Tuesday, December 27, 2016

No Free Lunch for Putin

Posted to Quora and a few other sites
The problem with partisan politics – and we have seen on more than our fair share of it in this particular election cycle – is that we often herald the virtues of our supporters and downplay the concerns of our opponents.
Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his support for Donald Trump. He detested the Clinton-Obama Axis and openly championed the Trump campaign. Whether he went so far as to order an e-mail hack remains very much in doubt. Official evidence is lacking and ratcheting up the rhetoric on a bunch of hearsays and supposed ‘secret’ investigations by the CIA, as have the Washington Post, is irresponsible at best.
However our alarm bells should be ringing. Putin is no friend of the West and with the Trump victory two big questions emerge – What does he stand to gain? and How will this impact the US/Western World in the long term?
The first question is the easier of the two to answer. Putin needs the US to sit back while he continues spreading his footprint in the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe (from all accounts the Baltics). As the latest in a line of Russian strongmen he understands the importance of power through territory but can’t afford the resistance that will likely occur in the face of such an approach. NATO has to be weakened and he is hoping that Trump’s appeal to this once buried isolationist tradition in American foreign politics will resurrect itself.
However as we have seen in Aleppo and elsewhere it is not just Eastern Europe that Putin sees as falling under his sphere of influence. Indeed he has offered feelers to the current Libyan hierarchy and is certainly giving the Iranian mullahs - in what can only be described as a deal with the devil - the muscle to make their presence felt in the face of the Sunni/Shi’ite pan-regional conflict.
While I would not rush ahead to see Putin as a modern day political Svengali. I wouldn’t for one moment underestimate his shrewdness. He is extremely calculating and although he appears to transcend ideological conformity he does see himself as the embodiment of a Russian nationalism. We should all be concerned.
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will respond. Mike Pence appears to be a product of the Cold War Reaganite school and has on more than one occasion expressed his displeasure with the Russians.
James Mattis has made no secret that he favours a more forceful approach when dealing with the Iranians which could extend to their Russian backers. Rex Tillerson looks, at least from his oil industry pedigree as a player not eager to jeopardize the US-Saudi relationship. The three look set to dominate foreign affairs in the Trump White House.
If Trump’s election rhetoric is to believed then it appears that he wishes to distance himself from the neo-conservative nation building of George W. Bush and its variant under Barack Obama. He is correct on this issue. The US cannot afford more ill—conceived ground troop interventionism in regions of the world based on the export of some nebulous transfer of Wilsonian democracy. Pragmatism has to rule. However on the other hand it should not be subjected to the spirit of a nativist isolationism. The global economy of 2017 is a far cry from what it was in 1927.
The free world cannot afford to see the US sit back while Russia and indeed China, not to mention unsavouries in Iran and the various Jihadist alliances run amuck. This can only lead to more bloodshed, an exporting of anti-Enlightenment tropes and the likely jeopardizing of valuable resource flow lines. The world will worsen under strict isolationism and it will undoubtedly come back to haunt the US.
What is necessary then is a process of involvement through informed backing – a checking of oppositional ambitions by a support of local regional elements that stand in the face of this greater belligerency. The US ought to re-evaluate its NATO commitments, but to drop the Alliance at this point would be a catastrophe.
This should be Trump’s message and if it conflicts with the ambitions of Russia, Tehran, the Saudis or any other party so be it. The US is still the principal superpower. Putin may have cheered for Trump but this does not give him a free hand in anything. Its critical that the White House make this clear from the get go. Failure to do so will not only embolden Putin but other opportunists as well.
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