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By Alexander Baker
On Tuesday 24th January the Henry Jackson Society welcomed David Satter and Sir Andrew Wood to discuss developments in US-Russia relations. A dramatic shift in the relationship between Russia and the United States has been expected under the new Trump presidency, and both panellists voiced their views on what type of change they believed would take place.
David Satter opened the discussion with an anecdote on the Trump campaign. In the run up to the republican primary, it is alleged that Donald Trump approached Governor John Kasich with an offer, that if he would run as Trump’s Vice President, Trump would give him free reign on deciding the agenda for both domestic and foreign policy. This anecdote, in Satter’s opinion, provides insight into the wider Trump strategy – The President does not hold any particularly strong views, and is more concerned about being pragmatic than sticking to any set of principles. Russia must therefore be regarded in the same way. Satter stated that Russia, or its relationship with America, was not one of Trump’s pressing concerns; his primary constituents are not pro-Russia or pro-Putin, and are more concerned about the domestic economy than world power politics. As a result, the expected thaw in relations may never materialise. Trump’s claims that he and Putin would get along are unlikely to have a substantial impact on how foreign policy is conducted, and Satter speculated that any gestures of friendship would probably be only temporary.
Satter then argued, that an American-Russian partnership would not, in fact, be in America’s best interests. The way in which Russia conducts warfare, for example, is wholly different and incompatible with the US perspective – the mass civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate Russian air strikes are strikingly different to the US strategy of using precision air strikes on researched and approved targets. In terms of business, Satter argued that US investment opportunities in Russia are limited, and are unlikely to improve given Russia’s current economic situation.
Satter concluded by stating that while the Trump spectacle has certainly created the illusion of a new era of warmer relations, it is vital to look behind the scenes. Trump’s appointed Secretary of Defence and CIA chief are much more sceptical when it comes to Russia, as are the NSA. Satter stressed that Trump will only bring up Russia when it suits him, and stated that radical shifts in attitudes are unlikely to develop.
Sir Andrew Wood elaborated on David Satter’s second point, arguing that America cannot benefit from closer ties with Russia. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions on Russia means that the country is currently in a situation where political and economic reform are unlikely to occur, meaning American business have little to gain. Russia remains an unattractive market to foreign investment, and with an election just around the corner, Putin will have other things on his mind.
Trump’s policy towards Ukraine, in Sir Andrew’s opinion, is much more dangerous. Arguing that Russia’s foreign policy has become increasingly modelled on 19th Century Great Power politics, Sir Andrew said that Trump’s willingness to ignore the annexation of Crimea would justify Russia’s worldview. In addition, Sir Andrew added that the Ukrainian situation was also much more complex. The Ukrainian crisis is not an East-West conflict, it is a struggle for independence. America could not just concede Ukraine to the Russians; if the US backed off, Russia would not simply ‘get’ Ukrainian territories.
Sir Andrew concluded by agreeing with David Satter that changes in the US-Russia relationship were unlikely to be radical or substantial, because there are too many areas of policy and cooperation where the two nations fundamentally disagree.
For a transcript of this event click here