President Trump and President Putin of Russia held their first official call together on Saturday. During the call, Trump was surrounded by Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
The discussion between Trump and Putin has been described as amiable, with each side expressing a willingness to work together, particularly against ISIS and Islamic terrorism in general. Russia also released its summary of the call.
This is a good start to future discussions between the two countries. However, there are a number of underlying issues between the U.S. and Russia which need to be taken into consideration, including:
- Crimea: Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, taking it from Ukraine by force.
- Ukraine: Ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have been fighting an insurgency against the Ukrainian government since 2014 (“The War in Donbass”). Russia has been accused of supporting this insurgency. At issue also is the future possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, a move which Russia vehemently opposes.
- Syria: Russia has been working to keep Assad in power in Assyria, while the U.S. and other Western nations have been wanting to remove him, labeling him a war criminal. In the background is the threat of ISIS and other militants gaining ground in Syria.
- Iran: The U.S. wants to limit Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, while Russia has a commercial interest in supplying equipment, material, and know-how to Iran to help them with their nuclear program (ostensibly for civilian power-generation purposes).
- Sanctions: As a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014.
- Russian Gas shipments to Europe: Historically, Russia has been the dominant supplier of natural gas to Europe, providing it with much-needed revenue and political clout on the continent. However, growing U.S. gas exports to Europe have threatened Russia’s near monopoly, forcing it to lower prices.
- The Arctic and Caspian Sea: Both the U.S. and Russia have interests in these areas and are seeking to control precious natural resources as well as exert political influence in the surrounding countries.
- Islamic Terrorism and ISIS: Both the U.S. and Russia want to combat terrorism and defeat ISIS in the Middle East. To do so, though, requires tough decisions. Will the U.S. allow Assad to remain in power in Syria in order to partner with Russia? Will Russia help the U.S. to counteract Iranian influence in Iraq as part of the removal of ISIS from Iraqi territory? What about the Kurds? They have been fighting for their own homeland for decades and have won territory from ISIS. However, their nationalist aspirations threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia.
Thus, the conversation between Trump and Putin is a good start, but many more discussions will be required in order to iron out the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Not everything will be solvable, and the two countries will continue to be rivals in some areas while partnering in others. The first step in partnership appears to be the joint fight against terrorism.
I’ll take the risk of speculating to say that a future accommodation between the U.S. and Russia could take the form of the following:
- Sanctions are removed.
- The U.S. and Russia fight jointly against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
- The U.S. allows the future political structure of Syria to be tacitly determined by Russia.
- Russia helps the U.S. regain influence in Iraq after the removal of ISIS and the tamping down of Iranian ambitions in the region (using Russia’s influence over the Iranian nuclear program as leverage). This will also serve to re-establish Iraq as the natural counter-balance to Iran (a condition which existed prior to the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq), benefitting both countries.
- The U.S. and Iran come to a better nuclear agreement, with Russia’s help, which provides increased protections against Iran developing a nuclear weapon. Russia therefore is able to continue with its commercial interests in Iran’s civilian nuclear program, while the U.S. gains increased security from a renegotiated agreement that has Russia’s backing.
- Russia recognizes Ukrainian sovereignty over their territory (and removes itself from eastern Ukraine), while the U.S. recognizes Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The issue of Ukrainian NATO membership is left open for future discussions, depending on how the political situation in Ukraine develops.
- The issue of natural gas in Europe remains as-is, with both the U.S. and Russia continuing exports and competing on the open market.
- Both U.S. and Russia continue to compete for influence in the Arctic and the Caspian Sea.
The above could be a plausible outcome of further U.S. and Russian talks, based on the relative interests of both parties. Both sides will need to maintain regular relations so that the natural rivalries between the two countries don’t spill over into armed conflict. The call between Trump and Putin is just the first step.