Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump: get ready for the big deal

Relations between Russia and the US look set to enter a new chapter.

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Welcome to the brave new world of Donald Trump’s foreign policy. This is really happening – and it might tear up America’s 1945 vintage world affairs rulebook.

Trump has won the White House saying America’s real enemy is not Vladimir Putin but those states that have sucked out its industrial base – China, Mexico and Japan.

Trump thinks America’s allies are not what they seem – but freeloaders. Trump has lashed out at Germany, Japan and South Korea for taking America for a ride. NATO, too, he has said it past its sell by date. They don’t pay their way. Putin’s annexation of Crimea? He might even recognise it.

Right now, around me in think tank land in Washington DC only shock and stammering reigns. The only states that Trump appears to have any affection for are (somewhat) Israel, his mother’s native Britain and, famously, Russia.

President-elect Trump has repeated in his 18 months of campaigning that the US should get along with Russia and smash Islamic State together with Putin. Trump’s advisors Paul Manafort and Carter Page have alleged ties to the Kremlin, some of them financial, which we do not fully understand. Trump also has business ties to Russia.

While temperamentally, Trump sees the world as one where human rights matter little, just like Putin, his campaign has been dogged with accusations of infiltration, or even collusion with Russian intelligence, as he capitalised so royally on DNC hacks by Russian operatives.

As a shell-shocked Washington tries to figure out whether Trump is the American Berlusconi or the American Mussolini, the Kremlin is now at work preparing for the first Trump-Putin summit. And very ahead of the game.

What Russia Really Wants

There is no secret as to the Kremlin’s immediate objectives. Russia is seeking to lift sanctions, American recognition for Crimea and to have Trump join the Russia-Assad-Iran side of the Syrian civil war.

“If we achieve all this,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, Editor in Chief of Russia Today, as she outlined these goals. “I will retire. Because the world will be beautiful.”

Russian-American relations will remain in a twilight zone until Trump’s inauguration on 20 January. Past behavior suggests Russia will use this period to aggressively probe in Ukraine, the Caucasus and in the NATO Baltic states to test the reaction of what it views as the US “deep state.”

Russian officials believe that the CIA, NSA and US military operate similarly to the ex-KGB “siloviki” in Russia – a “deep state” of puppet masters that controls the country’s long term security policy as presidents come and go. Provocations during the transition period will allow the Kremlin to read how autonomous, indeed vengeful, these organisations really are – before Trump takes over.

It will clearly be a priority for Russian intelligence to work out how these institutions will react to Trump. Will they ensnare him to defend their cherished Euro-Atlantic security system? Moscow will be trying to find out.

A big deal

Putin will have reacted positively to Trump’s acceptance speech, which highlighted a desire for excellent relations with other superpowers, such as Russia. I expect the Kremlin will now move to offer Trump – the big deal.

The first part of Putin’s deal will be a new Yalta agreement.

Russia has long been open about what it wants; for the Russian and American Presidents to sit as equals to carve up the world into spheres of influence the way Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill did at the end of the Second World War.

The Russian President has repeatedly alluded, most recently at his speech to the United Nations in 2015, of a desire for a new Yalta-style deal dividing the world into spheres of influence. Moscow wants Washington to formally recognise that the states of the ex-USSR are its sphere of influence: and abjure all political projects there.

What does this mean in practice? It means Washington guaranteeing Moscow will commit to more democracy promotion, military support or Western expansion into this zone – either in the form of the EU or NATO. Moscow wants Washington to agree that states of what Russia calls its “sphere of privileged interests” will be subject to the same limited-independence as the Soviet occupied territories of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

On the ground in the Caucasus and the Central Asia, this will mean that Moscow will have free reign to integrate these states into Putin’s fledgling Eurasian Union – as subject territories, politically lobotomised.  As for Ukraine, the Kremlin will be seeking the same thing and expect the US to cease supporting Kiev, paving the way for a Carthaginian peace treaty signed in Moscow.

The second part of Putin’s deal will be a new European Security Treaty. Russian officials believe that the United States violated a promise (never formally made) to Mikhail Gorbachev not expand NATO into the former Eastern Bloc. Russia has repeatedly argued that the choice for Europe’s security architecture to be built around NATO to promote democratisation is a root cause of hostilities with the West. Moscow has consistently argued for, and even proposed drafts, most recently in 2008, of a new security organization that includes Russia to supersede NATO.

I expect that Russia will once again propose such a treaty to Trump. Vladimir Putin’s intentions are clear. He wants to dissolve NATO by a mixture of joining and replacing it while burying the alliance’s role as a democratising club.

So, what will Putin offer Trump in return?

Formally, the Kremlin will sketch out a dream to President Trump where the CIA and the FSB, the F16s and the MIGs are fighting shoulder to shoulder against IS and other forms of extremism from the sands of Libya to the jungles of the Philippines. Russia, will likely, renounce claims to states inside NATO.

Again, this is no secret. The Russian President formally called for an anti-IS alliance in 2015 in New York. Russian diplomats and Kremlin sources have, over the years, often sketched out such a Yalta dream to me.

Informally, the Kremlin has a tried and tested playbook with its allies in the post-Soviet space. It allows access to Russia minerals make them fabulously, unimaginably wealthy. Russia has many untapped resources, which the US has the technology to exploit, to cut deals on.

What will the Beltway make of Putin’s huge deal?

The Republicans now control Congress and the Presidency. This will give President Trump enormous power during his first hundred days. The question now hovering over Washington is this – how will the Republican Party in Congress react to Putin’s deal?  

I would be surprised if it did not find fans. 

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Love With Vladimir Putin.