Repairing US-Russian Relations is Necessary to the Future of U.S. Grand Strategy

President Trump recently made a controversial statement that indicated it was time to reinstate Russia back into the G7 (G8 with Russia), otherwise known as the group of seven major advanced and industrialized economies in the world. This idea was brought up at the tail end of the recent G7 summit in Quebec, Canada where they attempted to rectify the current dilemma regarding new tariffs and increased trade protectionism with multiple nations as a byproduct of the current trade war with China. Trump’s mentioning of the possibility of Russia’s return as an international stakeholder in the management of the Western global political-economic system had quickly shaken up the foreign policy and national security communities. In fact, it quickly distinguished the polarization of sentiments regarding the U.S. position on Russia.

After all, we currently live in an age of “Russiaphobia” where anti-Russian sentiments come from the political left rather than the political right, which was more prevalent during the Cold War. But we don’t live in the Cold War era anymore. In fact, we are now entering the post-globalization period with a world that is now re-discovering a new era of multipolarism, where competition between countries over resources, technology, weaponry, information, and great power leveraging is upon us at heightened levels. This is something we have not seen since the end of the First World War and the 1937-1939 period that was prior to the Second World War. However, new powers are rising in this new international system while old and current powers have to decide how they will adapt, evolve, stay afloat, or even find new opportunities for growth and development.

These are big issues that require an updated mindset and way of thinking. Fortunately, history is our best ally since it has witnessed these types of geopolitical changes occurring each time this happens. It will continue to happen whenever highs and lows in trends and patterns can no longer remain manageable to maintain the status quo. Great power politics between major powers has returned with a vengeance. Well, it never really left but the U.S. and the rest of the world have spent the last 15 plus years concentrating a great deal of emphasis on living in a post-911 world that dealt with a war on terrorism and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global battlefields.

The post-911 time period produced some extremely important events that have greatly impacted U.S. foreign policy and global positioning strategy in the long term. They deserve a lot of focus, however, it’s even more important to understand how they have helped pave the way for a new international system that is quickly making the old world order less efficient.  In fact, if you Google “realism in international relations”, you may come to the conclusion that realism is back at the forefront of international policy and grand strategy thinking by nations and its leaders. This is a result of an emerging post-globalization era that was marked inevitable at the global trend’s inception.

In the age of “Russiaphobia”, we constantly look at events and sentiments that transpired from the 2016 elections as well as the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Georgia incursion in 2008, and the Chechen civil wars of the 1990s. But to be perfectly honest, it is limited thinking and lack of big-picture perspective. It is already apparent that Putin’s Russia seeks to remain “an essential power” in the world after its severe decline occurred in 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has not integrated well into the global political economy in this recent period of globalization. Prior to the placing of sanctions on them as a result of their 2014 annexation of Crimea, which really was an act to preserve their influence in the region, Russia had more economic interests with the West than they do now. In fact, their economic and political interests have pivoted mainly to Asian nations, particularly China.

“Russia is ‘likely to discover that it can no longer manage an equal partnership with China’; Russia will‘likely face a choice between the increasingly close embrace of a more dynamic China and attempting to find regional and global partners to help balance Chinese influence.’”

– Ariel Cohen (Heritage Foundation, 2001)

The Chinese-Russian relationship has grown extensively in recent years but it has been a process long in the making since the end of the Cold War. This is crucial to understand since relations hadn’t been this strong since the inception of the Cold War. However, this changed when President Nixon with the help of Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger mounted a major coup in the U.S.-China-Russia triangle balance of power by getting China to align with the U.S. during the Cold War. This ultimately allowed China to open its economy and wean itself off of Maoism. Forty-five years later, China is the second leader in the world behind the U.S. and their relationship with Russia has grown exceptionally stronger over the last quarter century.

It can be argued that the sanctions that were imposed by the Obama administration had actually helped reinforce the Chinese-Russian relationship. This had been gradually improving with periodic upgrades to their partnership and good neighbor agreements, as well as various economic, trade, infrastructure, and military arms deals that were slow in the works. However, the 2014 sanctions that were placed on them ended up streamlining their relations and agreements. After all, Russia’s economy was severely threatened by the sanctions as well as higher inflation and lower oil prices. Russia’s greatest weakness in this scenario had been its over-reliance on integrating within the Western global economic system while having an economy that was ill-equipped and not diversified enough to weather out the sanctions on their own. Like any nation throughout history that experienced “survival mode”, the key strategy would be to wean itself off the system by entering into another one that is more favorable, advantageous, and correlates with their attitudes and ideologies.

A closer relationship with China and the Asian economy as a whole would render the sanctions placed on Russia as being less effective than originally intended. Also, to some degree, it would actually hurt the economies of certain European Union member states (like Germany and Italy) since they are highly dependent on Russian energy. In addition, Russia remains influential in its influence over Eastern Europe and Eurasia despite the sanctions being placed on them. However, a stronger Sino-Russian relationship signifies the current acceptance by Russia’s political elite that China is the more senior and more powerful player of the two countries. This is an obvious point, but this is certainly one point that U.S. policymakers should keep in mind when dealing with China-Russian relations.

More importantly, Russia’s willingness to work with China in developing its economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a critical area that is worth monitoring for years to come. After all, the BRI seeks to recreate the ancient Silk Road via land and water trade routes by undergoing massive infrastructure projects that span over 60 countries and costs at least four trillion dollars in investment by the Chinese government. This has been in the works since 2013 and it consists of infrastructure projects that deal with improved travel (roads, highways, and trains), trading centers, and ports. It also consists of industry investment and diversification projects in various regions to help develop and prepare their economies in the long run.  The point of this massive investment project is to either ignite a form of globalization inside of Asia with China as the driving force or at least spark a new period of globalization in the international system where China and the rest of the Asian and Eurasian economies are benefitting immensely.

SOURCE: The Caspian Report: China’s Belt and Road Initiative (Youtube Channel) (12:46 minutes)

However, all of this is being implemented via China’s leadership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and they are initiatives that support Beijing’s long-term global positioning strategy in the new international system. Russia’s key relevance to Beijing is the close proximity to resources in case international trade is disrupted as well as location (ancient neighbor and gateway to Western and Eastern Europe), regional security, and political influence in these areas via their leadership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). This is crucial to understand as it would turn these areas into potentially economic free trade zones and eventually could cause nations under the EAEU (Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia) to be less reliant under Russian leadership and increase their willingness to be under the Chinese umbrella if not under an American or European Union umbrella.

These are just a few issues that can be assessed by U.S. policymakers when determining how the future of U.S. grand strategy is made. Shortly before he died in 2017, Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that the US.-China-Russia triangle balance of power has reversed itself in the Post Cold War era where Russia is now in the weaker position that China had been in during the Cold War. This also means that Russia is in a leveraging position that can help impact the future balance of power between these two nations. In fact, it can be argued that this scenario offers Russia the opportunity to utilize a multi-vector foreign policy that nations like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan employ when dealing with China and Russia in their respective regions.

An excellent description of multi-vector foreign policy is perfectly explained in the 1991 movie, “Mobsters” when they talk about countering two mob bosses without actually going to war in 1920s New York City.

Here is the movie quote:

Meyer Lansky:
  • “We gotta get tough with Masseria and Faranzano. Only, we can’t afford a war. They got armies; we don’t.”
Arnold Rothstein:
  • “We got balls and brains; you got those, you don’t need an army…100 years ago, Austria was run by a prince named Metternich. Austria was weak, and its neighbors were strong; but Metternich was a cold, calculating fox. If one country got too strong, he organized an alliance against it. He would bring Europe to the brink of war, and then everybody thanked him when he kept war from happening. He barely had an army, but he had Europe by the ‘kishkes’.”

When reading this quote, it reminds us that Russia is in a unique position between two larger powers and they have currently pivoted towards the power (China) that can help counter Washington’s current policies towards them. However, Russia is in a position where they have to keep their options open in terms of redeveloping its international influence and relevance. Logic and history should dictate that it is not really in the best interest of U.S. foreign policymakers to let Russia be so friendly with China as it is a similar opinion held by the Russian foreign policy community as well. From a long-term perspective, the BRI and closer relations with China could potentially make Russia less relevant and more isolated than they are now. Unlike China, Russia never fully cultivated their soft power projection in the international system and it’s given them less maneuverability in diplomatic relations. This is why hard power cultivation has been a bread and butter policy for the Russians. This has certainly helped the current government stay in power for a very long time, however life after Putin remains unpredictable according to various experts.

“I believe if Washington had a more positive attitude towards Moscow, then the end result would be that we had good relations between the U.S. and Russia and eventually the Russians would be part of the balancing coalition against China.” 

– John Mearsheimer (Russia Direct, Khlebnikov and Shevchenko 2016)

For Russia to remain relevant in the long term, they will need to warm up relations with the United States, which isn’t going to be easy in this current political climate. In addition, it is also in the best interest of the United States to improve its relations with Russia as well. It offers a chance to rebalance the region while hindering the power growth of the Chinese global political economy and its military modernization and expansion initiatives throughout the region. This may not be a recreation of the initial structure that made up the U.S.-China-Russia triangle balance of power system of the 1970s. However, a multi-vector Russian foreign policy can provide more opportunities for Washington to maneuver in the future of US-Russian relations than a China-Russian strategic alliance would.

President Trump is expected to meet with President Putin this mid-July in Helsinki, Finland in order to discuss the current U.S.-Russian relationship. It actually makes perfect sense for the two presidents to meet while the U.S. is currently engaged in a massive trade dispute with China as they are addressing their concerns regarding current deals, business practices, privacy, and intellectual property theft issues. It’s a power play that indicates that Trump and Putin may cut a deal to re-invite Russia back into the Western global economic system, while possibly moving on from the Crimean and Syrian ordeals that began to escalate US-Russian tensions in 2014. If this were the case, it would not be a perfect solution, however, it would be a solution and the next step in forming a U.S. grand strategy that can meet 21st-century multipolarism.

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