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Elephants in the Room

The Art of the Deal — With Putin

If there is anything we know for sure about Trump, it is that he likes making deals. But is he capable of cutting a good deal with Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) holds a cinema replica of a sword as he speaks with film producer and Channel One CEO Konstantin Ernst during a meeting with the crew of The Viking film based on the Primary Chronicle, on December 30, 2016 in Moscow. / AFP / Sputnik / Michael Klimentyev        (Photo credit should read MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) holds a cinema replica of a sword as he speaks with film producer and Channel One CEO Konstantin Ernst during a meeting with the crew of The Viking film based on the Primary Chronicle, on December 30, 2016 in Moscow. / AFP / Sputnik / Michael Klimentyev (Photo credit should read MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

If there is anything we know for sure about the new president, it is that he likes making deals. “Deals are my art form” is one of the opening lines of his famous book on the subject. President Donald Trump has emphasized that he intends to pursue cooperation with Russia wherever possible, particularly in combatting terrorist groups like the Islamic State. The president is set to have a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. This raises an obvious question: What deal is there to be made with Moscow, and what can the United States get out of it?

Many members of the foreign policy community, along with many members of Congress, are justifiably concerned by the president’s seemingly conciliatory attitude towards a resurgent Russia. But one might argue that the president’s announced intention to cooperate with Moscow is merely his opening move in the negotiation, and he sees no profit in rhetorically antagonizing his interlocutor before the discussion has begun. If true, then perhaps this is a savvy, crazy-like-a-fox move to get Putin to the table, where the new American president can work his magic.

But what can or will Russia offer the United States? Unfortunately, the answer is likely to be: Not much. It is a dubious proposition that Moscow will be willing or able to give up the behavior that has most concerned observers in recent years. This may make reaching a deal with Russia that is rewarding for the United States a supremely difficult prospect.

The Trump administration has begun some apparent deal-making with Russia by reviving nuclear arms control talks, which played a role in the Cold War thaw of the 1980s. That may be one area for a deal, but the circumstances today are vastly different from those in the Ronald Reagan era. The U.S. arsenal needs to be substantially rebuilt in any case, which the president has himself underscored. More to the point, the Russian nuclear arsenal, while highly dangerous, has not been the primary source of concern in the last few years. Indeed, there are far more immediate issues that the United States should address.

A major source of recent concern is Russia’s aggressive military actions in Europe, such as seizing Crimea and supporting separatist groups in the east of Ukraine. Russia has also undertaken more general efforts to regain control of its “near-abroad,” for example by covertly undermining the still-developing democratic institutions in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The Russian military has engaged in threatening and reckless maneuvers against U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, such as buzzing U.S. ships and causing near misses in the air with Western warplanes.

If the offer from Moscow is to simply stop its military shenanigans in Europe, then this amounts to little more than a protection racket. Moreover, it is unlikely that Russia will give up attempting to assert what it believes is its historic right to suzerainty, or at least overwhelming influence, in the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact space. Indeed, to back off in Georgia, Ukraine, or even Moldova and the Baltics would undermine a major source of Putin’s popularity at home: the reassertion of Russian “greatness” in Europe.

A second pressing concern raised by recent Russian activity is Moscow’s role in the Middle East. Russian intervention in support of brutal Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has emboldened and enabled Iran and its proxies throughout the region. Indeed, despite Russia’s declared antipathy toward the Islamic State, that group is serving as the proverbial useful idiots to cover the activities of Russia and Iran throughout the greater Middle East. If Russia were no longer “needed” in Syria, Moscow would lose its warm-water port and the foothold it has regained in the region. Moscow’s ever-increasing military presence in Syria helps to demonstrate Russia’s renewed status as a great power and serves as a very useful perch from which to make trouble for the United States and NATO. How likely is Russia to take seriously the elimination of the Islamic State?

Beyond the Islamic State, it is not clear how much help the United States can expect from Russia in combatting Islamist, or any other form, of terrorism. Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism pointed out that past U.S. experience with Russia in this area has been disappointing and yielded little. He went on to suggest that increasing cooperation on counterterrorism with Russia, even if enough trust could be generated on both sides to do so (which is unlikely), could end up making the problem worse.

Some might argue that the administration’s effort to improve relations with Russia is a maneuver to get a leg up on China — a flip of the masterful Cold War gambit by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It may also simply be a conservation-of-enemies approach. But it is not obvious how, exactly, the U.S. could use improved relations with Russia to put pressure on China, or why the Russians would be drawn into a potential degradation of their own relationship with Beijing.

Philip Zelikow recently took a deal-making look around the world and explored the potential for five potential deals, including with Russia. His prescriptions for a kind of 21st détente with Moscow on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, and on cybersecurity are wise and sensible. But he also rightly notes that “Putin and his clique need the American enemy for their own domestic reasons.”

Thus, the space for agreement with Russia is narrow, and the likely offerings meager. The United States and its allies will not be able to roll back Russia’s substantial gains since 2014 in Europe and the Middle East. In the best case, as Zelikow suggests, Washington and Moscow may reach an agreement on ways to stabilize those regions, which may amount to little more than a “freezing” of ongoing conflicts.

The case of Russia will test the president’s deal-making skills as perhaps no other challenge has. One hopes that his past successes can be brought to bear. After all, no previous president in recent decades brings to the job the negotiating experience of Trump. He certainly knows better than to give anything away without getting something substantial in return. This principle is particularly important when it comes to the most significant card in America’s hand: economic sanctions. Many will be watching to see whether the new U.S. president can outmaneuver the wily Putin, and, despite the long odds, cut a deal in which the United States comes out on top.

Photo credit: MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

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