Should good ties with Russia be Trump’s priority?

Doyle McManus

Donald Trump is right. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” the president-elect tweeted last weekend. “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!” That’s true; no sensible person wants a state of hostility with a nuclear superpower. But Trump tweeted his foreign policy doctrine with an essential piece missing. The goal of American foreign policy is to protect US interests, not to achieve “a good relationship” with any particular country – much less a country as troubling in its conduct as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Trump hasn’t given a full-scale foreign policy speech since April, when he unveiled his “America First” slogan. He did, however, suggest during the campaign that he would focus on a few core goals: Defeating IS and other terrorist groups. Negotiating better trade deals to bring jobs back to the United States. Curbing Iran’s power in the Middle East, and cancelling or renegotiating President Obama’s nuclear deal. Renegotiating the NATO alliance to force other countries to spend more on their own defence – with a warning that the US might not defend them against Russia if they don’t.
Here’s the problem with Trump’s bromance with Putin: Of the four items on that list, the Russian leader might be helpful with one, the fight against IS terrorists. He’s not so interested in the others. Bringing US jobs back? Not his problem. Curbing Iran and scrapping the nuclear deal? Actually, Putin’s proud of the role he played in negotiating the agreement, and he’s been busy selling advanced weapons to Iran. Renegotiating NATO? Putin may want to encourage Trump on that one – but mostly to see if he can undermine the Western alliance.
Putin’s priorities are different from ours. He wants to stay in power and stave off what he sees as Western pressure to democratise. He wants to restore Russia’s sphere of influence over the countries of the former Soviet Union, beginning with Ukraine, which he invaded in 2014. He wants to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which he views as a hostile military alliance. In other words, Putin’s goals conflict with US interests more often than they coincide. In addition, Russia experts believe Putin actually prefers to cast the United States as an adversary, because it helps him maintain his hold on power.
Trump has already proposed a way to settle the question: Just give Putin a chance. “Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable; I intend to find out,” he said in April. “If we can’t make a good deal for America, then we will quickly walk from the table.” But he still needs to define what a good deal would be. Here are three specific steps Trump should take: First, he should reassure US allies that he doesn’t plan to walk away from NATO treaty commitments. (The three small Baltic states, which feel directly threatened by Russia, are already racing to meet their commitments on defence spending.)
Second, Trump should announce that he won’t support any relaxation of Western sanctions against Russia unless Putin withdraws from eastern Ukraine. Former US envoy Stephen Sestanovich says the Russians are waiting to see if Trump will act without asking for anything in return. “The other side never pays for something it expects to get for free,” he wrote.
Third, the president-elect should wait for the 90-day review of cybersecurity he’s requested before tweaking any of the Obama administration’s added cybersanctions. Until now, he’s treated questions about Russian hacking as political attacks on his legitimacy; once he’s safely in office, he might be able to consider them more calmly as a question of US security interests. Trump should take his own advice: Deal with Putin from a position of strength, not weakness – and seek good relations only in pursuit of a “good deal,” not as an end in themselves.
— Courtesy: Los Angeles Times

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