Starting in July and running to the present day, there have been repeated calls from mainstream media, from leading statesmen and from diplomats, in the United States and in Europe, for some kind of rapprochement with Russia to be put in place. This is remarkable given the continually escalating informational, economic, military confrontation between Russia and the US-led West over the past five years. That confrontation has emerged in two waves of anti-Russian hysteria: the first, after the daring (or brazen) Russian reunification with (or annexation of) Crimea in March 2014, and the second, with still greater momentum towards war, following the November 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, which was accompanied by allegations of Russian collusion with candidate Trump and other meddling in the U.S. election processes.
Since the United States initiated the New Cold War, it is only fitting that the first steps towards its resolution are coming from there. And it is not in the least surprising that these steps were taken in the aftermath of the April 2019 release of the Mueller Report, which showed that the allegations of Russiagate were without merit or not actionable. Trump’s political enemies were compelled to move on to other issues of contention that would serve better in the next presidential campaign, which is quickly approaching.
That is the context in which I place the fairly amazing editorial of The New York Times dated 21 July 2019 entitled “What’s America’s Winning Hand if Russia Plays the China Card?” The NYT, which along with The Washington Post, had been among the most fervent disseminators of Russiagate theories and of poisonous characterizations of the “Putin regime” now was calling for…re-establishing civilized relations with Russia in order to draw the country back from its growing alliance with China.
While the editorial opens by citing a recent Defense Department report on the serious security threat to the US from any Sino-Russian alliance, the fact of such alliance in formation has been obvious to anyone following the growing cooperation between these two countries in energy, aviation, military exercises, common positions taken in the UN Security Council and much more. It was also obvious for years that a major factor encouraging the Russian-Chinese embrace was the political, military and economic pressure each was receiving from the United States going back to the administration of George W. Bush and running through the Obama and Trump administrations. What is new is only the Times’ using this impending geopolitical tectonic shift to justify an extensive reversal of US policy towards Russia. Now we read that “…President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China.”
This is not to say that the NYT raised the white flag and abandoned its identification of Russia as a malevolent rival: “America can’t seek warmer relations with a rival power at the price of ignoring its interference in American democracy.” Nor did it abandon its identification of Russia as a “declining power” which it very inaccurately ranks as “not even in the top 10” economies, when in fact Russia is close to taking the fifth largest economy slot when purchasing power parity is applied.
Specifically, The Times called for cherry-picking topics for cooperation with Russia such as space travel, managing the Arctic and arms control “especially by extending the New Start Treaty.”
I have taken time with this editorial because the reasoning did not come from nowhere. Moreover, the same logic underlies most, though not all of the calls for rapprochement with Russia that have punctuated the past two months on both sides of the Atlantic.
As for where it came from, I would put forward the name of Henry Kissinger, who exerted considerable influence on candidate Trump in 2016 and continued to have his ear in the early days of the new administration. There can be little doubt that Kissinger urged Trump to reach out to Putin precisely to halt the dangerous drift of Moscow towards Beijing under pressure from successive US administrations. After all Kissinger was Nixon’s man who drew China into an informal alliance with the United States, implementing the policy whereby Washington was closer to both Moscow and Beijing than either was to the other. He did not need to wait for Pentagon white papers in 2019 to know what was afoot and what had to be done to avert the worst, which spelled the destruction of his single greatest achievement during his time in power.
At the same time, Kissinger would have been advising only selective cooperation with Moscow, not full-blown détente. This is precisely the position that he and other ‘wise men’ from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations urged upon both candidate Barack Obama and candidate John McCain during the electoral campaign of 2008, when relations between Russia and the United States were fraught with danger relating to the August 2008 war in Georgia. Their recommendations eventually became the “re-set” policy approved by Obama and implemented by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton early in 2009.
“Re-set” achieved progress on the various select issues for cooperation chosen by the Americans, in particular on arms control, resulting in the New START that today faces expiration. However, the ‘’reset,’’ like what the New York Times editors now call for, did not begin to address the overriding issue driving the Russian foreign and military policy which the U.S. finds so unacceptable: Russia’s exclusion from the security arrangements that the Europeans have put in place together with the US, an architecture that is in fact directed against them. That very issue was the subject of the single most important diplomatic initiative of Russia’s President in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev: his call for negotiations to establish new security arrangements for Europe, outside of NATO, where Russia could be an equal member. That initiative met with no response whatsoever from either the United States or its European allies, and so the days of ‘’reset’’ were numbered.
In the period just before, during and after the G7 meeting in Biarritz on 24-26 August 2019 there have been several widely noted remarks from senior Euro-Atlantic statesmen on the need to improve relations with Russia.
A week before the summit, French President Emanuel Macron received Vladimir Putin for talks at his summer residence on the Côte d’Azur. Macron “played up efforts ‘to tie Russia and Europe back together’ and underscored his belief that ‘Europe stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.’….In his Facebook post [after the meeting] Macron said….’I’m convinced that, in this multilateral restructuring, we must develop a security and trust architecture between the European Union and Russia…” (The Moscow Times, 20 August 2019).
Before and during the G7, Donald Trump told reporters that Russia should be there with them. At the summit’s conclusion, he indicated he was thinking of inviting Russia to the meeting when he hosts the group in Florida next year. Implicitly this means reviving full lines of communications with Russia which were cut at the insistence of Obama to punish Moscow for its misbehavior in Ukraine.
On 27 August, the day after the G7 closed, in the course of a speech to the assembled ambassadors of France in the Elysée palace, President Macron spoke at some length about the need to ‘reconsider’ ties with Russia within the context of facing up to the major challenges of a world in which the West had lost its hegemony. He called the exclusion of Russia from the New Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall a ‘’profound mistake.” He insisted that “if we do not know how to do something useful with Russia, then we will remain with a profoundly sterile tension, we will continue to have frozen conflicts everywhere in Europe, to have a Europe which is the theater of a strategic struggle between the United States and Russia, thus to have the consequences of the Cold War on our soil.” (www.liberation.fr).
Several days later, on 4 September, in an interview with the Financial Times, Finnish Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto used his country’s current position as rotating president of the EU to make a similar point, saying “It’s very difficult to imagine a solution [to global crises] without Russia – or a solution that Russia is not somehow an active partner on.”
The FT deemed it worthwhile to quote him extensively:
“Mr. Haavisto also said that the uncertainties created by Brexit and statements by US president Donald Trump’s administration ‘distancing themselves from European affairs” meant EU states needed to do more themselves to maintain stability in Europe. ‘It creates a space where European countries need to think …’how can we guarantee security here and what can we do…together?’ he said.”
It went on to note: “Finland’s thinking is significant both because of its EU presidency and its unique relationship with Russia.”
Finally, in this listing of statements by public figures advocating better relations with Russia, I call attention to another article in the Financial Times, dated 15 September setting out the contents of an internal diplomatic note written by EU ambassador to Russia Dr. Markus Ederer. Dated 3 September, the addressees of the report were Ederer’s senior colleagues, the managing director for Asia Pacific at the EU’s External Action Service, and the acting managing director for Europe and Central Asia. The paper sets out arguments and options for engaging with Russia ‘taking into account the political environment, but also Russia’s natural relevance for EU-Asia connectivity.” It was drafted in preparation for the forthcoming 27 September meetings in Brussels on EU-Asia links to which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been invited and in which European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to take part.
Among the choice quotations from the report which the FT shares with its readers we find:
“[The EU] would have everything to lose by ignoring the tectonic strategic shifts in Eurasia.”
“Engaging not only with China but with Russia, selectively, is a necessary condition to be part of the game and play our cards where we have comparative advantage.”
The FT article calls attention to five areas for prospective cooperation with Russia: the Arctic, digital, the Eurasian Economic Union, regional infrastructure and the ‘Northern Dimension’ joint policy between the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland. In these areas, the EU could ‘’engage effectively, on concrete, technical matters’’ with Russia. The paper concludes that ‘’[t]he aim would be to set up a ‘framework of exchanges with Russia on long-standing issues in the EU interest’ involving European business and commission officials.”
Considering where we stand today in relations with Russia, at a low point more dangerous than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, all of the aforementioned calls for improving relations made by very prominent and influential heads of state, public officials and media deserve a round of applause. The wise saying “jaw–jaw is always better than war–war” attributed to Winston Churchill applies with equal relevance today.
Looking at all the calls for better relations cited above, I believe the leitmotiv of them all is geopolitical considerations rather than fear of war, particularly nuclear war between the major world powers. Arms control is cited as only one of several objectives for cooperation. Concerns about the future alignment of those powers around the global board of governors are predominant. If humankind is said to be driven by the contradictory emotions of fear and greed, it would seem that our global leaders are presently acting in the spirit of greed rather than fear.
In his 27 August speech to the French diplomatic corps, President Macron called for an “audacious” foreign policy, effectively one that would move outside the box of conventional thinking. Correspondingly, thus far he is the only advocate of improved relations with Russia from among world leaders who had broached the subject of a comprehensive détente with Russia rather than cooperation in selective areas of greatest convenience to us. He is the only leader to have raised the question of revising the architecture of security in Europe to accommodate the fellow Europeans to the East.
Those who follow closely the political démarches of President Macron will object that his thinking about Russia has been all over the place since taking office. And I am among the first to consider him a shallow opportunist rather than the tower of intellect that he styles himself. The summit meetings he called with both Presidents Putin and Trump soon after moving into the Elysée palace had only one objective: to position himself as a prospective power broker in resolving the New Cold War in formation; they had no material content.
In the two years that have passed since he assumed power in France, Macron has been unlucky in domestic politics when his ill-considered fuel tax sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement. But he has been very lucky in foreign policy, because the dominant personality in European politics for the past decade or more, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, entered into the twilight period of her reign and the path opened for Macron to take the lead of EU politics with what he now calls an audacious roadmap.
The specific concept that emerges from Macron’s recent statements is an entente between Russia and the European Union based on shared values and creating a third force in global affairs alongside the United States and China. The alternative, which is looming absent any initiative such as Macron is proposing, will be for the EU to remain a junior partner to the USA and for Russia to be a junior partner to China while their two principals square off. Let us hope that in the days and months ahead Macron can muster the consistency of purpose and powers of successful execution to see through to conclusion what he has begun.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2019