Over the course of the past month (January 2017), United States President Donald Trump significantly (by over 25 percent) surpassed President Vladimir Putin by the number of citations he has garnered in the Russian media. This is the first time since 2011 anyone has superseded Putin as the most popular media person in Russia (Interfax, February 1). The Russian press and political observers, as well as the state agitprop TV propaganda machine, have been actively promoting Trump as a friendly and ideologically close leader who will radically change US foreign and domestic policy to in effect make Russia great again. According to Sergei Karaganov, a pundit and businessman with well-established long-term Kremlin connections, the world is in a prewar situation, but Washington and Moscow may jointly decrease tensions and “prevent a world war, the possibility of which has been increasing recently.” Russia has forcibly stopped the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) expansion, “which would have inevitably led to war, if not checked,” continued Karaganov, adding “The EU [European Union] has lapsed into a long-term crisis, and it would be good if Trump and Putin could establish new ‘rules of play’ in Europe and decrease military tensions.” Western sanctions imposed on Russia must be scaled back and an agreement reached to “depoliticize Ukraine, which will surely disintegrate if it continues to be a bone of contention of foreign powers.” Karaganov further argued that an agreement must be achieved to make Ukraine and “other similar states permanently neutral” (Aif.ru, January 18). The Kremlin-connected business mogul did not specify what other countries must be declared “permanently neutral” together with Ukraine by means of a Trump-Putin deal. But the most obvious list might include Moldova, Georgia, Finland and Sweden.
On January 28, Trump and Putin had a phone conversation that both sides lauded as highly successful. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the talks as “good in the political and personal dimensions.” According to Lavrov, both leaders, “without dipping into details,” found lots of common ground and coinciding national interests “in different spheres,” which included fighting jihadist terrorism in the Middle East and the Ukrainian situation. To move forward the “conceptual understanding” apparently reached by Trump and Putin, both have agreed, Lavrov asserted, to continue work at a regular expert level. These proposed meetings would look for specific points of mutual interest and figure out how to organize practical joint cooperation “to solve world problems.” The exact time and format of these expert consultations will be worked out soon, according to Lavrov, “once Trump’s foreign policy team is fully put together.” The White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus; the National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn; as well as White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon were reportedly in the room when Trump and Putin parleyed by phone (Interfax, January 30).
The Moscow foreign policy elite is straightforward in what it wants from the Trump White House, and these demands are more or less in line with what Karaganov outlined before the January 28 Trump-Putin phone call. According to Valery Solovey, a leading professor of MGIMO (a state university affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and created during Communist rule to train career diplomats), the future deal with Trump will be hammered out in expert talks that are already beginning. Solovey reasoned that the Trump team wants Russian assistance with destroying the Islamic State (IS) and help in dealing and deterring Iran and China. In return, Russia wants a de facto recognition of “the new geopolitical reality [the annexation of Crimea]” as well as the recognition of the post-Soviet space (excluding the Baltic States—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) as Russia’s “zone of influence.” Moreover, Russia wants NATO to withdraw forces deployed recently on its eastern flank to deter Russia. Finally, Moscow wants an easing of sanctions. Russia is ready to prepare a massive joint operation with the US against the IS in Syria and possibly other Middle Eastern countries. Presumably, such an operation may placate the US Congress into accepting a Trump-Putin deal. Moscow has also recently had some disagreements with Tehran and could possibly help put some pressure on the Islamic Republic. Moscow will not, under any circumstances, strain its relations with Beijing, however. It, therefore, must cunningly supplement any US attempts to pull it into a confrontation with China with offers of joint (together with Japan and South Korea) economic cooperation to develop natural resources in Siberia and the Far East, apparently spinning this as competition with Chinese influence. Russia may provide a verbal pledge not to occupy all of Ukraine, but the US must, in turn, withdraw from the Ukrainian problem, thus giving Moscow a free hand to deal with Kyiv, Solovey wrote (Facebook.com, January 29).
Moscow may agree to substantially increase its military deployment in the Middle East to fight jihadist radicals together with the US, according to independent military columnist Aleksandr Golts (Ej2015.ru, January 30). Of course such a costly deployment would be made in the understanding that Russian forces stay permanently in newly established bases to dramatically enhance Russian influence in the oil-rich region.
Trump seems to offer a unique opportunity to restore Russia as a great Euro-Asian empire and “make it great again.” Karaganov believes the US liberal elite will fight Trump and his pro-Russian policies using any means, including a possible assassination. As such, Karaganov has suggested that the White House should enhance Trump’s personal security detail (Aif.ru, January 18).
In the proposed deal with Trump, Moscow seems to be offering little of substance in exchange for the US renouncing Ukraine and Crimea, all of the post-Soviet space and more. Still, plenty in Russia apparently believe such a deal is possible because Moscow thinks it is negotiating from a position of substantial strength. Trump and his team, meanwhile, are seen as weak and under life-threatening internal and external pressure to show at least some foreign policy success. Therefore, Moscow believes Washington may settle to give away Ukraine and Moldova into Russian servitude because the Trump White House does not care much about those far-off, unstable and impoverished places. The only serious threat, as seen from Moscow, is that Trump may be so weak politically and his White House team so incompetent that his administration might prematurely collapse or he could even be impeached. Some voices inside Russia are, therefore, advising Putin to move swiftly and aggressively to secure the country’s vital interests before Trump implodes and to avoid tying himself and Russia too closely to the White House so as not to be engulfed by its potential eventual disgrace (Mk.ru, February 1).
Pavel Felgenhaue – The Jamestown Foundation