Trump Doesn’t Understand Why Deal with Russia Eludes Him

The president blames the news media, but the real reason is that Russia and the United States have divergent interests.

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump blamed the news media on Thursday for making it impossible for him to do a deal with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

“Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore, because politically it would be unpopular for a politician to make a deal,” the American leader said.

Trump is marred by allegations that Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election to help him.

His national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned earlier this week after it emerged that he had possibly discussed policy with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump was sworn in — which would have been illegal.

Trump’s first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, also resigned because of his ties to Russia.

It has been reported in the last few days, by The New York Times, among others, that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have found proof that more Trump aides were in touch with Russian officials during the campaign.

It’s all pretty damning, but it’s not why Trump would struggle to see eye-to-eye with Putin. That’s because Russia and the United States have divergent interests.

Siding with Russia in Syria makes no sense

In the case of Syria, where Russia and the West support opposing sides in a civil war, shifting American support from the rebels to Bashar Assad only makes sense if the former were a bigger threat to the United States than the latter. That’s not the case.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, the largest of the Islamist groups fighting in Syria, is a threat — which is why Western countries support the Iraqi government in its efforts to stamp out the fanatics.

But longer term, a victorious Assad, propped up by Iran and Russia, would do far more to destabilize to the regional balance of power, which currently favors America’s Arab allies and Israel.

Trump, like many on the far right, is alarmist about political Islam. A clear-eyed analysis of the Middle East would tell him there are bigger things to worry about than a so-called caliphate of perhaps 15,000 fighting men.

America can’t make peace in the Donbas

Trump’s inclination to make deals might lead him to attempt to trade relief from sanctions and a tacit recognition of Russian rule in the Crimea for Russia returning the Donbas, the southeast of Ukraine, to Kiev’s control.

But such a deal is unlikely to be done, argues Kirk Bennett, a retired diplomat, in The American Interest.

To pursue a quid pro quo would indulge the Kremlin’s fantasy that Russia’s setbacks in the post-Soviet space have been America’s doing and that therefore Moscow can restore its equities via great-power negotiations, he writes.

That’s like negotiating a real-estate deal with somebody who doesn’t own the property:

Whatever Russia wants — or will settle for — in Ukraine, the Kremlin will have to get it from Kiev, not Washington.

Russia can’t accept an independent Ukraine

Let’s assume for a moment that Trump could pressure the Ukrainians into accepting the loss of the Crimea and the Europeans into terminating the sanctions. Wouldn’t that satisfy Russia?

Unlikely, says Bennett. What Russia wants is not a Ukraine that looks like Austria or Finland during the Cold War. It wants Ukraine to become at least like Belarus and preferably like the Crimea: an area tied closely to, or absorbed by, Russia.

A neutral, independent Ukraine, even bereft of Crimea, would mark the end of a long-term effort to assimilate the Ukrainians — to turn “Little Russians” into Great Russians. It would be a deathblow to ambitions for a Russian World and Eurasian Union and would constitute a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the Kremlin.

According to Bennett, the best the United States can hope for is turning the insurrection in the Donbas into another “frozen conflict” on Russia’s periphery. As long as neither Russia nor Ukraine is prepared to back down, that’s the best and possibly only way to contain the violence.

Elusive grand bargain

No other Western leader is as keen on rapprochement with Russia as Trump (whatever his motivations). But even he can’t deny reality (no matter how hard he tries).

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, tried to “reset” relations with Moscow and quickly discovered that no American gesture or compromise could change Russia’s mentality.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, got Putin’s cooperation on executing the war in Afghanistan, but he was rewarded for his good faith with a Russian invasion of Georgia.

So long as Russia maintains its imperial ambitions in its “near abroad”, and so long as America will not treat Russia as an equal with an undeserved say in European security, the two will find themselves at odds.

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