It is a truth that can be verified based on the most various publicly-available data of the last 7 years: Russia and the U.S. were on a positive trajectory in bilateral relations. It seems paradoxical, but the pronounced cooldown in relations between “the big two” after the war in Georgia (August 2008) was followed, at Washington’s initiative, at the initiative of the then-new President Barack Obama, by the so-called ‘reset’ in bilateral relations, sealed in Moscow by then-State Secretary Hillary Clinton. The apex of this new phase was the signing of the START-3 agreement in 2010, through which the two great nuclear powers were continuing the process of nuclear arsenal reduction, establishing caps and the mutual verification of the correctness of the actions meant to reduce strategic armaments. Basically, the two sides had met at the middle – the U.S. had to spend enormously to perfect its own nuclear arsenal, but along with Russia it needed partners to combat international terrorism which was in full offensive.
The continuation but also the end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama being the one who had promised to put an end to these costly military conflicts, represented an arduous process that required both partners and especially the absence of enemies/competitors. Even though mortgaged by the reservations of both signatories – Russia will deem the agreement moot if the U.S. installs new missile defence facilities in the immediate vicinity of its western frontiers (such as Deveselu in Romania, but also in Poland); the U.S. pointing out that nothing can stand in the way of ensuring its own national security – this agreement had a relatively short life, at least apparently, ending with the crisis in Ukraine (Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in March 2014). I say “at least apparently” because ‘START-3’ continued and continues to be observed even today, in its letter and spirit, meaning that the agreed reductions are being implemented and their progress is being mutually verified. In other words, after March 2014, there was no hiatus in the strategic agreement between the U.S. and Russia, hence the global strategic balance was not modified. And this was real against the backdrop in which the U.S., the main power in NATO, took appropriate measures to deter new Russian aggressions in Eastern Europe (particularly in the Baltic region), in line with the decisions adopted at the North Atlantic Alliance summits in Wales (September 2014) and Warsaw (July 2016).
Just as real however is the fact that the U.S. was not a party to the ‘Normandy format’ (which included Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia) through which an attempt was made to solve the crisis in Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea was followed, as known, by the destabilisation of the Donbass and the onset of a state of war between the two large Slav states). Over the years (in the summer of 2015 for instance), attempts were made to get the U.S. involved in this format, precisely to give an impulse to finding a solution to the war that had already claimed over 10,000 lives. But these attempts were especially a demonstration of the relatively good relations between the U.S. and Russia rather than of Washington’s reflex to protect its allies and to accelerate a resolution to the crisis, in which the West was firmly committed to condemning Russia’s aggression (including by applying economic and financial sanctions).
Russia’s triumphal entry in the Middle East, by using its own military force in the Syrian civil war in September 2015, could only have been made – after 50 years of absence from this region, having been expelled from it after 1973 and not being part of the Camp Davis peace accord (1979) – with the unilateral consent of the U.S. or, in the more likely case, with the bilateral consent of the U.S. and Israel.
The war against Daesh, the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, formed with the goal of destroying Israel and annulling the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1915, hence a redrawing of the Middle East map, back then deemed the main threat to global security, outlined a recently unprecedented cooperation between Russia and the U.S. on the battlefield of the Syrian civil war. An unpredictable, unexpected weakness of the West was observed simultaneously – as shown by the EU’s migrant crisis of 2015, the impasse in solving the Ukrainian conflict, and the until-then unthought-of passivity of the U.S. on the global scene, where it had been an incontestable leader, which seemed to result in (and explain) Russia’s military boldness, which started in 2013-2014.
The U.S. presidential elections of 2016 at first did not seem to influence the growingly positive bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia. Moreover, certain statements made by D. Trump’s presidential campaign team seemed to even announce – in case of victory – a pronounced positive trend in these relations. It is notorious that, for instance, Steve Bannon, chief editor of ‘Breitbart,’ a website rooted in a right-wing conservative orientation, was among the ideologues with an influence on Trump’s platform.
Founded by Pat Buchannan, this orientation saw Russian leader V. Putin as an ally, the leader of the world’s “only white empire,” deemed to be a “paleoconservative.” Hence, in case of D. Trump’s victory, a boost in relations between Moscow and Washington was expected. After all, why did Russia need a friend making it into the White House? On one hand, it needed a solution to the Ukrainian issue, hence the recognition of the annexation of Crimea – one way or another –, but also the lifting of the sanctions enforced after the annexation, sanctions under whose weight the Russian economy is now struggling. On the other hand, according to Kremlin’s strategy, a strategy already identified by the West, it was a wider Russian plan, namely that of attempting – against the backdrop in which the end of ‘Pax Americana’ was taking shape – to recover the sphere of influence it had at the end of the 1980s, according to an older agreement with the West, frozen at Helsinki in 1975 and lost during the post-Cold War period because of the West’s better diplomatic game and of the collapse of the USSR.
Otherwise, if it was not for this grand strategy, what would have been the point in building anti-access/area denial zones at its western border, already massive in 2015-2016, as if the West was getting ready to attack immediately and Russia had to adopt defensive measures? Couldn’t it have been because Russia was thus projecting its grand strategy against the backdrop in which it was filling up a vacuum as a result of the West’s weakness in general and of a contradictory behaviour on the part of the U.S. in particular? That this U.S. behaviour was prompted by what is known as the so-called ‘Asian pivot’ or, practically, by the consequences of the economic-financial crisis of 2008 which no longer gave the U.S. the resources needed to maintain its unequalled military might and forced it to limit itself to existing resources, including by thinking out a new compensating grand strategy (‘off-shore balancing’) to maintain the role of hegemon, is a topic worthy of debate and a topic of extreme importance.
But, obviously in such conditions a thaw in relations with Russia could have allowed the U.S. to share the burden of hegemony, especially since China was growing at an astronomic rate and thus seemed to threaten the stability of the existing system.