The current issue of the recent issue of the Bonn Power Shift Monitor is dedicated to the relationship between Moscow and Washington.
For the first time in the history of modern international relations, the world’s most powerful political position will soon be occupied be a person whose approach and intentions are entirely unpredictable to the international community. Should Trump realize his campaign promises, the Atlantic system of alliances and the West’s geopolitical structures in general will face a radical upheaval. Among the international relations and global conflicts that will be impacted by the approaching transformation, the relationship between the US and Russia stands out as one that will be of particular relevance. The overall relations between Moscow and Washington have been cooling considerably and are increasingly being accompanied by political saber rattling. Russia’s suspension of the 2000 plutonium agreement may threaten a whole range of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation treaties between the two major powers. Furthermore, the US launched the long-awaited European missile defense system against massive Russian resistance while Russia appears to be moving nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into Kaliningrad. Meanwhile, Moscow has been adapting an increasingly harsh rhetoric, prepping its population for a military conflict by carrying out nuclear and upgrading nuclear shelters. However, the impression that the Kremlin expects an imminent escalation is mitigated to a certain degree by the fact that Russia is reducing its military spending. Moscow’s and Washington’s overall positioning nevertheless suggest rather clearly that their relationship is hardening – the current status of relations, insiders suggest, is “pretty bad” and haven’t been this tense since the end of the Cold War.
The US’s and Russia’s discord is currently reflected in Syria where the two major power’s lack of cooperation has been hampering efforts to draw up a peace agreement. Even though a permanent war in Syria doesn’t benefit Moscow or Washington, the situation in Syria with its global political and humanitarian consequences isn’t likely to calm to down anytime time soon. After US restraint in Syria opened up space for a decisive Russian assertion in 2015, Moscow power status in the Middle East is growing again. To John Hannah, the development is clear: Across the Mediterranean through Turkey and Iran to the Gulf region, Russia’s flexing of military power has led to a considerable expansion of its political clout while American military dominance is decreasing.
Meanwhile, Trumps pro-Russian tenor during the election season might represent an extraordinary opportunity for the relationship between the Kremlin and the White House. After two US presidents failed in their attempt to mend tied with Russia during Putin’s reign alone, Putin now expressed caution, but nevertheless willingness to “set Russian-US relations back on a stable development track". In order to work towards this goal, Trump would likely need to grant Russia a string of concessions which would put a strain on the transatlantic system of alliances and particularly represent a serious challenge to NATO. Such an approach won’t only be challenged by the US Congress and its overall muss less Pro-Russian stance, however: Trump’s own running mates like the more hawkish Mike Pence on the one hand and the rather Pro-Russian General Michael Flynn on the other have been making wildly differing statements that paint a exceedingly inconsistent picture of the future administration’s foreign policy course. Thus, in the face of Trump’s personal unpredictability and his team’s inconsistency, predicting the next US administration’s approach regarding Russia is practically impossible, as Stephen Walt puts it: “But will he follow this sensible course? Damned if I know.”
Prof. Dr. Xuewu Gu
Center for Global Studies, University of Bonn