Even before his inauguration,President Donald Trump appeared to be sympathetic to President Vladimir Putin. It therefore seemed likely that since becoming president, Trump might be expected to offer something to the Kremlin, but might not necessarily be willing to make any concessions.
But Trump and Putin’s agendas do not interfere with each other as much as the world predicted. Trump wants to make America great again; whereas Putin wishes to secure Russia’s regional interests, and therefore is in fact much less ambitious. Taking this into account, the US leader may offer Putin a seducing, but poisonous, compromise.
What exactly does Putin want? He wants Nato to be stopped at its current limits, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence, Western sanctions to be lifted, the Crimean peninsula recognised as a Russian territory, and Assad to remain in power in Damascus.
None of this actually poses a real problem to the US. Even the Ukrainian issue is not looming large, since the European nations have no intention of inviting Ukraine into the EU and Nato has no plans to expand. Moreover, Kiev itself has done everything possible to further ruin the country’s economy, sidelining those who protested at the Maidan in 2014, and alienating its prospective allies.
So if Russia really wants to be sucked into Ukraine’s problems, there are no good reasons for the US to prevent this. If Ukraine were much more committed to reforms and change in recent years and appeared to be another high-growth economy and a beacon of democracy for its neighbours, it might be a good deal to support it, but it doesn’t look like the right choice under the current conditions. So, Trump will not betray any of the Western interests if he makes some important concessions to Putin.
The problem is what to ask for in exchange. Many experts believe that the main trade-off might include the cooperation between the US and Russia in their war on Isis in Syria – and even some subordination of the Russians to the Americans – which will be the price for Russia’s freedom of action in Ukraine. But the US simply doesn’t need any coordination with the Russians in the Middle East: if they want to defend Assad’s regime from Isis, why should the West be against it? Whoever wins there, the number of refugees to Europe and elsewhere will not decrease. Who can imagine Syria may be restored as a single and functioning state? Does the West want to invest a lot into this despairing adventure?
So there should be another trade-off, and this might be Russia’s China policy. For years, Putin has tried to convince the whole world Russia is pivoting to the East, even as its bilateral trade with China decreased from $80bn in Jan-Nov 2013 to $58.7bn in Jan-Nov 2016. Since China appears to be Trump’s biggest concern, why not propose Putin opts out from China in exchange for the re-engagement with the West, and gets his hands free both in Ukraine and Syria?
For Putin, it would be extremely difficult to turn down such a proposal. No one in Russia cares about the alliance with China, while many actually fear it. But to resolve the Crimean issue, to press Ukraine further while getting the sanctions lifted, would be a great success for him. Syria would also be an important win for Putin, having come to the Kremlin as a staunch anti-terrorist warrior. So Putin might end up getting all he wished for and restoring the respect he once had in the world.
The real issue is that Russia becomes more and more deeply involved in two wars it cannot win. The conflict in Ukraine will definitely intensify if the West withdraws its largely symbolic support to Kiev. Russia will try to topple the government and replace it with pro-Kremlin local oligarchs, which will lead to more Ukrainian energy subsidies, costing Moscow dozens of billions of dollars every year and causing continuous unrest on the Western borders. Syria will also take a lot of money and time, and mean more maneuvers between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, once again with no positive result in sight. And if the rift between China and Russia becomes a reality, there will be no alternative for Moscow but to grow a deeper economic dependency from the West. This will produce both a weaker Russia and China, which the US may desire, with some disarray in old conflict zones, which might be largely neglected without bitter consequences.
Of course, Russia might reject such a proposal, but in this case, as the Russian saying goes: “a negative result is nevertheless a result”, and the new US administration can go forward in any direction it wants, since everything that happens next will not be its fault, but the fault of the other side.