by Gordon M. Hahn
Leading Russian international affairs analyst Fyodor Lukyanov recently gave an interview in which he rejected the idea of a successful U.S.-Russian detente or rapprochement. Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs international relations journal and chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an premier independent Russian think tank, argues that U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration are nationalist. In Lukyanov’s view, although the Trump administration will put an end to U.S. regime change policies – what I refer to as American revolutionism that drives an overly assertive U.S. democracy-promotion/color revolution policy – they also will seek to enhance U.S. power. In particular, the Trump foreign policy strategy, according to Lukyanov, will be to drive a wedge into the Sino-Russian ‘strategic partnership.’ Therefore, there will be no breakthrough in dampening ‘new Cold war’ tensions between Washington and Moscow, according to Lukyanov.
There are at least three problems with Lukyanov’s interesting and not entirely off-target thesis. First, one of the central points Trump made in his rather lackluster inauguration speech was that the U.S. under his administration will cease trying to dictate to other countries how to live and instead will try to set an example for countries to emulate should they wish. This suggests that he will rollback U.S. regime change revolutionism as Lukyanov suggests. This is the right policy, but it does not go far enough.
This leads to the second problem in Lukyanov’s thesis; he overlooks the fact that in combination with Trump’s ‘non-interference doctrine,’ he has questioned indirectly the utility of NATO expansion by characterizing the organization as a out-of-date and in need of reform. This suggests that Trump will go further and oppose any new NATO expansion efforts. As I have argued repeatedly for some two decades, NATO expansion is the real cause of Russia’s turn away from the West, democracy, and free market-oriented economics. Trump would do better to openly declare an explicit moratorium on NATO expansion and pursuit of a new model of European-Eurasian security involving Brussels, Moscow, and perhaps even Beijing, but abandoning revolutionism and NATO expansionism will go a long way in addressing the core problem in the U.S./Western-Russian relationship – the security dilemma between Russia and the West created by NATO expansion to Russia’s borders and historical sphere of influence. It was the Barack Obama administration reset’s failure to address the security dilemma and sole focus on areas where it was easy to achieve agreement that ultimately ruined the reset. The mine under the reset was the persistent possibility of Ukraine’s entry into NATO and the West’s endorsement, if not instigation of the illegal overthrow of Russia-friendly Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Persistent Western efforts to prepare and indeed encourage Kiev to join the European Union and then NATO and the radical ultra-nationalist Ukrainian opposition’s violation of the 20 February 2014 agreement to resolve the Maidan crisis signed by the president and the more moderate opposition’s leaders after Russian President Vladimir Putin convinced Yanukovych to sign demonstrated for all those willing to look with open eyes the malignant combined affect of NATO expansion and color revolutionism.
Third, Trump is not much of an ideological actor, regardless of whether we are talking about ‘idealist’ revolutionism or realist nationalism. Rather, he is a practical realist, whose chief practicality is self-interest. He is also temperamental and tends to seek revenge when slighted. Therefore, he will move in those directions that can enhance his presidential legacy and avoid those that might put it at risk.
The evidence that he has settled on a divide-and-rule’ strategy regarding the Sino-Russian alliance is slim. It appears that Trump has two separate strategies – one for each country. They happen to create a dynamic that could engender tensions between Moscow and Beijing, since Trump’s Russia policy is to engage and seek compromise while his China policy thus far has been to badger and threaten. A rift in the Sino-Russian partnership could develop if U.S.-Russian relations actually reset significantly, and U.S.-Chinese deteriorate considerably. But this creates potential for a split not a fait accompli. And should Trump perceive that Putin has betrayed his trust and/or challenged his ego, Trump is likely to strike back disproportionately.
This personality factor is likely the main obstacle to any significant U.S.-Russian rapprochement. The potential for such a detente is very real, if Trump calls off the neo-liberal expansionists at USAID and the State Department and the neocon expansionists at the Pentagon, in Brussels, and in ‘new European’ capitols such as Warsaw, Vilnius, and Tallinn.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.