photo Putin and Trump Hamburg

by Gordon M. Hahn

It is perhaps ironic and at the same time just that the first meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin occurred in Germany at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. After all it is there that the Cold War began to unwind with the peaceful fall of the Berlin wall. It is also there in a sense that the hope of a ‘common European home’ from Vancouver to Vladivostok was crushed by NATO’s decision to expand beyond the newly re-united Germany, leading to presently dangerous security dilemma between Russia and the West–the poorly labeled ‘new cold war.’

By all accounts the first Trump-Putin summit went better than the US-Russian relationship gave us reason to expect. On the other hand, if the relationship bottoms out any further, the results could be catastrophic. Therein lie the incentive for both parties to stop or at least slow the bleeding that we saw play out in Hamburg. Although there was no breakthrough (and there could not have been one at this stage), the meeting went well, lasting two hours and fifteen minutes instead of the planned thirty minutes and, according to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, witnessing a “clearly positive chemistry” between the two presidents who “connected very quickly.” Tillerson concluded his press conference on the meeting, noting that “by and large, our objectives are exactly the same.  How we get there, we each have a view.  But there’s a lot more commonality to that than there are differences.” This and the fact that the post-summit period did not see any untoward ‘tweeting’ or other ‘strategic communications’ denigrating Putin or Russia, despite Trump’s history of boorish commentary, speaks of a clear improvement over the Obama administration’s pattern of petty petulance towards Putin.

Moving from atmospherics to policy, at least four key joint steps were announced that moved in the direction of comity rather than conflict in the two regional conflicts that have been plaguing the relationship since the Obama administration’s failed reset: Syria and Ukraine. First, according to a White House summary of the meeting (www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/07/07/press-briefing-presidents-meetings-g20-july-7-2017), the two sides agreed on several measures to stabilize the situation in Syria. Under a “de-escalation agreement and memorandum, which was agreed between the United States, Russia and Jordan,” Russia and the US agreed to guarantee compliance of the ceasefire instituted yesterday in southeast Syria, secure access for humanitarian assistance to the area, and arrange contact between the warring sides and a monitoring center based in Jordan This may lead to the West and perhaps its Sunni allies signing on to Russia’s policy of setting up safe zones in the north developed in talks with Syria, Iran, Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan. Tillerson perhaps unwittingly hinted at such in his post-summit comments when he noted that “the south is I think our first show of success.  We’re hoping we can replicate that elsewhere.” Indeed, it was announced that Putin and Trump also held “a very lengthy discussion” on “other areas in Syria” — presumably the critical north and northeast — and agreed to work together “to de-escalate the areas and violence. In negotiating the southwestern ceasefire and humanitarian zone, Moscow was involved in talks not just with the US but with its Israeli and Jordanian allies in coming to the agreement formally announced at the Hamburg summit (www.al-monitor.com/pulse/en/originals/2017/06/us-russia-secret-talks-south-syria-safe-zone.html). So much for the previous US administration’s strategy of ‘isolating Russia’ in response to Putin’s reunification of Ukraine’s Crimea with Russia in March 2014 (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/07/31/putins-asia-eurasia-pivot-isolation-from-the-west-spurs-eurasian-integration-and-russian-globalization/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2017/07/08/isolating-russia-in-the-oil-and-gas-sector/).

In his post-summit remarks Tillerson noted that “once we defeat ISIS,” Washington, Moscow and presumably Europe and others will “work together toward a political process that will secure the future of the Syrian people.” Thus, Moscow and Washington will be discussing how to fashion the future leadership of a post-war Syria. Given Tillerson’s remark that the US sees no “long-term role” for the Assad family in a post-war Syria and that the modality of Assad’s departure from power “has yet to be determined” but “somewhere” in a future “political process there will be a transition away from the Assad family,” the undergirding assumption in both Moscow and Washington now appears to be that Assad will not be leaving power other than through negotiations, not at the barrel of a Western gun. Thus, Russia appears to have won its battle to save the Assad regime or at least engineer a ‘soft’ regime change with Assad eventually leaving power voluntarily or at least seemingly so, thereby saving face for Moscow.

Second, regarding Ukraine, Trump and Putin agreed to establish a special diplomatic channel between appointed representatives to remain in contact over the Ukraine issue. Thus, the Trump administration is moving away from the Obama administration’s police of ‘leading from behind’ on the Ukrainian crisis and conflict resolution. This is the proper policy, since US ‘revolutionism’ and its attendant policies of NATO expansion and destabilizing, intrusive democracy-promotion, regime change and color revolution played a key role in the making and persistence of the conflict along with the EU’s expansion policy and Russia’s support for the corrupt Yanukovych regime.

Third, the touchy issue of Moscow’s alleged and still unproven interference in the 2016 US presidential election appears to have been largely papered over with an agreement that the two sides will seek to draft an agreement on Russia’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of the United States and other democracies and a more broad cybersecurity agreement in terms of both participants and issues to be tackled, including not just domestic interference, but also the potential of Internet use for infrastructure and terrorist attacks. Russo-American working groups would meet at State to begin fleshing out the details of such agreements. Secretary Tillerson’s remarks made clear that the alleged Russian interference in the US campaign was put behind by Washington for the most part: “(T)he two Presidents, I think rightly, focused on is how do we move forward; how do we move forward from here.  Because it’s not clear to me that we will ever come to some agreed-upon resolution of that question between the two nations.” It appears that Trump has decided to leave any additional U.S. sanction already or to be implemented in response to the alleged Russian hacks in place at least until the administration can “secure a commitment that the Russian government has no intention of and will not interfere in our affairs in the future, nor the affairs of others” and “create a framework in which we have some capability to judge what is happening in the cyber world and who to hold accountable.” But Tillerson gauged this issue to be “broader than just U.S.-Russia,” hinting at an international agreement of the kind proposed by Moscow in the past (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/03/01/stealth-wars-us-russian-cyber-wars-and-the-future-of-international-security/). 

Fourth, a glimmer of hope emerged in Hamburg for improvement in the overall relationship across several issue areas and perhaps in the underlying geopolitical dynamic that has been compounding the relationship form some two decades, since the beginning of NATO expansion. The two sides announced plans to create a working group to review the entire complex of issues in the US-Russian bilateral relationship. Moreover, both Presidents Trump and Putin seemed to express an interest in giving the relationship a new start–a reset, if you will. Tillerson noted that on the part of both “there was not a lot of re-litigating of the past,” that there is a feeling “a lot of things in the past” both sides are “unhappy” about, and that they have a “strong desire” to “find a way to go forward.” The last point “was expressed over and over, multiple times…by both Presidents,” according to the White House transcript of the Tillerson press conference.

There appeared to be little discussion of either the burgeoning NATO and Russian military build in Eastern Europe/western Eurasia or the deteriorating conventional and nuclear arms control regimes hammered out at the end of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Strategic nuclear security remains in question after President Putin proposed extending, but President Trump denounced as a “bad deal” the 2010 New START Treaty, negotiated by the Obama administration, that a ceiling on each side of a maximum 700 deployed ICBMs, submarines, and bombers, for a total of 1,500 warheads. Also, supporting China’s line, Putin offered little in the way of hope that he would or could put any significant pressure on North Korea to roll back its nuclear weapons program that threatens to catapult the Korean peninsula into a war, fraught with the potential for great power involvement. In reality, however, only Beijing not Moscow has the leverage and levers to deal with Kim Jong-un. Moscow perhaps could influence Beijing on the margins of its decision-making calculus on whether to act.

Despite the tone of comity over conflict coming out of the meeting, we should be clear that the negative fundamental geopolitical tectonic of the US-Russian relationship remains intact. The relationship has become largely adversarial, bordering on antagonistic and conflictive in the mid- to long-term. It is now nearly fatally encumbered by the dangerous security dilemma created by NATO expansion. It is one with limited prospects for peaceful resolution as long as NATO remains committed to expanding east to Russia’s borders. For all the promise of President Trump’s campaign rhetoric, he has backed off his campaign promise to reform NATO away from its 20th century, anti-Soviet-turned anti-Russian posture. He has never reiterated publicly as president his campaign plank — implied by his promise to have the US stop teaching others how to live — to cease the regime change, color revolution policy created by Washington’s aggressively intrusive democracy-promotion. This line may re-emerge under pressure from Moscow in the context of the proposed talks on a cybersecurity agreement and/or non-interference in the domestic affairs of the democracies, leading to not just a more broad cybersecurity agreement but a more broad non-interference agreement covering each other’s domestic affairs rather than just that of Moscow’s interference in the democracies alone.

The West’s interference in the domestic politics of Russia and other post-Soviet and post-communist Eurasian states began decades ago. It is no accident that Washington’s and Brussels’ democracy-promotion efforts have focused inordinately on countries traditionally allied with and/or located near Russia’s borders and countries bordering NATO, continuing after each successive round of NATO expansion and bringing Western-influenced color revolutions as far away from Europe as Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. In this way, as long as NATO expansion and intrusive democracy-promotion remain policies remain in place, relations with Russia will be tense, even adversarial, war-disposed, and in a state of deterioration. On this background, Ukraine and Syria remain flash points that at any moment could explode in the face of the international community and push the West-Russia relationship over the edge.

Thus, both sides, but especially the Trump administration, will have to demonstrate considerable urgency, energy and flexibility in order to repair in a timely manner the damage done by three successive administrations’ infringements on Russian national interests and sense of security and national honor. Unfortunately, with time of the essence, the best one can hope for in the mid-term is a return to a modest relationship of constructive engagement. Given the extraneous complexities of the ongoing regional, proxy conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and approaching black swans such as Pyongyang’s nuclear-armed little dictator, the short-term remains one dominated by a fragile East-West peace.

The most positive takeaway is that the era of the Obama administration’s ‘isolation of Russia’ is over. It never happened, failing just as the Obama ‘reset’ failed. Trump’s efforts may quickly shift, and the relationship shake out but little better. There is now at least some chance — with careful diplomacy and mutual respect for each other’s national security interests — for a real reset. Any Reset 2.0, however, will require moving toward some resolution of the NATO-induced security dilemma and some form of new security architecture for Europe and Eurasia.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); 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.