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December 10, 2022

Trump Era: The first week (II)

A note before analysing G. Rachman’s version of a Russia-U.S. agreement during the Trump administration, an agreement mulled, according to some commentators, ever since the American presidential campaign. Financial Times’s international affairs commentator appreciates that there will definitely be a readjustment of relations between the two countries. “Mr. Trump’s America will clearly try to strike a deal with Mr. Putin’s Russia,” he firmly writes. And then reveals what he deems the terms on which this Russo-American deal could take place in his opinion: “The US will end its opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Although America may not agree to the formal legal incorporation of Crimea into Russia, it would accept it as a fait accompli. Following that, the US will lift economic sanctions. The Americans will also drop any suggestion that Ukraine or Georgia will join Nato. The build-up of Nato troops in the Baltic states will also be slowed or stopped. In return for these large concessions, Russia will be expected to wind down its aggression in eastern Ukraine and not attempt to make further territorial gains there. Russian pressure and implicit threats towards the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be dropped. Military tensions on the front line between Nato and Russia will be dialled down. With their conflict in eastern Europe eased, the US and Russia will make common cause in the Middle East. The US will drop its commitment to the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and will join the Russians in an attack on the Isis militant group.”

Explaining his own “guess,” Gideon Rachman brings solid arguments, building the fabric of an existing school of thought in what concerns the evolution of the current international situation. The premise of this school is that the American-Russian deal will take place in the terms described earlier, and the benefits are clear. Firstly, there would be a calming down of the international situation, which in the month that preceded the U.S. presidential elections had reached the highest risk level in the entire post-Cold War period (Russia deployed missiles with nuclear warheads in Kaliningrad), and the fears concerning the eruption of a new world war tended to take global amplitude. Similarly, the agreement on the Syrian civil war file will help the coherence of American policy in the Mideast, today Washington being apparently on the side of both camps in this internal conflict. The reducing of tensions in Ukraine as a result of the agreement on recognising the annexation of Crimea and of stopping the enlargement of NATO will have chances to calm down the alarming situation in Eastern Europe.

Of course, this school of thought on a new Yalta does not hesitate to point out the weaknesses of such a deal too. Firstly, it is emphasised that the agreement in the Syrian file is marked by “amorality,” which will spark dissatisfaction within both the U.S. and Europe, although the lifting of sanctions that are hitting the Russian economy would garner the sympathy of a businessman like Trump. Secondly, striking such an agreement with Putin has the great disadvantage of disregarding his profile as a leader, disproportionally high confidence being placed in the Kremlin autocrat. He can thus capitalise on the advantages gained and then once again resort to other aggressive actions. In this context, it is even quoted that Trump’s team had stated, for instance, that Estonia is “in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” (Newt Gingrich) so as to demonstrate how far goes the understanding of Russian positions on security issues as a motivation for unexpected illegal actions. This current of thought places special importance on the way in which the Trump administration will assess Kremlin’s policy, Washington’s orientation in this domain being already known and being characterised as suspicious of Russian moves: “Most of the foreign policy establishment in Washington will warn Mr Trump to be deeply suspicious of Mr Putin and will argue that any American concessions will be seen as weakness and encourage further Russian aggression.”

There is however another school of thought in what concerns a new “Yalta” with Russia. It is rooted in the previous policy of détente launched by the Nixon-Kissinger team in the 1970s. The fundamental element of this orientation is the assessment that Putin first of all wants respect for Russia’s great power calibre, recognition of her as an equal in global files and, in subsidiary, non-interference in internal affairs, namely non-encouragement for the liberal side of the Russian establishment. In this sense, the recent positions taken by Henri Kissinger are being quoted, and the invitation extended to the former American diplomat to visit Moscow. The weak point of this rival theory is that there are big differences in terms of risk, in contrast to the previous example of Russo-American détente: “In the 1970s, however, Mr Kissinger was dealing with an increasingly sclerotic Soviet Union led by the relatively cautious Leonid Brezhnev. Attempting a new detente with the aggressive and risk-taking Mr Putin is a different and much riskier proposition.”

Before we move on to the readers’ comments on this “Rachman scenario” on a “new Yalta,” we must point out that both schools of thought use a realistic approach to the issue, one in which agreements between great powers are the ones that draw systemic development lines. In other words, as a learned Romanian politician – Grigore Gafencu – said before the Second World War, the existence of the other units/states of the system is conditioned by the agreements reached by the great powers. Of course, other practitioners and theoreticians (followers of geopolitically-grounded realism) expressed similar opinions, but I chose to quote Gafencu because he is well-known for authoring a fundamental book on relations between Russia and the West, namely “The preliminaries of the war in the east,” published in 1946 and dealing with the previous world war.

Similarly, it is necessary to make another note relative to the two schools of thought. This time about the second school of thought, which talks about the USSR-U.S. détente started by the Nixon-Kissinger team. Historically, and this reality is well known, because it laid at the basis of the current international order in the Euro-Atlantic space, this initiative resulted in the signing of the Helsinki Final Act (1 August 1975) and the launch of an arms reduction process (the known CFE) which resulted in the Paris Treaty of November 1990, the establishment of a standing CSCE (which became the OSCE several years later) and the start of balanced arms reduction in the Euro-Atlantic space, under the strict control of all signatories. The USSR signed this historic agreement precisely because it froze geopolitical realities that resulted from the Second World War and it was part of a Euro-Atlantic balance of power with which Kremlin no longer agrees today, asking for renewed talks on it (the alternative being rebalancing by force). Today, Russia has suspended the CFE, has generated new geopolitical realities (see Georgia, Ukraine, as well as “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet space, including Transnistria) and wants to re-discuss the Helsinki agreement reached in 1975. Which is the same thing as in the case of the first school of thought, the nuances however being sometimes significant, namely systemic reformatting through a new “Yalta.”

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