Since early October 2016, namely since the eve of the U.S. presidential elections, the apparently positive evolution of relations between the U.S. and Russia – especially in the aggregate of the Syrian civil war – registered a slump that gradually became steeper, especially after the onset of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal once D. Trump was sworn in at the White House.
The historians of the near future will have to clear up what happened then. With a bilateral agreement already reached in order to hasten the end of the war in Syria, military cooperation against ISIL being at the forefront, a growing cooldown intervened between the two great powers (the initiative seems to have belonged to the Obama administration that expelled Russian diplomats from the U.S.) against the backdrop of the clash between the two presidential candidates. Apparently, team Trump seemed to be relying on beneficial Russian intelligence on the opponent’s actions and past, especially since it was suspected that Russian hackers, under potential official protection, had broken the email accounts of some Democratic campaign members. Things evolved in a lightning-fast manner, and with D. Trump taking office, as well as with certain appointments in official offices he made (or dismissals of important personalities), a clandestine partnership seemed to be coagulating between team Trump and Russia, in order to win the presidential elections.
The whole process is yet to end, an independent inquiry has already established that persons from Russia, already charged, broke into Democratic campaign servers, but, against its backdrop – basically a crisis of the American political system of dimensions unseen recently –, international relations followed their course. Crises succeeded at a speed that certain decisions or ambiguities on the part of the new American President constantly amplified. First there was Washington’s ambiguity in what concerns its commitments within NATO, which had a profound echo in Europe, and certain non-liberal stances of the President or the withdrawal from already concluded international treaties (the one on climate change, the trans-Pacific trade agreement) amplified systemic unease/instability.
Against this backdrop, the eruption of the North Korean nuclear crisis took centre stage, being skilfully stoked by the North Korean communist leader’s provocative actions. In this context, Syria seemed to become the affair of Russia and its partners, Iran and Turkey, even though the U.S. involvement in crushing ISIL continued.
A new format of negotiation, Astana-Sochi, managed by Russia, without a notable American presence, manage to replace the previous one sponsored by the U.S. and Russia, in line with a UN Security Council resolution, which featured meetings in Geneva. Soon thereafter, Turkey intervened militarily in Syria to crush – Ankara states – the YPG terrorist organisation of Syrian Kurds, who are however military supported by the U.S. on the ground. Worth adding to this maze of contradictory interests is also the fact that President Trump has managed to form an alliance of Sunni Arab powers, firstly Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Israel against Iran, whose local militias, organised and supported by Tehran, are present in many countries of the region and cause destabilisation.
Relations between Israel and Iran have become tenser, the ones between Turkey and the U.S. have taken a stronger downturn, unnatural for two NATO allies, and in Ukraine Russia shows no convincing signs of accommodating the West’s requests, which leads to the upholding of sanctions.
This is the context in which, in December 2017 and January 2018, the national security and national defence strategies of President Trump were published in the U.S., China and Russia being designated as enemies in them, which can only destabilise the international system of states whose functioning is guaranteed by the U.S.
Russia’s reply was not late in coming. One could say it actually came very fast. It came in the form of V. Putin’s state of the nation address on 1 March 2018. After this speech, we should ask ourselves who triggered a new strategic arms race (nuclear arms) and similarly a large-scale systemic crisis: D. Trump or his Russian counterpart? As Carl Bildt noted on his Twitter account on the same day of Putin’s speech: “Half of Putin’s annual speech to Parliament was devoted to a multimedia show of new strategic weapon systems. A message, certainly.” And then he immediately returned with a tweet that notes a realistic analysis of the meaning of Kremlin’s message: “If there was wisdom in the world there would now be a new phase of strategic stability talks between the US and Russia followed by concrete agreements.” Obviously, for the former Swedish Premier the strategic race between the U.S. and Russia has started, and now there is the need for a lot of wisdom to reach a new global balance. Hence, the need for talks the likes of START, which consolidated the global systemic balance in the last almost five decades (landmarks: SALT – 1972; START-3 – 2010).
Why do we say we must ask ourselves who started this race? Because it would be interesting to know whether Russia, aware that the U.S. has no other way out of the current domestic political crisis than through such a solution, waited for Washington to act this way, in order to then respond, hence defensively, with an anticipated PR effect. But, if that is so, why did Putin go beyond the regular rules, assuming an offensive tone in his speech? Why did he say: “And to those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia, have introduced restrictions and sanctions that are illegal from the standpoint of international law aiming to restrain our nation’s development, including in the military area, I will say this: everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia.” Moreover, he continuously repeated for all those interested that Russia continues to remain a major nuclear power: “No, nobody really wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem, and nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now.” Could it be an imperial instinct wounded by the subordinate position imposed on it, or could it really be Kremlin’s growing assertiveness? Or, since there can be multiple speculations, could it be an electioneering statement, Putin being on the eve of presidential elections?
However, what the Russian president announced, namely the superiority of Russian strategic arms in the current stage, foreshadows, just like the U.S.’s launch of the ‘Star Wars’ programme in the mid-1980s, the start of the construction of a new global order. Of course, unless – which is not expected – it represents a bluff. If back then, during the time of Reagan-Gorbachev, the post-Cold War era was reached after five or six years, and the international system was unexpectedly reformatted through agreements reached by the “Big Two,” how long will it take now? Or will there be a different system reformatting formula?