-Russia Council members. For CEE countries, both these proposals were rather problematic. Many of the principles set out in the Russian drafts were aimed at limiting the autonomy of decision-making processes in both Euro-Atlantic institutions and the right of a state to join any security alliance according to its own choice.[36] At the end, none of them materialized but the discussion on them lasted for more than two years. At that time, Russia had a position of a heavy-weight security player, at least in the conceptual debate.

This debate was a sort of test ground of solidarity and coherence of NATO and the EU foreign policy[37]. If such a debate was initiated now, one can imagine that possible targets from the Russian side might be the Enhanced Forward Presence of NATO or European Reassurance Initiative. Nevertheless, it is significant that since 2008-2009 Russia has been unable to propose anything else of comparable significance. [38]

In the past, both superpowers were able, even during the difficult times, to find a common ground for moves in favor of strategic stability. There were several bilateral treaties in this field.  Last of them was the New Start Treaty on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms that was signed in 2010 in Prague and entered into force in 2011. [39] In the complex field covered by the term “strategic stability” there is clearly space for further steps.

Many experts think that both sides share the common interest in strengthening of strategic stability. Could this field play the role of a driving force improving the US-Russia relations?  Well, there are different opinions about whether the Russian or American side are really interested in making further steps in this field. One clear obstacle is Russian violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Unless Russia corrects its stance, neither the administration nor the Congress will give a green light for a new treaty.  Another problematic issue might be represented by the missile defense. The New Start does not constrain testing, development, or deployment of the current or planned U.S. missile defense programs or long-range conventional strike capabilities. The Americans would certainly not like to change anything in this.[40] There is also a difference in opinions on what strategic stability includes. US approach is focused on offensive nuclear forces whereas Russia includes overall military potential, including both offensive and defensive weapons.[41]

US-Russian trade

Economic ties between states and interests of major business players play an important role in international relations. Trade has been traditionally in the center of the American  strategy—not only to bolster economic growth but also to build partnerships with states with shared values and interests. The economy is an important factor, for instance in German-Russian relations.[42]  In the case of US-Russia, the picture is different. Russia is the 22nd trade partner of USA with only 1% share on the US foreign trade. The trade exchange between the United States and Russia is smaller than the US trade with Belgium. Therefore, the negative impact of sanctions and Russian countermeasures on US economy is marginal[43].

The overall economic picture of Russia is not encouraging.  Its economy already started to decrease three years before the first sanctions were introduced. This negative trend lasted for five consecutive years. Annual inflation rate of about 20% depleted the Russian buying power. There is some prediction for improvement of the economic situation but it is not so cheerful.[44]

Still, the Russian internal market with 142 million inhabitants is quite large. But the US economy is not an export economy. In regards to this, the commentaries that Trump is travelling in order to boost the American export (such commentary appeared for instance with his visit to Warsaw) are rather groundless. The balance of the US foreign trade is traditionally in a negative balance (with the exception of agricultural commodities). So, the famous saying “America first” means more protection of the internal market and American producers rather than a boost in the foreign trade. From the strategic point of view, it is not very convenient for Russia to have its economy highly dollarized.

The economy in U.S. – Russia relations can hardly play a role comparable to the case of Germany and Russia.[45]

Ukraine

The repeatedly voiced position of the US administration is that the conflict in Ukraine poses a major obstacle for the improvement of US-Russia relations. Taking into account the atmosphere in the Congress, the expert community and the public, there is no need to have doubts about this proclamation nor about the US administration’s determination to help Ukraine in solving the conflict with Russia. There is not enough space in this article to elaborate more on the complexity of the Ukrainian crisis[46]. Therefore, let us concentrate on what are the possible solutions that might bring a positive effect on US-Russia relations.  

Is a great deal possible in the case of Ukraine? Well, Crimea is probably lost. Russia will never give Crimea back. Not only because it is a matter of national pride and the annexation is popular among Russians. Crimea also has a strategic importance for Russia. The annexation in 2014 and its military build-up on the Black Sea laid the base for Russia´s Syria operation as well as the base for projecting power in the Middle East. Conceivable scenario is that Russia will make a concession on Eastern Ukraine hoping it would be enough for the West “to swallow” somehow annexation of Crimea.[47]

Russia has some space for tactical maneuvers in this regard.[48] Only the eventuality that Russia fulfils the military conditions of Minsk II. agreement would put Poroshenko under enough pressure to fulfil political conditions of settling the crisis in east Ukraine. This message was also conveyed to Foreign Minister Klimkin during his visit in Washington.

In addition, Germany and France would be probably in favor of some deal on Ukraine. Firstly because it would mean their diplomatic success in the Normandy format and secondly because these two countries do not see Ukraine as their strategic priority.

One has to bear in mind that the real game changer in the attitude of American public towards Russia was caused not by Ukrainian crisis but rather by the Russian interference into the elections. The USA is not bound by commitments towards Ukraine comparable to the Baltic or the Black Sea states. The USA can keep the same track of deterrence even if Crimea stays in the Russian hands. On the other hand, hypothetical withdrawal of sanctions without major political concession from Russia would not only be a false political signal to Ukraine and wrong message about credibility of US sanction policy. It would also signal that the only real guarantee against incursion of a big power into your own territory are nuclear weapons that Ukraine deliberately removed after Budapest memorandum from 1994. This would have detrimental impact on the global non-proliferation policy.

Taken together, the possibility of some agreement between the USA and Russia regarding Ukraine is higher than in other mentioned cases. Ukraine is important but it is not a matter of vital importance for the United States. Anyway, the weight of such move might be sufficient for overcoming the stalemate in the relations but it is not a strategic issue with global impact.[49]

North Korea

The North Korean case is a matter of strategic importance to United States. A lot is at stake here: security of South Korea, impact of North Korean behavior on nuclear proliferation as well as strategic stability of the entire region. One should not forget that Japan needs to feel safe in order to keep relying on the US protection. Otherwise, the country with huge economic and military potential might would choose a more autonomous way of safeguarding its security. That is certainly not in the interest of the USA.

The clock is ticking in this issue.  Some experts speak about “a zone of immunity” known from the Iranian case. It means the danger of North Korea reaching a certain degree of capability and a point at which nothing could be done about its missile and nuclear program.[50]

Taking the brisance of the matter, there is no doubt that the USA tries to engage Russia as much as possible. It already brought results in the UN Security Council resolution that imposed sanctions on North Korea not being vetoed by Russia or China. This is a signal of possible understanding and particular deals in this matter. However, there is still a basic divergence of interests. While the USA is interested in solving the North Korean issue because of the above-mentioned reasons, Russia’s (and China’s) strategic priority is not to allow further increase of the American geopolitical influence in this region.

The danger of such increase is more important for Russia than the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Russia is confident it has enough deterrence potential against this threat. Russia is also not concerned about South Korea or about the global danger of nuclear proliferation spiral like the USA. [51]  

Among the listed, North Korea is no doubt the most topical and delicate issue where any prediction is very difficult right now.

Political enviroment in USA and Russia

In the above-mentioned fields, we did not see enough incentives or willingness for real strategic change in the US-Russia relation. What about the domestic situation in both countries?

The popularity of Russia among the American public already dropped after 2014. Russian intervention in Syria was not popular either. Nevertheless, the real outrage was caused by the disclosure of the Russian interference in the American last presidential elections. The similar applies to the expert community.  Vast majority of experts from the relevant US think-tanks are in favor of a tough course towards Russia. Even those who are in favor of cooperation and engagement, for instance experts of Brookings, also claim that the US need to approach Russia from the position of strength. It is quite a different situation than ten months ago and it is completely different from the situation during the two previous periods of “restart” with Russia. In addition, the prevailing tone of the political debate in the Congress around the last sanction bill was quite clear: the USA need to take a tough approach towards Russia and especially the reaction on the Russian meddling into American election needs to be further strengthened.    

The attitude of the public, expert community, political elite plus the ongoing FBI investigation on contacts between the members of Trump’s team with Russians is in any case not a driving force for improvement of the relations with Russia.[52]

In Russia, the popularity of Putin’s regime has risen after 2014 and the popularity of the president remains stable at more than 80 percent, despite the growing concerns about economic downturn and corruption. Russian approval of their president remains undiminished from the high ratings they had given him since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have even slightly risen upward - amid plunging oil prices, years of recession and Western sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. This is an evidence of the overall approval of Russia’s foreign policy and its achievements.

Even if approval for the US leadership is very low, still there is not a general negative attitude towards the United States in Russia. [53]

And what about Russian political leaders? The deteriorated perception of the USA is visible on wording of the foreign policy concept from 2016, especially if we compare it with the previous one from 2013. The problem with the attitude of Russian political leadership towards the USA is not that Russian politicians would be genuinely anti-American. The problem is the huge difference in mindsets of the politicians on both sides. This fact creates major misunderstandings. The Russian political elite adopted a firm belief that the US is pursuing “policy of containment” and feel frustrated by this fact. This is visible not only in the text of the foreign policy concept. It is demonstrated by public proclamations of Russian politicians and in some internal debates of Russian leaders with foreign diplomats. For instance minister Lavrov was of the opinion that the sanctions were not about US support for Ukraine but rather they were a clear demonstration of the “policy of containment”. The Russian incorrect understanding of the sanctions (“not about Ukraine but about containment”) might lead Russia not in a direction of making concessions on Ukraine but rather to the power attempt to break the policy of containment.

Overall, there is no insurmountable, deep animosity between Americans and Russians. Partnership is not completely excluded but it would require change of political style, mainly on the Russian side. [54]

One thing is clear, no matter how the US-Russia relations would look like, the United States would always keep the line of strengthening its own resilience and deterrence. The failure of the previous “reset” with Russia is a lesson even for those who were standing behind that attempt within the Obama administration. [55]

Sustainability of the current US stance

Going through all the above-mentioned aspects, one can make the conclusion that the US foreign policy based on a businesslike approach (or transactional logic if you like) can - under the current circumstances- hardly lead to any great bargain (or another reset). It is my personal belief that this is good for the Czech Republic and other CEE states. Unless the Russian policy will change and show clear, undisputed respect for independence, stability, values and political and economic orientation of the Czech Republic and other CEE states, no such strategic bargain with Russia could bring anything positive for us[56]. This was the case of the previous attempts to reset the relations with Russia and it was to some extent the case of the so-called “policy of détente” in seventies.

However, there is one big question mark. How sustainable are these circumstances that do not make the great bargain possible? Well, the administration is still in the process of transition and the review of policy towards Russia is underway. We may assume that pragmatic, businesslike approach in foreign policy will prevail during the whole term of the Trump administration.[57]

So far, it seems that among the newcomers there are two different groups of people in the administration with the influence on shaping the US foreign policy. There are people who have very good record of accomplishment in foreign policy and in some cases deep knowledge about Russia in political, military or economic aspect. Some of them dealt with this issue for several years and even published books or articles about this topic.

The second group of people are newcomers without any record in foreign policy  or even without any experience with the state service as such. This group might incline to the pragmatic approach to policy that was labeled as “businesslike” approach at the beginning of this article. The influence of this group is further strengthened by the fact that not an insignificant portion of Trumps’ electorate have some sympathy to the President Andrew Jackson’s foreign policy. This domestic factor leads to the conclusion that the first group is unlikely to prevail.[58] Now, no one knows what will be the characteristic course of the Trump administration foreign policy in the years to come. However, if I had to bet it would be on the balance between the two.[59]

It is only logical that the outcome of the policy approach based on pragmatic calculation may change, depending on the Russian ability to come up with a tangible offer. There is some probability that eventually the Russian leadership will conclude that the current line in relations with the U.S. and the EU as well is not sustainable.

The Russian side might regard the US administration inclining to businesslike policy aimed at measurable results as a good partner for making deals. Consequently, Russians will start to seek a bargaining chip. There is a question whether they will find something and if so, whether this will be enough to achieve a great bargain. Without a fundamental policy change, an offer in a form of a bargaining chip may not be sufficient .

Trying to seek the answer to the question, one has to look at possible motivation of both sides to improve mutual relations.

What does the United States want from Russia? The set of items listed by Julianne Smith seems to be illustrative and comprehensive enough: to stop the disinformation campaign, to stop fueling instability in Europe, to stop promoting the division of Europe, not to interfere in German elections, to direct the combat operations really against the ISIS and of course to stop brewing crisis in Ukraine.[60] Perhaps to stop to interfere in Montenegro domestic politics could be added to this list. Since the frozen conflicts like Abkhazia and Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh or Transnistria are rather long pending issues, they do not necessarily need to be listed in this US wish list. The question is the scale of the American motivation to have these problems solved.  Do any of them represent real strategic interest for the United States? Rather not. Maybe the most significant for the US would be unstable and divided Europe. But here the resilience is quite high and Russia does not have enough leverage to achieve this goal.

And the other side? I think the US administration knows that Russia will be cooperative only when it is adequately motivated. Current Russian administration under president Putin is to the large extent driven by zero-sum-game pattern. They will always put the question what can they gain from every single positive step vis-a-vis the US. President Putin’s ultimate goal is to win again the elections and to keep the power base around him. Russian wish list might include lifting the sanctions, a change in US military force posture in Europe, change the force posture of NATO, especially when it comes to its eastern flank, the halting of further NATO enlargement and some coordination (or even division of sphere of influence) in the Middle East. Again, here as well stands the question about the scale of Russian motivation to turn these wishes to reality. Probably the most pregnant issue among them is sanctions. But is it a matter of vital, strategic interest?

What is significant is the comparison between those wish lists. On one side, it is about solving crisis or halting provocative moves, on the other it is mainly about the assurance of the Russian importance. 

Well, at the end it is not difficult to identify itself with general wisdom that cooperation is better than confrontation. But those experts (and former members of administration among them) who argue in favor of cooperation, have only vague arguments why the United States need to choose the path of cooperation with Russia. Of course, they can, or maybe they even should but they definitely do not need.

Conclusion

Today, the discussion in Washington about the possibility of the great bargain fell silent in contrast to the atmosphere at the very beginning of president Trump’s term. And rightly so. From what was examined in the article, the great bargain is practically out of the question at the moment. But as it was already said we cannot exclude some small partial deals. This move can be driven by the fact that the Russian administration would come to the conclusion that it is necessary for Russia to have fair relations with the United States[61]. Russian leadership might be motivated to this conclusion by the complexity of domestic problems and weak international position.[62]

If this is the case, it is not a negative thing as such. A bit problematic situation for CEE states would be the U.S. readiness to make deals regardless of the behavior of the Russian regime. As I already put it in 2011, such scenario is far riskier for smaller and weaker states. The strong powers could afford being more generous towards an adversary. From what it is known so far about the American administration, such possibility cannot be excluded. Even for superpower like the U.S., there is no obvious approach to global international order that will allow to fully avoid trade-offs among its national security goals.

But in which of the fields the deals are to be witnessed? Where is the bargaining chip, or rather chips? Can those small deals lead to a great bargain? What is it that Russia will offer and the USA will buy? Nobody knows yet. The attention of an expert community, diplomacy and intelligence of the Czech Republic should be directed at this enigmatic question.[63]

Also, in which territories one should search for the possibility of partial deals/great bargain? Will it be in Europe or rather in the Middle East?[64]  In any case, the current US tactics is to tackle different issues separately and try to make progress step by step. The US administration is assuring that a particular deal in one item does not mean that the US will make concession in another item in exchange.

 I think the possibility of a major breakthrough in Ukraine (lost case of Crimea) or in Syria (Russia does not want Syria to be another US base in Middle East) is quite low. At least in short term, rather small operational deals are to be expected.

What we have not touched upon was the role of NATO and the EU. This is definitely an important field, especially for a country like the Czech Republic that does realize its strategic goals, primarily by the means of its membership in both organizations. Unfortunately, this topic would exceed the limited space of this article. It is an inspiring topic for some future article. I can only shortly state the same as in 2011 here in Ruskij Vopros:  Matter of paramount importance for us is the political and conceptual coherence of EU and NATO policy in relation with Russia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Czech ministry of Foreign affairs.


[1] Policy of sanctions, clear support for Ukraine, cruise-missile strike on the Syrian airport, continuation of European Reassurance Initiative and support for Enhanced Forward Presence of NATO, armament of Syrian Kurdish militia, etc.

[2] This applies to some Republicans like John McCain.

[3]  Experts with good insight into foreign policy like Kurt Volker estimated from the very beginning of the current administration that some form of “reset” with Russia might be expected.

[4] The U.S. is massively investing in the LNG infrastructure, enabling more export of liquid gas. A long lasting ban on the crude oil export from the US territory was lifted.. The first American LNG recently arrived to the Polish terminal in Świnoujście.

[5] The U.S. energy sector is run mainly by the private enterprise with little government involvement, whereas in Russia the role of the state-controlled companies is much bigger.

[6] The last round of the battle for profitable price happened in April this year when OPEC agreed with Russia upon prolonging reduction of oil production until March 2018. This did not bring any success, to some extent also due to the shale oil phenomenon in the U.S. Both OPEC and Russia can only dream about oil for 80 USD per barrel that they would need in order for their state budgets to be in a substantial surplus. 

[7] This is quite clear in several foreign–political moves Russia has made. It is significant that Mr. Putin´s dissertation at the St. Petersburg Mining Institute in 1996 was devoted to this issue: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Putin-Dissertation-Event-remarks-with-slides.pdf

[8] See provisions No. 223 and 232 of the Act to provide congressional review and to counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation and North Korea from July 2017, :  https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3364/text

[9] For the list of such modern technologies see:  https://www.csis.org/analysis/roadmap-us-russia-relations

[10] US LNG is a potential competitor for the Russian gas, even though not very competitive in terms of price yet. Its competitive potential will probably be higher on the Chinese market than on the European one due to lower price of the Russian gas for European consumers.

[11] Article 33 of the Concept says: “Russia views combating international terrorism as an essential government task and a key priority for international security”, : http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248

[12] State secretary Tillerson mentioned during his visit in Moscow that the defeat of the ISIS is a priority for the USA and that the Trump administration wants to seek a possibility of how Russia could contribute to this goal. But what can Russia do? Prevent the recruitment of terrorists from the regions on its southern border or even from broader space of Central Asia? Well, reported 3,200 Russian nationals have traveled to Syria or Iraq since 2014, and Moscow worries about foreign fighter returnees as well as about Russians who may have been radicalized by the Islamic State propaganda, see: “Russian strategy in the Middle East”, RAND: www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE236.html

[13]  Experts of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank that was established by the resolution of its founders pursuant to a presidential decree dated 2 February 2010 say: „The United States has moved away from the “global war on terrorism” paradigm and refocused its CVE strategy on combating homegrown extremism at the community level. Combined with this CVE strategy, the United States continues to conduct the majority of its counterterrorism activities abroad, using drones and special operations forces to carry out prophylactic strikes against designated terrorists. By contrast, Russia’s counterterrorism policy has been largely centered around the domestic threat of terrorism from an Islamist insurgency in the northern Caucasus, : https://www.csis.org/analysis/roadmap-us-russia-relations

[14] William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, noted that Moscow’s primary aim in Syria is to prop up the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad—and that, in fact, Russian military action in the region has served only to exacerbate the threat posed by extremist groups,: http://carnegietsinghua.org/2017/03/17/mirage-of-deal-trump-s-grand-bargains-with-russia-and-china-pub-68290; or Julianne Smith, former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, : https://www.cnas.org/publications/video/cnas-smith-on-future-of-us-russia-relations

Another problematic case is East Ukraine where Russia is directly involved in the terrorist campaign against the state authorities.

[16] In October 2016, Russia lost its seat at the Human Rights Council after failing to secure enough votes for re-election from UN member states. Several human rights and humanitarian relief organizations, including Human Rights Watch, had urged the UN member states to hold Russia accountable for its involvement in possible war crimes,: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/syria

[17] There are ongoing talks between USA and Russia in Amman on the situation in Syria and one can assume that the modalities of the fight against terrorist groups are also discussed.

[18] Russia can for instance do a lot in protecting recruitment from its territory, or even from the territory of Central Asian States. The protection of the borders of Central Asian states against the influx of ISIS militants was on the agenda during the visit of president Putin in these states: http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=68226; Moreover, Russia possesses important intelligence for sure. But unlike in the previous period the US do not need any route via Russia to Afghanistan for the transport of lethal materials.

[19]  Paul Haenle Director of Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, former member of NSC: „…enhanced U.S.-Russia cooperation would be difficult to operationalize. The countries have a poor track record of working together on counterterrorism operations because of the lack of trust between the two governments and the fundamental disagreement among policymakers on the root causes of terrorism and how to address them. For the two militaries to collaborate, they would need to share information and top U.S. generals and intelligence officials are opposed to taking this step“, : http://carnegietsinghua.org/2017/03/17/mirage-of-deal-trump-s-grand-bargains-with-russia-and-china-pub-68290

[20] Apart from the working level of communication the message concerning unacceptance of Iran was handed over to Russia by State Secretary Tillerson at the meeting in Moscow and by president Trump to Lavrov in Washington. An offer was also voiced for Russia to get back to G-7 club under the condition that it will resign from its cooperation with Asad and Hezbollah /Iran-sponsored militia/.

[21] Dmitry Trenin Russia and Iran: Historic Mistrust and Contemporary Partnership, Carnegie Moscow Centre,  August 18, 2016,: http://carnegie.ru/2016/08/18/russia-and-iran-historic-mistrust-and-contemporary-partnership-pub-64365

[22] Some countries in the region were eager to accept Russian offer of weapons supply.

[23]. The US-Russia memorandum on avoiding an incident has been suspended after the US strike in Syria in 7. April. But in reality some deconflicting mechanisms between the US and Russian armies still work.  

[24] State department Briefing on the Ceasefire in Syria, : https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/07/272433.htm

[25] The phenomenon of refugees should also be added into this matrix. Russia is definitely not interested in helping the EU with the refugee crisis whose substantial source is the Syrian crisis.

[26] Another field in the Middle East could be of course MEPP where Russia has some leverage. But it is very complex issue that involves not only Israelis and Palestinians but many different players in the region. In case of MEPP we cannot expect some substantial move any time soon.

[27] Given the long history of animosity between Russia and China, Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger decided to exploit that rivalry to win advantages for the United States.

[28] In 2011, three years after its invasion of Georgia exposed glaring deficiencies in its military capabilities, Russia launched a $700 billion modernization initiative that included advancements in its nuclear triad, the procurement of ballistic missile submarines, the construction of new ICBMs and the construction of naval bases around the Arctic Circle,: Steven Pifer, “Pay Attention, America: Russia Is Upgrading Its Military,” Brookings Institution, February 5, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/pay-attention-america-russia-is-upgrading-its-military

[29] The probability of this scenario is rather low. It is presented here because it fits to the basic line of the article that is to explore possibilities of the great US-Russia bargain. For Russia it is more convenient to make particular deals both with China and the US in a flexible way.

[30] It is in the long tradition of the Russian political leadership to show to the public that China is a Russian ally, especially if the relations with the USA are tight. This only further increases Chinese assertiveness vis-a-vis Russia.

[31] When Russia, from strategical reason, decided to build the oil pipeline to China in 2009  China made Russia finance this project with the help of a Chinese loan which only deteriorated the position of Russia vis-a-vis China

[32] Financial Times: Gazprom secures €2bn loan from Bank of China,  https://www.ft.com/content/ac5b1ee4-e159-11e5-9217-6ae3733a2cd1

[33] Russia’s export of weapons to China amounts of 3,5 billion USD a year.

[34] Russia also had the problem of being cut from the Western financial markets. Moscow hoped that it would be borrowing money from the Chinese by emitting on stock markets of Shanghai and Beijing. But nothing from that plan had materialized. For China the Russian market represents only 2 % of its foreign trade.

[35] Russian and Chinese armies already conduct land exercises since the nineties and since 2015 they also conduct maritime maneuvers (East Mediterranean, the Black Sea, South China sea and recently also Baltic sea)

[36] Martin Svárovský: “Reset with Russia in security field and the interest of CEE countries; in: http://www.russkiivopros.com/index.php?pag=one&id=379&kat=6&csl=50

[37] Such continuous testing is one of the leading principles of Russian foreign policy under the president Putin.

[38] Still, some ideas on this topic appeared: Steven Pifer: A European security architecture that won’t work,: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/03/01/a-european-security-architecture-that-wont-work/

[39] Limits set in this treaty are: 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. The Treaty does not constrain testing, development, or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs or long-range conventional strike capabilities.

[40] In the period of warming relations with Russia, missile defense was one of the possible fields of cooperation -  even though with clear limits - which is for instance reflected in the document approved by the Lisbon NATO summit. The situation today is completely different

[42] Even in this case, the economic factor as a driving force for German-Russian relations substantially weakened during the last couple of years. For instance, the German export to Russia dropped by about 43% since 2012.

[43] The sanctions and Russian retaliation had a bigger impact in the case of Europe with ten times higher foreign trade with Russia

[44] The ability of Russian economy to modernize and innovate is still very weak. The economy badly needs structural reforms. After years of decrease, the Russian economy shows only a very tiny growth.  Economist Intelligence Unit predicts annual growth of GDP only about 1 % during next decades. GDP growth of about 1,4% in 2017 is predicted by the IMF.

[45] There is also no feeling of moral obligation towards Russia in the USA like there is in Germany. The Americans did not wage a war with incredible numbers of victims nor needed president Gorbachev support for reunification. For sure, this is not the only source of motivation for the German initiatives directed on Russia like “Modernisierungpartnerschaft”, “Annährung durch Verflechtung” or “Meseberger Initiative” but it plays a role.

[46] There are several important decisions for US strategists to take like the question whether to restore bilateral channel with Russia (format Nuland - Surkov), whether and how to get involved into Normandy format, whether to increase military assistance including the possibility of  lethal weapons supply for Ukraine and so on.  

[47] The term “swallow” was chosen to demonstrate that it does not necessarily mean an official recognition. We might expect more or less creative word-equilibristic in this regard. Expressions of the chairman of German liberal party FDP Christian Lindner are illustrative enough.: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-germany-party/germanys-fdp-urges-new-approach-to-russias-annexation-of-crimea-idUSKBN1AL0IR

[48] The reality is that Russia is able to pursue its influence on Ukraine even without keeping its military presence or presence of its proxies in eastern Ukraine.

[49] It is not without interest that genuine change of the Russian policy towards Ukraine would also require the change of its military doctrine. If we look at the reforms of the Russian army in recent years, it is obvious that Russian combat force is directed more at Ukraine than on the Baltic States for instance.

[51] The attitude of Russia was clearly demonstrated during the visit of minister Lavrov in Washington. Russian minister offered cooperation on the North Korean case in exchange for halting the US-South Korean exercises. Russia also doesn´t believe the THAAD missile defense in South Korea is directed against North Korean missile capabilities but that it can rather limit Russian nuclear arsenal.

[52] One also needs to take into account the sort of non-seriousness of Russians. After the meeting with its American counterpart in Moscow, minister Lavrov misinterpreted the content of the talk at the press conference and the Russian Embassy published a photo from the courtesy meeting between president Trump and minister Lavrov in the White House. 

[53] Opinion polls /for instance Levada center/  show this attitude despite the massive anti-American media propaganda. See: The Trump Effect and Russians’ Attitudes Toward the United States, : http://carnegie.ru/commentary/68420

[54] The Russian political leadership tries to foster traditional feeling of „besieged fortress “among the Russian public. The outstanding Czech historian Vojtech Mastný labeled this as a „feeling of insecurity“.

[55] Look what is the Julianne Smith´s position now:  https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/the-future-of-u-s-russia-relations

[56] This is not expression of the wish that this paradigm would last forever. As the author of this article already put it in Russki Vopros in 2011: „Given their size, economic strength and limited capacities, the CEE countries realize their strategic goals mainly by means of their membership in regional organizations, NATO and the EU. That’s why they are also interested in good, realistic and fair relations of the EU and NATO with Russia and welcomed therefore so called “reset” between West and Russia. Prerequisites for such relations are: common interests, good will and mutual trust on both sides. Another important precondition is political and conceptual coherence of EU and NATO foreign policy.”, : http://www.russkiivopros.com/index.php?pag=one&id=379&kat=6&csl=50

[57] Some hints on character of the foreign policy are going to be found in the new National Security Strategy that Trump intends to release. This document could seek to preserve the US led international order, while proposing some mix of policies to better serve average U.S. workers and families.

[58] We need to take into account the influence of the players standing outside the government. For instance, the influence of the business was visible during the negotiation of the last round of sanction legislative on Iran, the Russian Federation and North Korea.

[59] Another important question is to what extent the Congress has a real leverage on the foreign policy of the administration. The opinions on the scale of this leverage differ among experts with good insights into the matter.

[61] Also, a scenario when leading figures in Russian administration would come to the conclusions that without some sort of the settlement of the relation with USA the vital interests of Russia are endangered is conceivable. For the stability of position of the president Putin himself, it is not without meaning that the sanctions have negative impact of the most powerful Russian oligarchs. Maybe the American administration should help to create conditions for such a conclusion of the Russian political and economic elite.

[62] The Russian leadership also has to bear in mind that the possibility of détente between pragmatic (mixture of communism with capitalism) China and the USA cannot be excluded.  Some of the sights of this - still hypothetical - scenario are visible on security-defense pillar of the restructured US-China Comprehensive Dialogue established in summit in Mar-a-Lago. Nevertheless economic, financial and technology issues is another, more complicated story in US-Chinese relations.

[63] Let us see whether we will learn something about the work of the bilateral working group that should make a sort of scrutiny of the bilateral relations and propose further steps.  The American and Russian ministers recently agreed upon its establishment.  

[64] Shortly before president Trump’s visit in Warsaw, Rudy Giuliani was of the opinion that the deal would rather be done in the Middle East. This has some logic in my opinion.

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Martin Slavik
ВЛИЯНИЕ НОВЫХ АМЕРИКАНСКИХ САНКЦИЙ НА СТРАНЫ КАСПИЙСКОГО РЕГИОНА |
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