During the American presidential election, US president-elect and Russian leaders on multiple occasions expressed good feelings towards each other and a desire to strengthen cooperation. Meanwhile, Trump, before and after taking office, talked tough about and toward China. As such, domestic and foreign strategic analysts have sensed that the new US administration may well be planning an alliance with Russia against China, defined by some analysts as ‘counter-Nixon strategy’, i.e., a triangular relationship strategy that is the exact opposite of President Nixon’s strategy to ally with China against the Soviet Union after 1972. However, in the past month since President Trump was sworn in, there hasn’t been visible relaxation in America’s Russia policy or marked improvement in the two countries’ relationship. Even Trump himself and other senior officials started to deliver tougher statements on Russia. This article sets to further analyze the emerging major new strategic posture.
First of all, the three major strategic conflicts between the US and Russia are irreconcilable. Besides the competition over overall international leadership, the two countries face three irreconcilable strategic conflicts in specific issues and geographic areas.
The first conflict exists on the question of NATO’s eastward enlargement and over who plays the dominant role in the world and in European security affairs in particular. This is the primary reason for Russia’s failure to engage with the West after its political transformation. The only choice for the Trump administration, which endeavors to reduce American resource consumption in global security affairs, is to expand rather than weakening NATO’s collective ability to deal with crises. In early 2017, NATO sped up military deployments targeting Russia. NATO is creating a 4,000-strong multinational force to be deployed in Poland and the Baltic States in 2017. On Feb 7, still in the initial days of the Trump administration, a small US troop force landed in Estonia on its Russia border. These developments caused strong reactions from Russia.
The deployment of missile defense systems in Europe is another direct cause of strategic conflicts between the US and Russia. According to the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) formulated by the Obama administration, the US will complete missile defense deployments on the soil of European NATO members in four phases by 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2020 respectively. The EPAA will not only protect NATO allies in Europe but also constitute the fist line of defense against Russian strategic missiles deterring America’s east coast, being an integral part of US global missile defense. Deployments of the first two phases have been completed. In face of a Russia whose conventional military strength continues to decline and whose emphasis has been more on the role of nuclear weapons in war, there is not much room for the Trump administration to compromise or engage in negotiation.
It is also impossible for the US to truly give up strategic competition with Russia in and among Commonwealth of Independent States. From 2009 to 2012, the US did not intervene in the Ukraine election or the political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, which was regarded as acknowledging Russia’s sphere of influence in this region. In reality, the US policy during that period was based on the judgment that the Russian economy would experience a crash recession due to the financial crisis. In 2009, Russian GDP decreased by 7.9%. The country lost its ability to lead and advance political and economic integration among former Soviet republics. Still, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton judged in December 2011 that Vladimir Putin’s roadmap of Eurasian economic union published in Izvestia in October was a plan to restore the Soviet Union, fierce geopolitical competition between the US and Russia started again and became an important external factor leading to the Ukraine crisis.
Second, the US-led economic sanctions are the most prominent issue in US-Russia relations and in this area the Trump administration does not have much leeway. On the question of European security, the US does not have the ability to prevent with force Russia’s external behaviors as a nuclear-weapon state or to prevent by military means Russia’s military operations targeting non-NATO members by invoking NATO’s right of collective self-defense. It can only use economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to safeguard the security and stability of Europe, the most important pillar of America’s global hegemony. The ruling group in the US is well aware that any relaxation in sanctions by the US will not only fuel an appeasement policy towards Russia among EU members but also more importantly be viewed as giving up US responsibility for European security, which will be self-weakening. In this connection, to clarify Trump administration’s position, US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley said on Feb 2 that sanctions on Russia will be sustained ‘until Russia returns control over Crimea to Ukraine’.
Third, the Trump administration may freeze the intensity of US-Russian conflicts, but the extent and areas of relaxation and cooperation will be limited. To strike against ISIS forces in Syria is the most likely field for cooperation, where the two have highly convergent interests. As the US, which became a net natural gas exporter in 2016, may soon become a net exporter of all energies and as it already completed withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, the strategic significance of the Middle East for the US has substantially decreased and preventing ISIS global spread is now the issue of utmost concern in that region. Besides, the US has lost interest in energy cooperation with Russia. Physical trade between the two countries around the time of Ukraine crisis accounted for less than 1% in America’s total trade in commodities, far from being significant enough to drive relaxation.
Fourth, Russia will not pull US chestnuts out of the fire. After 9/11, Russia provided bases in Central Asia and critical intelligence for the US in its counter-terrorism effort. Then in 2004 the US used the Ukrainian presidential election to contain Russia and went all out to stop Ukraine from joining the Eurasian economic union led by Russia, even to the extent interrupting a reactivation of US-Russia relations. Such historical lessons are still in the mind of the Russian ruling group, which realizes that joining hands with the US against China would mean pulling chestnuts out of the fire for others and self-harm for Russia.
Hence, a triangular pattern of the US and Russia joining hands against China will not appear.