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Putin’s quest for a Monroe doctrine

By Amir Taheri

Among the questions around US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, one stands out: What is the future of US relations with Russia? So far, Trump and members of his national security team have provided vague and at times contradictory replies. What the new administration needs to do first is decide how to clearly describe Russia. The administration of Barack Obama never made up its mind in that regard.

On occasions, such as the circus around the Iran nuclear dossier and the dodgeball Obama played on Syria, Russia was described as “our partner” by both Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry. On other occasions, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea for example, the Obama-Kerry tandem described Russia as “a challenge.” Russia, however, has had little difficulty labeling the US as it sees it. The adjective the Kremlin and the media under its control use to describe the US is “vrag,” which loosely translated means “foe.” That was the label Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used against the US in the 1960s when he came out with his “we will bury you” boast.  More discerning Russians, who remember that “vrag” was used to describe Nazi Germany, prefer the less dramatic “protivnik,” which means “adversary.” More cautious commentators in Moscow suggest the still softer term “nedobrojelatie” (rival). By coincidence, the label “adversary” was used by new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to describe Russia during his Senate confirmation hearings. On a spectrum of relations, a nation might place other nations in different categories. At one end there will be “friends,” nations with which one has close ties and on whose sympathy and support one can count on at all times. At any given time, few nations fall in that category. At the opposite end are “foes,” enemies bent on your destruction that must be defeated and destroyed. Again, few nations fit in that category at any given time.

The spectrum includes other categories: Adversaries, rivals, partners and allies. Such categorization is not based on hard and fast rules. At times a “frieError! Not a valid embedded object.nd” can act as a “rival” on specific issues, while an “adversary” might become a tactical “partner” when it is in its interest. The task of diplomacy is to judge when and how to identify others according to a strategic vision of one’s own national interests. The goal of foreign policy is to isolate and defeat “foes,” and transform “adversaries” and “rivals” into partners, and if possible even “friends.” The Kremlin media are wrong to describe the US as a “foe.” Even during the Cold War, few in the US wished to destroy Russia.

The US tried three strategies: Containment between 1948 and 1968, détente until 1980, and rollback until the fall of the Soviet Empire. Tillerson, however, is right: Today, Russia is an “adversary” for the US. Thus the aim of the new US administration should be to deny Moscow the opportunity to pursue adversarial policies, while at the same time the door should be open for persuading Russia to downgrade its hostility by becoming, at most, a “rival.” The sooner that aim is spelled out, the better for all concerned. Right now, many in the Kremlin, and some circles in the West, fantasize about what they believe is Trump’s soft spot for President Vladimir Putin. Some of Trump’s opponents have even tried to cast him as “the Moscow candidate” vulnerable to Russian blackmail (in 1828, President John Quincy Adams was accused of being a procurer for the Russian tsar during his tenure as US ambassador to Saint Petersburg). I doubt Trump has a soft spot for Putin or anyone else except himself, and even if he did, such affection would not change the nature of the relationship between the two nations. As for blackmail material, even if Putin did have any against Trump, it is unlikely that the US will sacrifice national interests to keep a lid on any scandal.

Russia is acting as an adversary in a number of ways. It is trying to impose its version of a Monroe Doctrine on nations in the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, with a mixture of proximity pressure, propaganda war, and in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, military intervention. Moscow has already succeeded in toppling a pro-US president in Kyrgyzstan, while halting closer ties between the US and such former Soviet republics as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. More recently, Moscow scored another victory by propelling one of its allies into power in Armenia. In a similar vein, Moscow has “persuaded” Azerbaijan to tone down its pro-US stance, while using the tactic of flattery with Kazakhstan toward the same goal. Putin is also trying to drive a wedge between Turkey, in its moment of confusion, and NATO allies.

Russia wants to “Finlandize” its neighbors, meaning all the former Soviet republics plus Iran and Afghanistan (throughout the Cold War, Finland accepted certain limits to its sovereignty in exchange for a guarantee it would not be invaded by the Soviets). Weakening NATO and the EU, the two military and political pillars of the global strategy of the “free world” during the Cold War, remains one of Putin’s top goals. Trump’s ambiguous statements on NATO and the EU have encouraged that strategy. Yet the new US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has emphasized the need to “strengthen” NATO, while Tillerson has expressed support for the EU. Putin is playing 19th century strategy, as symbolized by the meaningless 49-year lease he obtained from Bashar Assad for a naval base in Syria, in a 21st century that has no room for imperial projection of power. Obama’s pusillanimity encouraged Putin’s aggressive game, to the detriment of both Russia and the US, not to mention other nations affected.

Though Moscow is not an “enemy,” disabusing Putin of his illusions would be good not only for the US but also for Russia. Trump should welcome Russia as a rival for the US, if that is its choice, but should make clear to Putin that playing adversary will no longer be cost-free. Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.

‘Courtesy Arab News’.

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