Hours before the Trump White House stated that there are plans to formally invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the US in the autumn of this year, President Putin issued the following statement about the goals of Russia’s foreign policy:
“Today, the principle of competition and openness in global trade is being more frequently replaced by protectionism, economic expediency – by ideological conjuncture and political pressure, while economic ties and freedom of entrepreneurship are becoming an object of politicisation. Against this background, Russia’s foreign policy must become more economically oriented and more prudent”.
In the same speech Putin praised the potential of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an organisation that can help to benefit all member nations equally. While Putin did not use the phrase “win-win”, the essence of win-win was clearly implied. Likewise, the fact that the EAEU will enter into a full free trading relationship with China beginning in 2019 underscores the fact that rather than act as an insular Eurasian economic fortress, the EAEU looks to be a massive and dynamic logistical land-bridge linking east Asia to the Mediterranean and eastern Europe as part of the wider One Belt–One Road inter-connectivity initiative.
In an age where the economic language of China is that of openness, free trade and helping to create new and innovative trading partnerships on the basis of a collective win-win mentality, it was clear that in terms of his rhetoric on trade, the Russian President was speaking Chinese.
Therefore, those in the US so-called Blue Team of anti-Chinese right-wingers and mainstream Indian media will be inexorably disappointed to learn that the personally good relations between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will not result in a two against one superpower alliance aimed at undermining China.
In reality, China is Russia’s most important partner in terms of trade and increasingly in terms of geopolitical security. The incredibly successful Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit held in Qingdao and next week’s BRICS summit in Johannesburg are further examples of Russia and China growing ever closer in terms of a partnership based on historically good relations where 20th century schisms remain an overall anomaly.
While in countries with historically close relationships with Russia and equally fraught one’s with China, Russia can play the “good cop” to China’s alleged “bad cop” when it comes to fomenting a kind of rapprochement, if Donald Trump thinks that Russia will somehow put the breaks on its pan-Eurasian free trading agreement with China in order to reach a deeper understanding with the US – he is gravely mistaken. Likewise, if Indian Premier Modi thinks that Russia and the US will band together to bolster India’s Sinophobic position, he is also going to be disappointed as in the 21st century Russia hopes to keep India close but has already succeeded at keeping China closer.
Therefore, while some in the US, many in India and likely a some of Vietnam are hoping for a Trump-Putin anti-China alliance, the very thought is based purely on partisan, zero-sum wishful thinking on the part of those who refuse to embrace the modern win-win mentality that underscores contemporary Sino-Russian relations.
In this sense, Russia and the US will almost certainly discuss little about China as was proved during the recent Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki. Prior to the summit, Donald Trump stated that he was probably going to speak with his Russian counterpart about China and “our mutual friend President Xi”. However, China was not mentioned at all during the press conference which followed the meeting – thus indicating that even if Trump did mention China to Putin during the private meeting, there were no areas of agreement and consequently nothing worth discussing in public.
It is instead the Middle East where Russia and the US perhaps counter-intuitively have the most in common during the era of Trump and Putin. While Barack Obama’s policies of hybrid warfare against traditional Russian partners in the Arab world with the added element of Obama pursuing the Takfiri “Arab Spring” mentality against the wishes of Russia’s contemporary partners, in the Trump era, things are very different even while they might appear much the same.
Unlike Obama who justified his policies using the rhetoric of ideology which Obama himself may well have partly believed, Trump not only does not have time for any ideology apart from “American first” (aka putting money in the American treasury first), but has explicitly decried Obama’s rhetorical ideology regarding the so-called “Arab spring”. By stating that the wars on Iraq, Libya and Syria had been a disaster throughout his campaign, Trump has clearly distanced himself from the policies of both George W. Bush and his even more ideologically minded successor Barack Obama.
In terms of practical developments, Libya has ceased to be anything resembling functional nation and Iraq is once again on the brink of civil war, but Syria in spite of its perilous position has managed to retain its legitimate central government, largely thanks to Russian support in the war against Takfiri terrorism. As the last Arab Nationalist state not to fall to regime change, with the except of Algeria, Russia’s intervention in Syria has clearly proved that “the buck stops here” when it comes to US regime change.
Therefore, bearing in mind that regime change is no longer a viable option for the US in Syria and given that Donald Trump never seemed to support regime change in Damascus in the first place – both Moscow and Washington can focus on an area in the Middle East where they both agree: Israel.
In many ways, Israel was the glue that kept the Helsinki summit from falling apart because other than expressing a vague commitment to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons and a non-controversial (by any standard) mutual endorsement of the universally praised Korean peace process, the only part of the Helsinki summit which led to an agreement with a bit of teeth to it was the mutual understanding reached between Russia and the US to “protect Israel’s security”. This was later re-emphasised as one of the areas in which two of the three superpowers can cooperate in a recent Tweet from Donald Trump.
Just because the US pursues its Israeli partnership on a unilateral basis while for Russia, Israel is one of its many partners in the region which also include Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Syria, this does not prelude Russia and the US from working together towards a goal desired by Tel Aviv.
As things stand, for different reasons, Tel Aviv, Moscow and Washington each want to reduce the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah troops in Syria. Furthermore, as Russia has essentially signed up to act as a guarantor of such an agreement, Russia now has a firm upper hand when dealing with both its Israeli partner and its fellow superpower in the United States for the simple reason that a peaceful Iranian/Hezbollah withdrawal is only possible through Russian brokerage. For Russia, the goal behind a foreign troop withdrawal is geopolitical balance while for Israel and the US, the goal is to remove Iranian human and material assets from the purple line which separates the occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria – aka the de-facto border between Syria and Israel. In so far as this is the case, Trump, Putin and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu got what they wanted out of the Helsinki summit and what’s more is that all three have acknowledged this, particularly the Israeli leader who released a video thanking both Trump and Putin for their commitment to Israel.
Therefore while Russia remains a firm supporter of the Chinese model of economic openness, as Israel becomes more reliant on its Russian partnership and as Iran because a slightly less reliable partner of Russia where the issue of Syria is concerned, when Trump and Putin meet next, it will clearly be Tel Aviv rather than Beijing which brings them together.