A grand bar­gain? No thanks

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - By Fy­o­dor Lukyanov ● Fy­o­dor Lukyanov is re­search di­rec­tor of the Val­dai Dis­cus­sion Club and chair­man of the Pre­sid­ium of the Coun­cil on For­eign and De­fense Pol­icy.

The U.S. mis­sile strike on Syr­ian ter­ri­tory spells the end of a long and strange pe­riod of spec­u­la­tion, of hopes for a new era of U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions, of prospects for a “ma­jor deal” between the two coun­tries and, in gen­eral, of any pos­si­bil­ity that Pres­i­dent Trump is, as al­leged, a “pro-Rus­sian” leader. In­ci­den­tally, it is amaz­ing how that al­le­ga­tion — that the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign cre­ated but failed to trans­late into an elec­tion vic­tory — has since taken on a life of its own and be­come a po­lit­i­cal fac­tor not only in the U.S., but even in Rus­sia.

Given the way Mr. Trump con­stantly re­ferred to him­self as an un­sur­passed “mas­ter of the deal” with long years of busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence, it was only nat­u­ral to an­tic­i­pate that Wash­ing­ton would try to strike some sort of “ma­jor deal” with Moscow. The buzz about such an agree­ment be­gan with Mr. Trump’s elec­tion in Novem­ber and con­tin­ued un­til Fe­bru­ary, when it be­came clear that no “spe­cial” re­la­tions between the two coun­tries were in the off­ing.

In the­ory, had Mr. Trump taken the non­tra­di­tional step of meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin be­fore or im­me­di­ately af­ter his in­au­gu­ra­tion, it might have al­tered the en­trenched think­ing and opened a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for im­proved re­la­tions. Though pro­vid­ing no guar­an­tees, it would have cre­ated a chance to use this at­mos­phere of mu­tual in­ter­ests between the two lead­ers. When that did not hap­pen, in­sti­tu­tional in­er­tia kicked in. What’s more, with Rus­sia now a ma­jor point of con­tention in U.S. pol­i­tics, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion finds that its hands are tied for im­prov­ing re­la­tions with Moscow, even if it wanted to.

How­ever, even if Messrs. Trump and Putin had met early on, it is un­likely any deal would have re­sulted. In fact, cer­tain fac­tors make such an agree­ment al­most im­pos­si­ble, re­gard­less of who sits in the White House and Krem­lin.

The first and most all-en­com­pass­ing rea­son is that the 21st cen­tury is not the time for ma­jor pow­ers to con­clude pacts de­ter­min­ing the fate of smaller states. The big play­ers are un­able to im­pose their will on even the most frag­ile and fail­ing states, much less on those that func­tion more or less nor­mally. The great pow­ers sim­ply lack any lever­age over a world that has grown far more di­ver­si­fied. The Yalta Con­fer­ence and Congress of Vi­enna were held in the af­ter­math of ma­jor wars that left no doubt as to who was in con­trol. Any mod­ern at­tempt at such a deal would run up against the re­al­ity of a world whose af­fairs are now very neb­u­lous — and likely to re­main so.

Sec­ond, the his­tory of U.S. re­la­tions with other states — and not only with Rus­sia — con­vinc­ingly proves one thing: that Wash­ing­ton al­most never con­cludes deals on equal terms, but al­ways from a po­si­tion of strength. The ar­range­ments made fol­low­ing World War II were unique in that an ab­so­lute bal­ance of power ex­isted for what, in his­tor­i­cal terms, was a very short pe­riod. Noth­ing like that is pos­si­ble now, mean­ing that Messrs. Trump and Putin will not strike any “ma­jor deal.”

Third, any hy­po­thet­i­cal deal between Moscow and Wash­ing­ton would come at the ex­pense of both coun­tries’ other for­eign pol­icy in­ter­ests. Does it make sense for Rus­sia to place lim­its on its re­la­tions with China and Iran — both of which are strate­gi­cally im­por­tant to Moscow over the long term — in or­der to con­clude cer­tain agree­ments with the United States? Should Wash­ing­ton send its Euro­pean and Asian al­lies into a frenzy, know­ing that they bris­tle at even the men­tion of a U.S.-Rus­sian deal? Of course not, es­pe­cially be­cause any such ar­range­ment would nec­es­sar­ily be sit­u­a­tional and short-lived, as the whole his­tory of their mu­tual re­la­tions shows.

In a sense, the re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Syria ac­tu­ally bring some clar­ity to the sit­u­a­tion by un­der­scor­ing that no such deal is in the works and that the “game” between the ma­jor pow­ers will now re­sume with re­newed vigor. In the past cou­ple of months, the de­ci­sion by the United States to ab­sent it­self from the re­gion cre­ated the im­pres­sion that it would be pos­si­ble to re­solve the Syr­ian cri­sis with­out Wash­ing­ton. Now it seems that the United States un­der Mr. Trump wants to play a de­ci­sive role, although to­ward which end re­mains even more un­clear now than it was un­der for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. And, of course, the United States and all the other out­side play­ers in the cri­sis care more about their own in­ter­ests than they do about the fate of Syria it­self.

From this point on­ward, U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions could go in a va­ri­ety of di­rec­tions, up to and in­clud­ing a sharp es­ca­la­tion in ten­sions and a mil­i­tary clash in Syria. For now, though, it looks as though nei­ther side wants that. In a best-case sce­nario, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would take this op­por­tu­nity to ex­press a de­sire for se­ri­ous in­ter­ac­tion with Rus­sia on Syria. There is a cer­tain logic in this. Af­ter all, prior to the mis­sile strikes, the U.S. op­er­ated from a po­si­tion of weak­ness, as a coun­try that had re­lin­quished its ini­tia­tive in the re­gion. Now Wash­ing­ton can take a more proac­tive stance, some­thing Mr. Trump needs both as a leader and as a would-be ne­go­tia­tor on Syria. For now, Rus­sia should wait to as­cer­tain Wash­ing­ton’s real in­ten­tions — that is, if it has ac­tu­ally for­mu­lated any.

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