The new U.S. administrations’ relationship with Russia has always been, since the end of the Cold War, under the sign of continuity and change. In terms of continuity, we must start with a fact that stands out as being characteristic of the last three presidential terms at the White House. Namely the fact that each of them started out by forecasting a positive change in the relationship with Russia.
Even George W. Bush, for example, announced such a policy in 2000, which was not late in being reflected through an agreement which consisted on one hand of the setting up of the Russia-NATO Council in 2002 and on the other of the NATO expansion’s big-bang in 2004. In his next term, Bush Jr. made this direction a trait of his foreign policy action, but he had to note failure once Russia suspended the CFE Treaty (2007) and especially given the unprecedented crisis of the Russo-Georgia war (August 2008).
The following president, Barack Obama, again made a priority out of the relationship with Russia, relations with it being practically frozen after the war in Georgia, and launched the “reset” policy ever since the start of his first term. Its result was the signing of the New START (or START-3), a continuation of the strategic arms (intercontinental nuclear arms) reduction agreements. The treaty, signed in April 2010, included both signatories’ reserves of vital importance, and which were to leave their imprint on subsequent developments. Namely, Russia reserves its right to invalidate the commitments included in the treaty if it notes that the U.S. global missile shield endangers Russia’s nuclear deterrence capacity – in other words, if it puts Moscow in a position of inferiority in terms of the global balance of power (especially in Europe). On the other hand, the U.S. reserves its right to continue to promote the construction of the global missile shield as a matter of its own national security.
The reset which took hold in 2010 was to last briefly, the Ukrainian crisis – the changing of the regime in Kiev – erupting in February 2014, being followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea (March 2014), which immediately drew Western sanctions amplified once Moscow-backed separatism took hold in Eastern Ukraine (Donbass). In the same trend of the reset – which can be considered abandoned in its initial variant with the onset of the Ukrainian crisis – we can include the resumption of U.S.-Russia cooperation in two dossiers of maximum importance in international relations. Namely in the Iranian nuclear dossier, an agreement with Iran being reached in July 2015, putting an end for around a decade to its progress in building its own nuclear arms, and, on a different plane, in the Syrian civil war crisis.
In the latter, there has been a high degree of cooperation between Moscow and Washington, expressed through two attempts to establish a ceasefire (February and October 2016), followed by negotiations between the opposing sides, minus ISIL, negotiations that nevertheless failed, but also by agreements on the manner of handling the period of transition toward a new regime in Damascus. What must be mentioned is the fact – and this is the novelty – that this cooperation took place simultaneously with the upholding of Western sanctions on the Russian economy, namely with opposite stances on other international relations dossiers, inaugurating what can be called a new type of relationship between the great powers. This new type of relationship is defined by its variable geometry, which features conflictual components as well as cooperative components, the prevalence of the former or the latter depending on mutual interests.
Hence, the intentions expressed by the new U.S. President Trump regarding the relationship with Russia do not fall outside the traditional perimeter of its evolution in the last decade. What raises question marks however are the coordinates on which he announced he intends to develop the relations with Moscow and this dossier’s corroboration with other intentions of the new American president in the sphere of international relations. One must also make the aggravating mention that Trump is in the midst of a veritable domestic scandal centred on the presumption that his election was backed by Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign’s electoral process.
The new U.S. president’s recent statements announce dramatic changes in contrast to what the previous White House tenants – Obama and Bush Jr. – had gotten us used to. Firstly, he did not refrain to declare, right before starting the already announced negotiations with Moscow, that NATO, the West’s collective security alliance, is “obsolete.” It is the most precarious position from which to start negotiations with Russia, which since 2007 has done nothing but condemn NATO for being aggressive and for endangering Russia’s borders.
The suspension of the CFE, the war in Georgia, as well as Crimea’s annexation, all were moves motivated by NATO’s threat to Russia, according to Kremlin’s own statements. In remarks made in a documentary film produced by Oliver Stone, publicly released in November 2016, V. Putin talks about the annexation of Crimea as being made as a result of an analysis on Ukraine potentially joining NATO: “And what should we do? We should in this connection take countermeasures. That is, place under the threat of our missile systems those facilities which, in our opinion, begin to threaten us,” V. Putin said, referring to the case of Ukraine joining the North Atlantic alliance. Germany’s ‘Der Spiegel’ wrote on the eve of Trump’s inauguration that “maintaining control over Russia’s immediate vicinity is one of the country’s core interests while NATO’s eastward expansion is seen as a traumatic infringement of that claim. Putin has finally found an ally, in Washington of all places, in his battle against a world order that he has long attacked as being unipolar and unjust.”
Recently, Trump suggested he intends to talk with Moscow in the nuclear dossier, that the issue on which an agreement will be reached is there. In a January 16 interview with UK’s ‘The Times’ and Germany’s ‘Bild,’ Trump stated that “they have sanctions against Russia – let’s see if we can strike a few good deals with Russia. I think there should be less nuclear weapons and they have to be reduced significantly, that’s part of it.”
What is U.S. President Donald Trump referring to when he says the nuclear dossier is the most sensitive in the U.S.-Russia relationship?