DOHA, Qatar — Few of the Trump administration’s priorities have received as much criticism from the American foreign policy establishment as the president’s desire to improve relations with Russia. President Trump’s allegedly pro-Russian policies have been the subject of conspiracy theories and scandal.
This makes little sense. There are many good reasons for the United States to reach conciliation with Moscow on issues from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. The real question will be if Washington can control its own desire for global hegemony enough to make that possible.
Unlike China, Russia is not an emerging peer competitor to the United States. Russia is a regional power struggling to retain a fragment of its former sphere of influence. Moreover, it should be a natural ally of the United States in the fight against Islamist extremism. A reduction of tension with Russia would allow the United States to concentrate on more important geopolitical issues.
Ultimately, the United States may have no choice but to work with Russia. The West’s previous strategy has run its course, as recent policy failures make clear. Plans to expand American support for the former Soviet countries ring hollow. The United States and NATO did not fight for Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014. They will not do so in the future. In these circumstances, holding open the possibility of NATO membership for these countries, as the West has done for years, is pointless. By the same token, the populations of the European Union — an organization wrestling with existential problems of its own — have no will to help Ukraine join their club in the foreseeable future. In Syria, the United States and its allies seem to be torn between wanting to unseat President Bashar al-Assad and wanting to contain the jihadists who oppose him. Russia, on the other hand, has made its position clear.
Repairing relations with Russia can begin in Ukraine. The parameters for such a compromise were laid out in the Minsk agreement of 2015, which committed Russia to disarm separatists in eastern Ukraine and Ukraine to draw up a new federal constitution granting enhanced autonomy to the Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region that has declared independence. The United States should work with Russia on a compromise for the Donbas, which should be demilitarized and secured by a United Nations peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula should be accepted (since short of a world war there is no way Russia will give it up). Though the annexation shouldn’t be recognized legally, American sanctions on Russia should be lifted.
American and NATO officials like to claim that such a compromise would encourage Russian aggression elsewhere. This view is based on self-deception on the part of Western elites who are interested in maintaining confrontation with Russia as a distraction from more important, painful problems at home, like migration, industrial decline and anger over globalization.
A child with a map can look at where the strategic frontier between the West and Russia was in 1988 and where it is today, and work out which side has advanced in which direction. So it is necessary to recognize that over the past generation, Russia’s actions — though sometimes wrong and even criminal — have been overwhelmingly reactive to what the West has done. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is about Ukraine, a country of supreme historical, ethnic, cultural, strategic and economic importance to Russia. It implies nothing for the rest of Eastern Europe.
If, as many of the hawks in Brussels and Washington claim, Russia wanted to undermine and then invade Latvia, it would have done so after 2008, when the Latvian economy was in collapse and it would have been easy to create a crisis there. Instead, Moscow did nothing — the Russian government is well aware that any such move would bring Western Europe and the United States back together in hostility toward Russia.
If Russia does invade Latvia or one of the other Baltic States, of course, the United States and its allies would have to fight — and fight hard — to defend them. These countries are members of NATO and the European Union. To surrender them to Russian aggression would make the West look both morally bankrupt and geopolitical impotent. But it is hard to imagine any realistic situation in which this need will arise.
Eastern Europe is not the only arena where the American agenda has proved inept. In Syria, the United States and Western Europe have bungled the war. Here, too, Mr. Trump’s plans to cooperate with Russia would be a welcome change. Because of Russian, Iranian and now Turkish support, Mr. Assad’s Syrian state is not going to fall. If it is to be transformed in the future, negotiation with Russia and Iran will be necessary.
Iran is an essential ally against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria. And that means that the White House will soon discover the dangerous inconsistencies in its policies. Both Mr. Trump and his recently resigned national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, have spoken of prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State. But by simultaneously expressing desire for a new confrontation with Iran, they have demonstrated that they do not actually understand the word “priority.”
Furthermore, barring an open Iranian violation of the nuclear agreement, no imaginable American concession to Russia would persuade Moscow to agree to new international sanctions against Iran. One reason is that Russia sees good relations with Iran as permanently in its interest, whereas the policy makers in Moscow know that American concessions may be withdrawn by the next administration.
China may be the other major sticking point. While he has moderated his stand somewhat in recent weeks, Mr. Trump has suggested he is prepared for a confrontation with China. But Russia will not play along. With a 2,600-mile-long border with China and a hopelessly outnumbered army, there is no way that Russia can be persuaded to adopt an outright hostile stance toward its neighbor. The furthest that Russia might go as a result of a better relationship with the United States would be to limit sales of its most sophisticated weapons to China, and perhaps to help seek a United Nations-brokered international compromise over the islands disputed by China and its neighbors.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has not opposed the United States out of blind anti-Americanism. In the former Soviet countries, Russia has defended what the Russian establishment sees — rightly or wrongly — as vital Russian national interests.
Elsewhere in the world, Russia has clashed with the United States for reasons that have often been shared by many Americans, and have often later been proved correct: opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya being the most notable examples. While Russia wants good relations with the United States, it will not lend blanket support to American global primacy. If that is what the Trump administration is hoping for, it will be sorely disappointed, and the latest attempt at reconciliation with Russia will fail.