The Russian Perspective on U.S-China Conflict
President Trump and his advisors began the great game with China at the G20 in Hamburg. Economic competition and regional access in the South China Sea are some of the reasons the Trump administration would like to drive a wedge between China and Russia to the greatest extent possible.
As Jim Rickards has said, in a three player game, you don’t want to be the odd-man out. This means that the U.S. would like to keep Russia neutral — or better, make Russia an ally — before any conflict reaches a head between the U.S. and China.
To do this, the Trump administration needs to think carefully about Russia’s interests. What, if anything, could the U.S. do to influence Russia in any potential situation that develops between the U.S. and China?
Russia’s Wish List
The most immediate answer would be for U.S. to lift sanctions from Russia. Putin would find this especially helpful if it occurred before his next election, about 10 months away.
However, the U.S. Senate has anticipated this. That’s why it recently passed new sanctions with internal provisions to limit the Trump administration’s ability to lift or ease them without Congressional approval.
With sanctions still in effect for the time being, the next item on the Russia’s wish list is the delay or removal of U.S. anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems from Poland and Romania. These systems are deployed (seemingly) to counter Iranian missile threats.
But, such U.S. ABM systems are a great concern to Russia. Any defensive missile shield limits the effectiveness of a retaliatory strike, and increases the risk Russia faces of suffering a preemptive first strike.
While not discussed publicly, another source of concern to Russia is China’s East Wind Dongfeng-41 road-mobile nuclear ICBM missiles. Any missile that can range London and Los Angeles can certainly reach Moscow. Russia doesn’t want to face this threat from both China and the U.S., so this could be a useful bargaining chip for the U.S.
Encroachment by NATO
Those are relatively short-term demands that Russia could make. But the most important strategic goal would be to stop or even rollback NATO’s expansion.
Since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, and despite pledges of non-encroachment from U.S. President George H. W. Bush to Soviet Premier Gorbachev, the American led NATO alliance has been steadily encroaching on Russia’s European borders for 25 years.
The West accepted seven former members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO and the former Soviet Republics of the Baltic States as well.
Officials from the Obama administration were taped bragging about spending $4 billion to overturn a democratically elected pro-Russian government in Ukraine. The subsequent conflict led to the de facto partition of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
The West recently raised the stakes. The 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit approved the rotation of heavy brigades (up to 4,000 troops) to patrol eastern Poland and the Baltic countries. This places NATO forces less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg.
The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov denounced the NATO deployment as destabilizing pressure on Russia’s borders. Then in November 2016, Lavrov announced that Russia would deploy S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear capable, mobile short-range Iskander ballistic missiles into the salient at Kaliningrad.
Now imagine the U.S. reaction if we had lost the Cold War and despite Soviet promises to the contrary, the USSR kept expanding the Warsaw Pact to include former NATO countries and, finally, Canada. What if then they decided to place heavy brigades as close to New York City as Hartford, Connecticut or Philadelphia…
Russia feels they have no choice but to halt the aggressive expansion of NATO. Trump has gone back and forth on NATO, but could be a useful ally for Russia in this regard.
We’ve touched on some of the policy initiatives Russia might seek from the U.S., but there are major impediments that could prevent the Trump administration from improving relations with Russia.
Four Hurdles to Trump and Putin Cooperation
The first hurdle will be the Russian assumption that any U.S. efforts to increase bilateral ties will be simply a prelude to yet another Color Revolution or Arab Spring style effort to destabilize Russia.
The book, “The Nature and Content of a New-Generation War,” was written by two military theorists at the Centre for Military-Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff.
The theorists, Chekinov and Bodganov, purported to describe U.S. strategy as follows:
The aggressive side will be first to use non-military actions and measures as it plans to attack its victim in a new-generation war. With powerful information technologies at its disposal, the aggressor will make an effort to involve all public institutions in the country it intends to attack, primarily the mass media and religious organizations, cultural institutions, non-governmental organizations…
This is represented as the U.S. strategy, but actually offers a fair description of recent Russian actions in Ukraine. In this theory regarding the combined value of soft and hard power, Russia would feel exposed because they could not protect themselves should a future U.S. administration decide to deploy the power inherent in such public and private institutional relations.
The second hurdle is that, in addition to Russian suspicions, governments are more constrained than they generally believe. Dr. George Friedman, Founder and Chairman of Geopolitical Futures, observes that countries’ foreign policy options are more shaped by external constraints of geopolitics than any administration would like to acknowledge.
This is the reason why the broad foreign policy of most countries rarely changes despite the arrival of a new administration.
President Putin addressed this recently. In an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, he explained that Russia has limited interest in U.S. domestic politics since, “Presidents come and go, and even the parties in power change, but the main political direction does not change.”
Trump may want to change the relationship between Russia and the U.S., but his power to do so is limited. If geopolitical tensions with China rise, however, that may give Trump more leverage to push his agenda with Russia.
U.S. Domestic Politics
The two challenges we’ve listed so far are the inertia of geopolitics and Russian suspicion. However, the Trump administration also faces a wall of skepticism at home resulting from a rampant disinformation campaign within the U.S. stemming from the election.
The WikiLeaks release of the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, was a devastating blow to the Clinton campaign in the final weeks of the campaign.
When Donald Trump won in a shocking upset, Clinton campaign and the Obama administration — with the support of compromised media — developed a strategy to position themselves as the aggrieved victim of Russian interference.
The main point was to shift the blame off of their glaring campaign mistakes and limit their criminal exposure. By refusing to address any of the factual misconduct revealed in the Podesta emails, they successfully shifted the narrative.
Instead of Democratic collusion and abuse of U.S. intelligence services to rig a U.S. election, the story that has persisted is accusations of Russian perfidy and alleged Trump campaign “collusion.”
The bottom line is that until this fictional scandal dies, it will be hard for Trump to take any friendly action toward Russia without inviting more hysterical media coverage.
China will benefit from the mainstream media disinformation campaign. The media has effectively blocked the United States from normalizing relations with Russia and from improving our position in the looming showdown with China and North Korea.
The Perception of U.S Decline
The final reason a rapprochement with Russia will be difficult is the widespread belief among Russian and Chinese strategists that the U.S. is in irreversible decline.
Given the parabolic increase of U.S. debt and unfunded liabilities, both Russia and China are keen to avoid a direct confrontation with the overwhelming military power of superpower they already see in decline.
While both Russia and China face enormous economic and demographic challenges themselves, the balance of power (along with the world’s physical gold stocks), is slowly but surely shifting to the East.
Russia has a relatively modest economy and exposed geostrategic position between China and NATO. President Putin perfectly understands that patience and strategic positioning are the keys to a successful endgame for Russia.