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Kenro Nagoshi

【#434】U.S., Russia May Adjust Relations While Demonstrating Confrontation

Kenro Nagoshi / 2017.04.18 (Tue)

April 17, 2017

     When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Russia on April 12, Russia denounced U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian government military base as “illegal,” highlighting bilateral confrontation. An earlier expectation that the new U.S. administration led by Donald Trump would take a conciliatory approach on Russia has been shattered. Russia-U.S. relations at present are worse than under the Obama administration, Russian President Vladimir Putin says. Presidents Trump and Putin have not only their respective domestic political reasons for demonstrating their confrontation but also some reasons for stabilizing their strategic relations. Attention should be paid to the multilayer structure of U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump may expand foreign engagement
     During the visit, Tillerson talked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for five hours and with President Putin for two hours. While details of the talks have not been made available, published information says they agreed to establish a working group and special representatives to stabilize bilateral relations, though remaining apart over the Syrian issue. Both sides might be willing to prevent bilateral relations from deteriorating further and are likely to move to adjust the relations in the future.
     Both Trump and Putin want some U.S.-Russia confrontation for domestic reasons. President Trump, plagued with political turmoil, took advantage of the cruise missile attack for increasing his popular support. In the future, Trump could shift away from isolationist diplomacy and enhance foreign engagement, demonstrating himself as a strong president. In order to counter the suspicion that the Trump camp had joined hands with Russia to win last year’s U.S. presidential election, Trump needs to refrain from conducting conciliatory diplomacy with Russia for the immediate future.
     Some U.S.-Russia confrontation is favorable for President Putin, too, who has based his power on patriotism. At a time when terrorist attacks by radical Muslims are spreading in Russia and young people are growingly staging demonstrations against corruptions, Putin may try to fuel diplomatic tensions to attract voters.

Putin in difficult situation
     Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s expansion of foreign engagement is problematic for Russia. If the United States intervenes in Syria, Russia may fail to have a free hand on military operations. Given that Chinese President Xi Jinping indicated understanding about the U.S. Syrian attack during his recent U.S. visit, it may be difficult for Russia to cooperate with China in dealing with the Syrian issue. International investigations have been launched into a suspicion that Russia was involved in the Syrian Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
     Russia, with gross domestic product limited to only 7% of the U.S. level, may have difficulties in countering the Trump administration’s enhancement of foreign engagement. President Trump said while it might be difficult to improve relations with Russia, he would try to do so. He has not abandoned his efforts to take a new approach on Russia.
     Putin and Tillerson might have had a confidential talk how to improve U.S.-Russia relations while confronting with each other. Such pattern of diplomacy has frequently been seen between the United States and the Soviet Union or Russia.

Kenro Nagoshi is Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and Professor at the Institute of World Studies, Takushoku University.