Trump’s Game of Russian Roulette

Ever since Donald Trump called for closer US-Russian relations on 7 January 2017, whilst still president-elect, the United States has been pulled into a de facto soft coup, with powerful elements of the intelligence and military-industrial complex – the so-called “deep state” – mobilising against him. In no sense is this reflection an attempt to ingratiate myself to Trump or otherwise rehabilitate him. Donald Trump is, in many respects a liability, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. We simply cannot argue with the fact that, on aggregate, closer relations between the world’s two most powerful states will be good for everyone.

When the infant terriblé and soon to be POTUS tweeted that, “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad,” I happened to agree with him. Vladimir Putin is no pussycat. This cannot be denied. Yet, regardless of his oppressive and authoritarian style domestically, there can be no doubt that the Syrian conflict would not have become the bloodbath and international proxy war it has had there been a defrost between Russia and the United States.

Instead what we have in Syria, and something being played out throughout the Middle East, is a dangerous geopolitical resource and strategic asset race, pitting the world’s leading nuclear powers against one another. All of which is an extension of a two decade long US foreign policy directed towards the ring fencing of Russia’s diplomatic and strategic ambitions.

Under the Obama administration, primarily at the behest of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the US and NATO military and missile presence in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and Turkey was strengthened. In this context US intervention in Syria – especially involving the CIA backing of al-Qaeda militants and the [accidental?] assistance of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and eastern Syria – can only but be seen in Moscow as a further development of the cordon being built up around Russia.

Russia and the US have been forced to use other people’s oil.

While OPEC continues, for its own reasons, to keep the price of oil low – weakening the economic base of US and Russian domestic oil production – both powers have been under mounting pressure to cap their own oil production. As oil remains the lifeblood of the global economy, states like Russia and the US have been forced to use other people’s oil. Russia has felt this pressure every bit as much as the United States and its oil producing ally the United Kingdom, thus explaining in part Putin’s tenacious relationship with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

In Washington this crisis has been exploited as an opportunity to further threaten Russia’s security, the Arab Spring being an example in point. Where popular democratic or militant Islamist movements and insurgencies threatened the stability of the West’s assets in the region – states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – the full force of the US’ covert foreign policy agenda was applied. No expense was spared to safeguard even the most oppressive regimes on Washington’s balance book.

This agenda has been quite different in apropos of Syria and Iran, countries with closer ties to Russia than the United States. Working in tandem with Israel, to all intents and purposes a US nuclear base inside the Middle East, the United States has been chipping away at Russia’s assets; actively supporting Islamists in the growing Syrian civil war and ramping up the pressure on Iran in an effort to both isolate it and break its relationship with Russia.

Putin has no option but to protect Russia’s standing in the Middle East, no more than he had no option but to annex the Crimea from the Ukraine – another example of US, NATO, and EU efforts to tighten the stranglehold around the Russian south-western frontier. Losing either Syria or Iran to the Russian trade sheet will for the foreseeable future displace Russia from the Middle East; depriving it of other people’s cheap oil, diminishing its influence, and therefore permanently upsetting the global balance of power by opening the way for uncontested US hegemonic dominance.

Russia is not going to let this happen. We can kick and scream all we like about human rights and Russian state tyranny, but this is realpolitik. Putin will protect Russia’s long-term domestic, hemispheric, and international interests every bit as much as the US will its own. The ВМФ России has re-established its presence in the Mediterranean, moving its entire and formidable northern fleet to the Syrian coast last year; signalling how seriously Moscow is taking the conflict.

The trajectory is clear; the United States is playing a game of brinkmanship with a Russian Federation that cannot stand down – bringing the world once again to the verge of a nuclear standoff. That both Trump and Putin have indicated that the nuclear option in such a conflict will be considered an integral part of their conventional warfare strategies both makes this stalemate more dangerous and war a more likely outcome than the Cold War.

Donald Trump, for all his incompetence and many short-comings, is spot on the button when it comes to US-Russian relations. As has always been the case, neither the US nor Russia can win in the event of an outbreak of hostilities between the two states. Yet the deep state apparatus, well embedded in the US military-industrial bureaucracy, is pursuing the course set by previous administrations, and so has come into open conflict with the executive.

Much of the US civil service and civil society’s reaction against Trump is merited. Few on the centre will deny the real problems with Trump and Trumpism – the nexus of alt-right support, cronyism, and blatant nepotism in the White House – but, possibly even only by the happy accident of his own self-interest – he is right to want closer ties, or at least better relations, with Russia. Still the soft coup continues, with factions of the secret and security services wielding their influence over the media and the surface structures of government to force their own agenda. Our fear, when it comes to the near universal calls for the ousting of Trump, is that there may be a baby in the bathwater.

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