Donald Trump has thus far made it clear that his campaign promises were not merely rhetorical: he has assiduously been following through in his first days in the Oval Office. His determination to “make deals” with Russia has been one of his most consistent talking points all election season. But what would the deals look like? What would the Donald’s “ask” of Moscow be?
It looks like we may have an answer. At Bloomberg, Eli Lake reports that top Trump officials hope to entice Russia away from its increasingly close relationship with Iran:
Trump administration officials tell me that they will explore the extent to which Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to end this relationship and cooperate with U.S. policy to counter Iranian aggression in Syria and the Middle East.
“It’s important to find out what are the limits of Russia’s willingness to cooperate with us with regard to Iran,” said Michael Ledeen, who during the transition served as an adviser to Michael Flynn, now Trump’s national security adviser. “Those conversations have to take place.”
Despite the lack of details, the basic calculation here tracks with what we know of the outlines of Trump’s foreign policy vision. As Lake points out, Flynn’s book Field of Fight explicitly argues that Russia could make an “ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam” so long as its problematic cooperation with Iran is addressed. In the abstract, then, it is natural for Trump’s team to try to pry Moscow loose from Tehran, pressuring Russia to end its weapon sales and cut support for Iran’s mission in Syria.
But will it work?
Despite a sometimes uneasy relationship, Russia has certain core interests in Iran that make a sudden about-face improbable. For one, good relations with Iran help preserve a relatively benign balance in the Caucasus, Russia’s volatile southern underbelly. If it so chose, Tehran could do a lot more to inflame Islamist insurgencies in the region.
And if Putin hopes to maintain his newfound status as a major Middle Eastern power broker, he cannot easily discard his relationship with Tehran and all the operational and tactical advantages that come with it. Putin may be able to help at the margins in mitigating Iran’s role in Syria as part of a civil war settlement, but he lacks the leverage to actually force the Iranians out, as the Trumpists seem to want.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Moscow wouldn’t be willing to “give” a little on the matter—or at least appear to do so before changing its mind and backtracking. The Kremlin has all too often played Lucy taking away the football to the Obama Administration’s Charlie Brown, especially in the Middle East. The United States is making concessions? Great, let’s see what we can get, pocket it, and move on. Partly this was the result of the Kremlin calculating it could get away with its cynicism given its (correct) read of Obama’s distaste for confrontation. Putin and his siloviki have a keen sense for weakness, and like all street thugs, they almost instinctively prey upon it. They may not make the exact same gamble with a clearly more pugnacious Trump, but they may try to double deal a little, just to test the waters.
However, the larger truth is that agreements between the United States and Russia have failed above all due to a deep lack of trust that has built up between the two countries, especially in the last few years—a trust deficit that will not quickly evaporate with the arrival of a new administration. Suspicion is baked deep into the bureaucracies of both powers, and despite the talk of a dawn of a new era between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia, the attitudes persist even at the commanding heights. If Michael Flynn’s book is a reliable barometer of the NSC chief’s attitudes, he is deeply suspicious of Putin’s regime. And as noted earlier this week, the Russians themselves are not exactly holding their breath for a breakthrough.
This is a dynamic that most observers in the mainstream media, obsessed as they are with Trump supposedly being the Kremlin’s stooge, are likely to miss. Every administration since the end of the Cold War has tried, in good faith, to find a way of patching things up with the Russians. Every effort has ended in failure, frustration, and mutual recrimination, despite what were often good intentions. This time could be different, of course—we’ll see. But as of right now, skepticism is more warranted than not.