US-Russia: Broadening the board

Spearhead Analysis – 26.04.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Trump’s campaign days’ declarations of prospective overtures to Russia, seem to drift more and more into the doldrums. Trump’s shift appears to emanate both from a blend of – reconciling with certain ingrained policies and recognizing areas in which US actually sees its interests threatened. A reversion from the initial stance has, in any case, enabled Trump to boost his standing locally, while taking some heat off the ‘Russian meddling in US elections issue’.

Concerns over Trump’s NATO skepticism and US Secretary of State’s dealings with Russia in the capacity of Exxon’s head, have also recently witnessed a reset. In his recent interview, Trump not only gave assurances of his commitment to NATO but also reverted from his former stance of terming the alliance obsolete and, in fact, acknowledged not knowing enough about NATO at that time. Similarly, the US secretary of State’s initial–largely frowned upon– decision to visit Moscow prior to NATO meeting was also changed. McCain terming  Exxon’s recent efforts to waive sanctions on Russia– as crazy, also sums up where big oil lobbying for Russia stands for now.

In a recent address to the Armed Services Committee; General Scaparrotti while presenting his assessment of Russian threats to the European front, did not discuss them independently from developments in Middle East, Arctic, Africa and Turkey; and hinted towards  a holistic approach, closely aligned with various regional allies in countering the threats.

According to him– the EUCOM and NATO have in recent times shifted away from cooperation with Russia and have assumed a defensive and deterrence posture. Some of his top identified areas of concerns included: Russia’s inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons supported by its supposed escalation de-escalation nuclear doctrine, Russian advancements in integrated air defense systems coupled with their installations in various regions, deployment of nuclear capable missiles in the Kaliningrad province, strengthening of Russian military presence not just in the European periphery but also in the Middle East and Arctic. Furthermore, alleged Russian meddling in Western political processes and use of disinformation were also viewed as critical threats.

Similar concerns were raised in another recent senate hearing on Russian influence and unconventional operations in the Grey Zone. During which– Lt-Gen Charles Cleveland, Dr Oliker (senior advisor and director of Russia and Eurasia program at CSIS) and Dr Carpenter ( senior director at Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement) shared their concerns about Russian provocations ‘below the threshold’. It was suggested that Russia continues to experiment with various asymmetric techniques to undermine US/NATO. Russia’s supposed information warfare was viewed as a critical threat, which probably had some success, owing to their language advantage, in some key conflict zones. Suggestions to counter various asymmetric threats—especially in the information domain– were made. Despite acknowledgement of supposedly continuing Russian experiments on the East European front, it was also stated that they remain largely deterred against perhaps the heart of Europe, and could continue focusing their various asymmetric techniques in other zones- perhaps regions in the Middle East and Central zone.

On the other hand, Russian concerns are the reciprocal — they continue to view NATO’s enlargement in Russian periphery zones as a breach of the originally designated limits set post-cold war.  The recent inclusion of Montenegro into NATO by Trump, has not helped. Russian perception of a hostile European front, continues to compel it to protect its geostrategic interests in the Middle East, Central Zone and the Arctic.

The recent visit of the US Secretary of State to Moscow also had its significance marred by the US missile strikes on Syria.  Despite, some talk of possible US restraint, the emerging reality post meeting, has been an increase in airstrikes by US led coalition forces alongside some of its regional allies. The US has also imposed a wide range of fresh sanctions on the war torn region over the chemical weapons issue. Both countries also appear in flux over their positions on Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The rejuvenated US stance against North Korea, has also added another concern for Russia emanating from the East. Skeptical of any aggressive postures by the US, they called for dialogue with North Koreans at the UN.

Presently, the US and Russia have been finding themselves increasingly at odds in Eastern Europe, Middle East, Central region and all the way to the Arctic. Possible strains emanating from such polarized postures are still developing. It appears that adventurism, to a certain extent –by both– could continue in these various zones till some sort of a convergence is re-established.

But, despite the apparent downward spiral the aspect of various political pressures also exists.

Trump’s views appear to be undergoing an alignment process with those of others. Despite reverting from several of his former statements, his one prominent concern of increasing burden sharing by NATO allies was also voiced by General Mattis recently. Similarly, an interesting aspect which continues to be discussed by several prominent voices– in nearly all recent hearings on security– is the threat posed to US security from slashing the State department’s budget. Trump, who painted pictures of drastic U-turns, is still consolidating his standing in the face of internal oppositions.

Russia too, would be preparing for its presidential elections soon so various possible internal pressures on Putin cannot be overlooked.

On a somewhat softer note, wary of the adverse implications stemming from both militaries operating in close proximities, coupled with their wide range of seemingly open ended conflicts on multiple fronts- the US claims to have kept communication open with Moscow in order to de-escalate tensions in case of any unforeseen accident. Similarly, despite Moscow’s often voiced criticisms, they too continue to keep diplomatic channels open with both US and EU, in order to reach some dialogue based resolutions on the various conflicts.