Trump's Russian Gambit: More and Less than it Appears

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS February 20, 2017

The pack journalists of the liberal media are baying at the moon of "Kremlin-gate" trying to link President Donald Trump's desire to improve relations with Russia to Moscow's alleged attempt to rig the 2016 election in Trump's favor. Putin supposedly thought Trump would be the weaker commander-in-chief. A reporter even brought this up again at Defense Secretary's James Mattis' press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 16. Yet, the facts and logic do not support the story being told in soap operas on outlets like CNN.

The sudden concern about the Russian threat among normally appeasement-minded liberals is based on cheap partisanship, not serious analysis. This is especially true for those who want to link business interests rather than strategic calculation to the desire for a rapprochement with Moscow. When I was on the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee I worked closely with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a senior member who has devoted the best past of his long career to national security since serving as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. On his office wall is a photo of him in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation in the company of the mujahedeen resistance. He proudly proclaims that he is the only member of Congress to have shot at the Russians. He was on Trump's short list for Secretary of State because he shares the President's desire to now work with Russia against common threats.

Rohrabacher's strategic vision is conventional great power diplomacy. The U.S. is facing a Russia-China axis reminiscent of the early Cold War. What Sun Tzu said in ancient times still holds, "When one's opponents are friendly with each other, divide them." Russia works constantly to divide America from its European allies and China does the same in Asia, so there is every reason for the United States to look for opportunities to split its adversaries. Though Moscow and Beijing are unified in their opposition to American preeminence, the Russians are aware of the threat Chinese aggression poses to their Asia-Pacific provinces. Rohrabacher (and presumably Trump) want to play on this concern.

In 1969, the two communist powers fought several border battles; the first initiated by China over disputed islands in the Ussuri River. Soviet retaliation escalated the fighting and Moscow even threatened nuclear strikes against China.

The communist "allies" also clashed in Southeast Asia by proxy after the fall of South Vietnam. Both powers had backed North Vietnam, but Moscow had gained more influence by providing the heavy weapons Hanoi used in its decisive offensive that overran the south. China backed the Khmer Rouge in its genocidal revolution in Cambodia. In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to overthrow the murderous Pol Pot regime. China blamed the attack on Moscow. Two months later, China invaded Vietnam, withdrawing in March 1979 after both sides had suffered major casualties.

Fast forward to June 2010 when Russia launched the Vostok (Orient) war games involving 20,000 troops, some 70 combat aircraft and 30 warships. Leading the Russian fleet was the nuclear powered guided missile heavy cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter-the-Great). Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was on board the flagship during the exercise. "Russia was and remains a great naval power capable of accomplishing tasks in the problem regions and is ready to defend its interests," he declared. The show of force seemed related to the crisis on the Korean peninsula and was one among many naval exercises held by China, Japan and the United States.  However, the land operations used weapons and supplies that had been stockpiled on the Chinese border. The real message was that Moscow is determined to defend its Far Eastern territories from all threats.

The Russian problem is that is has only 7 million people living in its Far East District while there are over 100 million Chinese living right up against the border with a large inflow of illegal immigrants moving north. The Russian lands are rich in minerals and energy supplies. President Vladimir Putin is primarily using appeasement to protect these assets; assuring Beijing that its Asian resources are readily available to China on favorable commercial terms, making conquest unnecessary. But as the balance of power continues to shift towards Beijing, Russia may need to find an ally to redress the situation, one that also wants to keep China from gaining more resources. That is the long-term hope of those who see Beijing as the greater existential threat. President Richard Nixon used a "China card" against the Soviets who were then deemed the greater threat. But alliances and alignments change over time, and wise strategists watch for new opportunities to put together coalitions to protect their own nation's interests.  As the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston famously stated, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

If the Russians don't break our way (and it seems unlikely they will as long as Putin is in power given his personal hatred towards America for having won the Cold War), there is little doubt that Trump will react with vigor to defend America from all comers. This can be seen in who he has appointed to his national security team. This includes retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who lost his post as National Security Advisor in connection with his conversations with the Russian ambassador. These talks were portrayed in the media as a sign of accommodation. Yet, in his book The Field of Fight, Flynn wrote, "We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua." He believes Iran is a linchpin in this global alignment, and notes that Russia is "fighting side by side" with Iran in Syria. Indeed, he argues "The two most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance are Russia and Iran."

Flynn is a hawk on Russia. Though the transcripts of his phone conversations are still secret, leaks indicate that he advised the ambassador that Moscow should not retaliate against the sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama in his last days in office because U.S. policy would be under review by the incoming Trump administration. The media spin is that Flynn was offering to retreat but it is more plausible to believe he was making a threat. If Moscow retaliated, it would compel Trump to counterpunch as he is famous for doing. The results are more in line with this second interpretation; Russia did not retaliate and the sanctions are still in force. America won the round because Putin was afraid to escalate.

Let's look at statements from the Trump administration since it took office. At his NATO press conference, Defense Secretary James Mattis said, "Russia's aggressive actions have violated international law and are destabilizing." And in response to a question about seeking better relations with Moscow, Mattis stated that as a pre-condition, "Russia is going to have to prove itself first and live up the commitments they have made in the Russia-NATO agreement." In her first appearance at the UN Security Council, Trump's new ambassador Nikki Haley stated, "The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea, Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine." The U.S. continues to participate with other NATO members in sending warships to patrol in the Black Sea and conduct joint exercises with the Ukrainians.

Vice President Mike Pence struck the balance in his speech to the Munich Security Conference last weekend. "Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground which as you know President Trump believes can be found," Pence said. He then went off to meet with officials from the Baltic States and Ukraine to assure them of U.S. support against further Russian aggression.

To recap. There is strategic logic to seeking a rapprochement with Russia, but it must be remembered that Moscow (which today means Putin) will determine the country's alignment in accordance with how its leaders regard its interests. In a dynamic world, U.S. policy must be flexible enough to seize opportunities as well as meet challenges. Building "coalitions of the willing" to support American actions is the top priority of our diplomacy, just as fielding the capabilities to defeat threats is the top priority of our military. The actions of the Trump administration will tell us how well these missions are being carried out, not concocted stories told in the left-wing media.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.


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