Washington and Moscow: Confrontation or Cooperation?
Published as a monograph by the Begin-Sadat [BESA] Center for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Mideast and Security Policy Studies No. 135
The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies is an independent, non-partisan think tank conducting policy-relevant research on Middle Eastern and global strategic affairs, particularly as they relate to the national security and foreign policy of Israel and regional peace and stability. It is named in memory of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, whose efforts in pursuing peace lay the cornerstone for conflict resolution in the Middle East.
Dr. Jiri Valenta and his wife, Leni, are the principals of The Institute of Post Communist Studies and Terrorism (jvlv.net). They are authors of a forthcoming book on Russia and US interventions in the 21st century. A prominent author and speaker, and a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Jiri served for a decade as a professor and coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies at the US Naval Post-Graduate School. He was also a consultant to senior members of Reagan administration.
Behind the ongoing media frenzy, America seems deeply divided over whether to pursue a hard line with Russia or to cooperate with it. With Donald Trump favoring the latter course, Moscow “voted” for him in the 2016 elections. But the Kremlin’s cybernetic interference in the election has led to ongoing Russo-gate and efforts by President Trump’s foes to paint him as a Manchurian candidate.
As Trump replaces Obama’s misconceived policy of strategic patience with proactive strategic savvy, the question of US future policies remains open. Seeking answers requires a fundamental reexamination of Washington’s 21st century Middle East wars, where at every turn Russian-American relations formed the hidden context.
The story began in 2001-2002, when new presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin formed a successful partnership during the post 9/11 war against Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan – only to see it unravel over the course of the two superpowers’ interventions in the Middle East and Russia’s interference in Georgia and Ukraine.
Personality has played a key role in the vicissitudes of US-Russian relations. Contrary to his common image as a KGB “stone cold killer,” Putin has shown himself to be “a cold calculator of Russian national interests” (to use Henry Kissinger’s words), a Christian autocrat who, like the tsars earlier, uses terror selectively against enemies of the state. By contrast, Presidents Bush and Obama were primarily ideologically 8 I Washington and Moscow: Confrontation or Cooperation? driven in their Middle East wars, seeking democratic regime change for people living under oppressive dictatorships. Unfortunately, the fall of dictatorships in Iraq and Libya generated jihadist chaos and political disintegration and worsened Washington’s relations with Moscow, which felt misled into supporting the Libyan intervention. The result was the intensification of Russian support for Bashar Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria.
In 2013, when Obama reneged on his chemical weapon red line in Syria, Putin got a first-hand indication of what “strategic patience” really meant. Thus, when Moscow’s corrupt client, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by popular revolt, Putin responded with the 2014 bloodless invasion of Crimea. A year later he saved Assad with an unprecedented military intervention.
Given this less than exemplary record of US foreign policy, one can only hope that President Trump and his seasoned national security team can establish fruitful deal-making with Putin. Should Russo-gate lead to impeachment, however, American power will be dangerously weakened (as happened with Richard Nixon). This would significantly increase the likelihood of future confrontation with Moscow
It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war who can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” – Sun Tzu
On April 6, 2017, US President Donald J. Trump took the unprecedented step of launching a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base in retaliation for Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians, including children and infants.
The strike came after a small US task force landed in eastern Syria with the stated goal of smashing Islamic State (ISIS). Until that point, Moscow believed Trump was amenable to leaving Assad temporarily in place, unlike his predecessor, whose nominal priority was regime change. After the missile strike, the Russians were left to wonder what Trump’s foreign policy really was.
Trump’s action was not just a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It must be situated within the domestic controversy over Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, including the theft and release of Democratic Party emails, and connections between the Trump campaign and Russian entities. The fierce post-election debate over Syria is also linked to the unprecedentedly harsh debate over whether America’s policies towards Russia and Syria should involve confrontation or cooperation. The missile strike did not answer that question for either Moscow or Washington, but in March 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that American strategic patience was over with regard to both North Korea and Iran.1 On May 19, 2017, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, Ret. General James Mattis, declared a new strategy aimed at eliminating ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. How will the new strategy affect Washington’s relationship with Moscow in the Middle East as well as the continuous conflict in Ukraine? Answering this question requires a fundamental reexamination of US foreign policy over the past two decades, where at every turn Russian-American relations formed the hidden context.
The Clinton and Bush years
At the turn of this century, new elected Russian president Vladimir Putin genuinely sought to enlist US support for a second Chechen war. Terrorism was the hook.
President Bill Clinton and his principal Russian hand, Strobe Talbott, met Putin in September 1999 at a summit in New Zealand. Clinton would recall how avidly Putin thanked him for supporting Russia, despite rising international criticism of the Chechen bloodshed. But when the US president urged humanitarian measures, Putin drew a map on a napkin, detailing how recent actions in Dagestan represented not just a resumption of the war, but “the beginning of an invasion of Russia.” Nor was it just “Chechen bandits” who were involved, “but the forces of international Islamic terrorism.”2
Putin knew about the al-Qaeda attacks against US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in the fall of 1998, which had killed 224 people. Thirteen days after the attacks, Washington had launched retaliatory cruise missiles at al-Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. Putin’s problem, however, was that al-Qaeda was not fully on America’s radar. Saddam Hussein was still perceived as the main threat. With bipartisan support, Clinton had signed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, authorizing regime change.
Talbott saw Putin masterfully calculating Russia’s national interests and articulating them to his American “partners.” Henry Kissinger, too, viewed Putin as “a cold calculator of Russia’s national interests,” a character out of Dostoevsky with “a great sense of connection, an inward connection, to Russian history.”