We discussed SALT I as an example.
What are the current elements of Identity of interest, linkage, and trust?
We have to do some creative thinking to find these elements. Recently, with large troop concentrations around Moscow, there has been some speculation that the Russians are more fearful of the threat environment than revealed by public statements. To talk about it is a sign of weakness. The reasons for Russia’s geopolitical insecurity are discussed in Putin’s Job Works on Him; His Apology; Navalny Detained. Russia’s fear of Islamic fundamentalism was expressed by Mikhail Gorbachev during his tenure as last head of state of the Soviet Union, and reiterated in a 2011 interview. From The Independent,
“It’s called the historical and political boomerang,” he says, referring to the US’s secret funding of Islamic extremists during the 1980s, when the Americans were fighting communism. “[The Americans] were working in secret with those forces with whom they are now fighting. They should accept their part of the blame. Let them say so. I think God has some mechanism that he uses to punish those that make mistakes.”
Gorbachev may be correct. The U.S. fought a successful proxy war, but it involved introducing the Afghan mujahedin, and precursors of modern jihadis, to modern weapons of war. Most of these elements had never seen anything fancier than Peshawar copies of Lee- Enfield bolt action rifles, and we gave them Stingers. We bought the Stingers back, but we couldn’t erase their imaginations.
The U.S. may now view Islamic fundamentalism with the same apprehension as the Russians, but this is new. So now we can posit a litany of Russian complaints, of how the Russians view us:
- Our sympathies could empower jihadist elements that could tear Russia apart.
- We are dangerous fools, capable of fatally harming Russia, simply by not thinking about the consequences of our actions.
- With the expansion of NATO, Russia’s western borders have been stripped of even a vestigial buffer.
- Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, acted as cheerleader of the opposition during the 2011 Russia elections. How foolish of us not to understand that Russian elections, even with a fair count, are a ceremony of affirmation, not choice.
I’ve left out sanctions, which are reactions, not doctrine. We assume that mutual distrust has rational roots. But foreign affairs has always had a tinge of the psychopathic, with behaviors that would not be accepted of citizens. We could attempt remediation, and receive a psychopathic response, as suggested by Fiona Hill’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. But we have the obligation to try.
Our possible initial responses to their objections:
- We aren’t empowering jihadists. At least, we hope we aren’t. We’re for a free Syria, we want Assad gone, and we want to defeat ISIS.
- The freedom of Eastern Europe is not negotiable. Buffer states as pawns of great powers aren’t either. Get out of Ukraine.
- Interference with Russia’s Potemkin democracy is something to talk about. But stay the hell out of our elections.
These are the generalities. The short lists contain potentials for identity of interest, and for linkage and trust . The risk of discussion at this general level is small. But to imagine a specific scenario risks the credibility of the entire discussion. So I’ll do it.
After ISIS becomes no more than an enduring nuisance, the Kremlin may eventually realize that Bashar al-Assad’s hands are so bloody that association risks a cultural memory of genocide. It could change the passivity of Russia’s Muslim population in an eye blink. No political process of the type that seeks consensus can work in Syria. Three possibilities exist in which the U.S. and Russia could partner:
- Replacement of Assad by a moderate Sunni “strong man” who would lead a government of mild religiosity. Examples of personalities are Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar.
- Partition, with replacement of Assad by an Alawite with less blood on his hands, to govern a rump state in which some Sunnis might be tempted to remain.
- Partition of Syria into a loose association of smaller states incapable of independent existence, and reliant on the patronage and peacekeeping of the U.S. and Russia. Modern Switzerland was preceded by something similar. It grew together, slowly.
Perhaps, somewhere in the vicinity of the above, there is the seed of a Great Trade:
- The U.S. works in concert with Russia for the security of Russia’s southern borders.
- In Europe, Russia accepts that no nation need serve as a buffer state or the pawn of a “great power.” And it signals acceptance with an end to subversion in Europe.
A hundred years ago this November, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed, partitioning this region into spheres of colonial influence. In their wake, the colonial powers left weak states that drifted towards increasingly radical and idiosyncratic nationalism. Collapsing in warfare and ethnic discord, they left fertile ground for radical Islam.
This trend of a century cannot be reversed with an adversarial relationship of the U.S. and Russia.