By : Ibrahim Abouali
Democratic Arab Center
The international politics is dynamic and continuously exposed to changes in its whole structure and the power balance. After the second World War the world had witnessed a bi-polar world order and then changed to a unipolar system after the end of the Cold War with an American dominance.
After Vladimir Putin came to power he brought about noticeable changes in terms of Russia’s foreign policy. The essence of Putin’s foreign policy orientation is to restore Russia’s central and strategic role in the international politics, instead of the peripheral role since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In order to do so, Putin adopted a pragmatic policy to end the American domination and to change the world order from a unipolar system to a multi-polar one.
As a result, Moscow had activated its involvement in the Middle East to broaden its vital space and to boost its interests, in addition to Russia’s attempts to interfere in the American domestic matters.
Under the leadership of Putin Russia re-emerged as a military and economic power with new strategies which led Russia to activate its existence in the former republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was interpreted in the latest Crimea crisis.
In fact, the Middle East is a major matter in the rivalry between the United States and the Russian Federation. It was so obvious that Obama shifted the priority of the U.S. foreign policy orientation from the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific region. But, with the political upheavals, the so-called the Arab Spring, that happened in the Middle East region had brought the U.S. and Russia back to confrontation and their interests became intertwined which stimulated the clash of interests. As the United States realized the increasing Russian involvement in the Middle East as an alarm which pushed the U.S. to increase her engagement in the Middle East issues again.
The relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation encompasses several facets, of which four focal issues are currently on the spotlight. These facets are the current situation in Ukraine, the the Syrian dilemma, the nuclear arms race and cyberattacks.
President Donald Trump inherited a disruptive relationship with Russia that fraught with a lot of tensions the two counties had not witnessed since the Cold War.
The bilateral relation is reaching its lowest point in conjunction with Russia’s aspirations to restore its position as a great power and re-establish itself beyond its borders. This desire is stemming from the Russian feeling of humiliation and neglect during the post Cold War years.
How had the U.S. relations with Russia recently deteriorated?
U.S. sanctions on Russia:
The Crimea Crisis
Russia suspiciously took into account the potential economic relations between Ukraine and the European Union, besides Ukraine’s push to join NATO as a threat.
Whereas the United States and the European Union’s intruding into the post-Soviet critical area has always been against Russia’s desire, because Russia considers Ukraine as a part of its near abroad, or within its historical vital domain of influence.
After Russia had annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in early 2014, the Obama administration, in close coordination with the European Union, imposed some economic sanctions on Russian individuals in Putin’s inner circle and entities, that were allegedly accountable before the international community for trespassing on the Ukrainian sovereignty. In addition, they imposed sanctions including financial restrictions on some of Russia’s largest banks and energy companies as well.
Consequently, Moscow responded in kind, with sanctions against some American individuals, and with a comprehensive prohibition on food imports from the European Union, United States, Australia, Norway and Canada. Moreover, the United States froze some Russian assets in the U.S, and Russia responded in the same way.
Basically, the sanctions targeted Russia’s capability to export weapons and made it more difficult for the country’s energy sector in terms of business. Besides declaring Russia as a major threat in the 2016 NATO’s summit, dubbed as “The Warsaw declaration on Transatlantic Security”. Therefore, NATO is uncompromisingly showing determination to protect its allies’ borders in Russia’s backyard.
No doubt that President Trump’s questioning the importance of NATO publicly has serious repercussions on NATO’s stability, but the potential of such thing would not take place overnight.
The Russia’s Information warfare doctrine is a major threat to NATO, specifically while Putin and his inner circle of elites consider the NATO and the West as their major foes.
Moscow is following a policy of Pro-Russian and anti-NATO media broadcasting to Russian speakers in Eastern Europe, in order to exploit the political and economic disaffection among that large ethnic Russian population in this region. The aftermath of such policies create a proper atmosphere to demand for Russian military intervention.
Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US elections
In December 2016, Barack Obama had expelled 35 Russian diplomats, in response to the outcome of the US intelligence community of the Russian cyberattack aimed for manipulating the result of the 2016 presidential election. Meanwhile, Russia denied the accusation.
Under Trump administration
Trump’s administration pursued a deal with Russia by reciprocal collaboration against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria. As Trump asked the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs within the State Department to come up with a list of options to commute the sanctions and give back the confiscated buildings in U.S.
Meanwhile, in April 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the U.S. would not lift sanctions on Russia until President Vladimir Putin hands Crimea back to Ukraine.[i]
Most notably, Rex Tillerson is the retiredCEO of ExxonMobil[ii],the American multinational oil and gas corporation,he was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship from President Putin.
Moreover, in 2011 ExxonMobil Announced Progress in Strategic Cooperation Agreement[iii] with Rosneft, which its majority is owned by the Russian government.
Although, In June 2017, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is considering handing back to Russia two U.S. diplomatic compounds that the Obama administration seized as punishment for Russian election hacking.[iv]
According to Yahoo News[v], a senior White House official told: “We’ve been reviewing all the sanctions and this is not exclusive to Russia”. “All the sanctions regimes have mechanisms built in to alleviate them” they said, adding they hoped “the Russians would take advantage of that” by returning Crimea to Ukraine.
Overall, we can infer Trump’s attempts to reach a deal with Russia, including lifting the sanctions in return. That could be seen in the context of the importance of cooperation for its own sake, or at least a means to relief the increasing standoff.
In fact, the United States has several kinds of sanctions against Russia, each one was prompted by a different type of Russian conduct. Some of the sanctions were turned into legislations by the Congress, making Trump’s pursuit unattainable, because the bill passed by the Congress has got Trump’s authority under severe constraint to lift sanctions without congressional approval.
The new legislation
With the sanctions becoming laws, it’s getting much harder to get rid of them. Formerly, the sanctions were applied as executive orders, which gave the president the power to lift. But under the new legislation, the alleviation of the sanctions included in the bill requires the Congress approval first. And to do so, the president will have to set a presidential memorandum forth to the Congress outlining why it is in favor of the national interest to approve.
On the other hand, the sanctions have been irritating to Russia.Consequently, the signature of the U.S President on that bunch of sanctions against the Russian Federation will have serious ramifications, because it simply dispels any hope to ameliorate the bilateral relations between Moscow and the Trump’s administration. As well as it’s considered, from the Russian viewpoint, an economic warfare against Moscow. And the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had once announced that: “recent events showed that U.S. policy was in the hands of Russophobic forces, pushing Washington to the path of confrontation”.[vi]
Let us glance over the National Security Council (NSC) of president Trump.
The former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, bitterly criticized Russia in his newly published book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies”.
The new senior director of the National Security Council for Europe and Russia, Fiona Hill, is a Russia expert and has a severe critical point of view of the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Most notably, the NSC combined Russia and Europe under one directorate, after the two were separated by the Obama administration.
In her book (Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,)[vii], she described Putin: ” When Putin prepares for action abroad he falls back on his Case Officer identity and methods, including resorting to forms of blackmail, intimidation, punishment, and blatant distortion of the truth”.
Moreover, Fiona Hill expressed her doubts out loud about Trump’s intentions to “normalize relations” with Russia.
Most notably, the president’s strength, or in general his orientation of foreign policy, comes from his advisers since the National Security Act of 1947. The structure of the NSC is indicative of the nature of the administration’s foreign policy.
The membership of council is predominated by the most high-profile foreign policy contributors in the administration: The Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and CIA Director, to name a few. Consequently, from a look at the council’s composition we can infer what the president’s conduct will be like.
In terms of the Nuclear Power
On April 8, 2010, Russia and the United States signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The treaty entails both sides to limit the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads within 7 years, and will remain into force for 10 years. And according to the treaty; “it limits either sides to no more than 800 deployed and non-deployed land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers and deployed and non-deployed heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear armaments”.
A U.S. intelligence official said in May, 2016 that: “Russia had started moving its nuclear-capable missiles (Iskander-Ms) into the enclave on the Baltic in what he said could be a gesture to express displeasure with NATO”.
In late 2016, a treaty between the two countries on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium was suspended by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a reaction to the antagonistic conduct of the United States. And this implicitly manifests his willingness to utilize the nuclear disarmament as a new haggling method over the row with the United States in Syria and Ukraine.
According to a Reuters report on February 9, 2017: “in the US President Donald Trump’s first 60-minute telephone call with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin inquired about extending New START. President Trump attacked the treaty, claiming that it favored Russia and was “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration”. Furthermore, President Trump told President Putin that the current arms control treaty, up for renegotiation in 2018, was one-sided in favor of the Russians.
On the 19th of October, 2017, Vladimir Putin criticized the American reluctance to abide by the bargain in a host of international disarmament agreements. He said Moscow will not exit any existing treaties, but promised an “instant, symmetrical response” if Washington decides to quit first.
The disagreement over Syria:
The intricacies of the regional dynamics particularly among Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia narrow the potential scope of cooperation between Washington and Moscow in the Middle East, more specifically over the Syrian predicament.
In fact, the United States officially opposes the permanence of the incumbent Syrian regime in power. Meanwhile, Washington has no interest in creating a vacuum in Syria that ISIS most probably would be filling.
On April 13th, 2017, the U.S Foreign Minister Mr. Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with the Russian President Putin in order to persuade the Russian president to change his unwavering stance of backing the Syrian president Al-Assad following the last chemical weapons attack.
Moreover, Russia vetoed a UN resolution condemning the chemical attack in Syria.
After president Trump had ordered a missile attack against a Syrian airbase on the grounds of the Syrian regime’s chemical attack, president Putin expressed his frustration with Trump, saying relations between Russia and the US had actually deteriorated since the new president was sworn in.
Arguably, the Russian involvement in Syria has changed the military situation. Before the direct vigorous Russian involvement in supporting Al-Assad, his fight with the Syrian insurgents was frail. In addition, the Russian aerial power has given the Syrian and Iranian backed forces a greater position in the battlefield against the rebels.
Overall, the United States and Russia were going be adversaries on some issues, and on some others they were going to be cooperative.
But recently, the relations have changed more toward the adversary issues than the cooperative ones. And now we can infer that the situation has hit the lowest point in the bilateral relations, never witnessed since the end of the Cold War.
By and large, there are some questions to contemplate about the world order and whether Russia would be capable to fill the potential vacuum that the U.S. might cause in the Middle East and Eastern Europe or not. Besides the impact of Russia’s new foreign policy on the structure of the world order. Are we moving away from the unipolar system under the American dominance?
Would the United States allow the Russian influence to expand in the Middle East?
It’s a truism that the escalating strength of other powers like Russia and China will come at the expense of the unilateralism of the United States, however, this doesn’t mean that the U.S. would not continue to be a super power, but it would not be the only super power.[viii]
[viii]غريب، إسراء، “أثر السياسة الخارجية السورية علي منطقة الشرق الأوسط: حالة الأزمة السورية 2011-2017 “
المركز الديمقراطي العربي، (17-6-2017)
- المركز الديمقراطي العربي – ماليزيا – 16-1-2018