By Jonathan Power*
Does anyone, however well-informed, know what President Donald Trump thinks about President Vladimir Putin? I hazard a guess that he is still more pro than anti, only he doesn’t quite know where to begin.
It’s time overdue that they met and hammered out on the anvil what their mutual interests are.
Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have left a legacy that makes it hard for Trump to manoeuvre. They have trampled not so much on Putin but on Russia’s core interests. When Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and later Putin himself were lobbying for what the last Soviet leader, Mikhael Gorbachev, had called a “common European house” they were taking heed of a Russian mood to drive through a new entente.
But there was no financial aid, as there was with Germany and Japan after World War 2. There was no move to envelop Russia into the EU’s family. With Nato the Russians were soon faced with expansion, taking in most of the Soviet Union’s former European allies.
The critical turning point was probably December 1, 1994 when the Russian, western-minded foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev. travelled to Brussels to sign a Partnership for Peace agreement with NATO.
But when he was confronted with a NATO communique issued earlier that day proclaiming the policy of NATO expansion he had little choice but not too sign. How ham-fisted could NATO get? Yeltsin issued a protest, criticising attempts from “a single capital to decide the destinies of whole continents and the world community as a whole”. He warned that this was pushing Europe “into a cold peace”. It wasn’t Putin’s accession to power that was the turning point. It happened on Yeltsin’s watch, even though he was in many ways as pro-Western as they come.
When Putin did come to power, as the American Russian scholar Gordon Hahn has argued, “his rise and continuing hold on the Russian presidency is in significant part a function of continuing NATO expansion. Putin is not opposed to the West or democracy per se. If he were, then Russian would not have good relations with the non-NATO democracies such as India, South Korea and Japan.”
The US’s big mistake (the EU countries followed in its wake) was built on too much hubris, born out of the victory over communism. The US became the world’s only superpower and tends to regard every part of the planet as a region of vital US national security and interests. The US maintains an active military presence in 147 countries.
US policy has been counter-productive, driving Russia towards partnership with China. By taking the slow track on nuclear disarmament it has left Russia with an astonishing number of nuclear weapons, able to blow the West to smithereens. It has pushed Putin into steps to demonstrate that Russia remains a power not to be ignored. His policies over China, Ukraine, especially Crimea, and Syria are popular at home.
The West too often overlooks Russia’s geopolitical position, which gives it a competitive edge in Eurasia. Russia and its acolytes border every major global civilization: the Euro-Atlantic West, Confucian Asia, big parts of the Islamic world, Hindu South Asia and Buddhist southeast and south Asia. The resurgence of Orthodox Christianity underscores its direct historical links with the original Church of Constantine’s Rome, which gives Russia a sense of what the Americans call “manifest destiny”.
The West, too, overlooks, if one takes the arts as one of the major criteria of civilization, how Russia trumps the world in ballet, literature and classical music, as well as holding its own as one of the top three or four in film, opera, architecture and painting.
All this begs the question what should Trump do now? First, to do as Trump has so far done – to stop the demonization of Putin, prevalent in previous Administrations. Second, to hold regular well-prepared summits (as in the old days of the Soviet Union) in which the West shares it deepest concerns with Russia and is prepared to forge new economic and military ties, as it should have done the moment the Cold War ended.
The West should have no trouble in compromise as it will negotiate from a position of strength. NATO’s military capacity is 19 times that of Russia.
So what should be goal be? – an ending of the stalemate in Ukraine, which the West had a good part in creating, a stop to anymore NATO expansion, including withdrawing US troops from Poland and Romania, an intimate cooperation over Syria and nuclear proliferation, as in North Korea, a cessation of the attempt to play off China against the other and, above all, a sharp cut in nuclear weapons and ending America’s push towards first-strike capability.
Time is not being kind to Trump’s delays. He should get on with what he said during the election campaign.
*Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune. He has forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS. Copyright: Jonathan Power.