Trump’s trans-Atlantic shift shocks Europe, baffles Russia

As for the reaction in Moscow, there seems to be confusion and even anxiety among the Russian leadership. What accounts for this uneasy feeling?

As for the reaction in Moscow, there seems to be confusion and even anxiety among the Russian leadership. What accounts for this uneasy feeling?

Reuters
Donald Trump outlined his foreign policy priorities to European media suggesting he might abandon anti-Russia sanctions as part of a nuclear arms deal with Moscow. Is this a hint that the contentious issue of Crimea, which is the official pretext for sanctions, might be resolved to Russia's favor?

Six days before by the 45th President will be sworn into office, an interview published concurrently by Germany’s Bild and The Times signals that Donald Trump is seriously considering to drastically reshape relations with European allies and Russia.

During the hour-long conversation, Trump welcomed Brexit, lambasted the European Union as “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and claimed that only five countries contributed to the NATO budget “what they were supposed to.” In addition, he called NATO “obsolete,” and refused to unequivocally support Angel Merkel for re-election as chancellor.

“Europe reacts to Trump interview with astonishment,” Deutsche Welle summed up the bewilderment in EU capitals.

As for the reaction in Moscow, there seems to be confusion and even anxiety among the Russian leadership. What accounts for this uneasy feeling?

More questions than answers

In essence, Moscow most likely will face an offer in the spirit of the Roman principle, “Do ut des” (“I give that you may give”). Washington, as Trump hinted, might lift financial, economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russian businesses and officials on one major condition -- if the two countries agree on a nuclear arms control agreement.

The reduction of the WMD arsenals is not the issue. It is a welcome sign of the eagerness of the U.S. president to deal with the recent worrisome deterioration of strategic stability.

A red line has been crossed. On the eve of the final outcome of the U.S. elections when Hillary Clinton seemed to be winning, Russian military command reviewed the readiness of the national nuclear bunkers, something not done for decades.

The key issue will be Trump’s strategies on the smoldering political and social crisis in Ukraine, as well as acceptance of the legitimacy of theMarch 2014 referendum in Crimea where over 96 percent of the residents supported the move to rejoin Russia.

So far, Trump’s statement raises more questions than provides answers.

In the ideological trenches

From the very start, the Republican nominee had divergent views on Russia and the upheavals in Ukraine. It placed him firmly in the ideological trenches as the opponent of the Obama administration's hard-line policy toward Moscow.

In July 2016, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week,” Donald Trump made it clear he did not share the views of President Obama on the crisis in Ukraine and what was labelled by the Western media and politicians as the “annexation” of Crimea.

“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Trump said, adding that “Ukraine is a mess,” and placing the blame on the Obama administration.

Last August the Republican nominee was considered by American pollsters and mass media (almost all of it pro-Clinton) as the underdog, but he made a telling statement about the ongoing power struggle and civil war in Ukraine. “That’s really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us,” said Trump.

In the recent interview to Bild and The Times, Trump sounded conciliatory, saying that “Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.” Consistency? It looks so.

Hidden stumbling blocks

In contrast, the new U.S. State Secretary, Rex Tillerson, was loud and clear when addressing the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said that Russia has no legal rights to Crimea, and added that this stance could be reversed as part of “broader agreements” that would be “acceptable to the Ukrainian people.”

This additional precondition by Tillerson nullifies the chances of Crimea, which is already a full-fledged part of the Russian Federation, to be legitimized in the West. At least, for the moment.

The main reason is that the present political leadership in Kiev would never hold a nationwide referendum asking Ukrainians whether they are ready to accept Crimea as part of Russia; (it was formally part of Ukraine from December 1991 till March 2014).

Then again, the new US President is not the type of politician to hand out cookies for free. There must be a price tag attached.

Trade-off? At what cost?

Recently, that veteran master of diplomatic deals, Henry Kissinger, recommended a change of tune. According to The Independent in London, in return for accepting that Crimea is part of Russia the U.S. would demand Moscow to “cease sending troops and military supplies to rebels in eastern Ukraine that have been fighting against the Ukrainian government.” 

Kissinger’s plan, if correctly reported, lacks understanding of the core causes of the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. It vastly exaggerates the leverage Moscow has over the two self-proclaimed republics, especially over the public mood.

The people who challenged the central authorities in Kiev are not pro-Russian separatists. Rather, they are pro-Ukraine dissidents, defiant of the coup d’état in the country they consider their own.

Basically, the people of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions demand democratic rights to elect their own government, that there be no foreign interference, and that Ukraine’s prime minister not be appointed by the U.S. State Department.

The government bombing and shelling of villages and cities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions turned civilians into victims. A generation of “children of war” emerged in Ukraine.

It will be not easy for Moscow to convince inhabitants of the two rebel regions to accept any deals that threaten their very existence.

Vague agreements

Furthermore, there is much speculation about what might be the ultimate trade-off in accordance to the yet unclear ‘Trump doctrine,’ that will be penned and worded most likely by Henry Kissinger.

Some pundits suggest that Trump's new world order will be built at the expense of China in the first place.

Here is a sample of such thinking, picked up from the web. In order to freeze or at least delay the gradual elevation of China to global supremacy, Trump’s administration might make an offer to Moscow. The U.S. would effectively block maritime Chinese trade routes, and Russia could win on Crimea if it scraps cooperation with China on creating a new Silk Road by land.

In his traditional year-end press conference, President Putin emphasized that relations between Russian and China are more than strategic partnership. In other words, this is non-negotiable.

In an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia's Security Council, welcomed the chance to improve bilateral relations with the U.S. but noted that he did not expect it to happen fast.

Patrushev would also not bet on a swift lifting of sanctions designed to contain Russia. In conclusion, Moscow prefers to prolong its wait-and-see attitude toward the new U.S. administration until something other than vague proposals are put on the negotiation table.

Vladimir Mikheev is a freelance commentator for Russia Beyond The Headlines. His opinion does not reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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