From Russia With Fatal Love
Ian Fleming's trademark narrative has returned: Russia playing the same old game he wrote so much about (if one remembers James Bond, his boss, M, and their Soviet obsession). Donald J Trump's summit with Vladimir Putin climaxes his July 2018 external hobnobbing, leaving Putin's global stock-market value soaring. After plunging to the nadir for allegedly killing innocent British citizens with nerve poison in a spate, and spying on US citizens through cyber cracks during 2016, Russia was absolved of meddling in US election by no less a person than the US Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief. Bond, known for cutting across political allegiances and incisively tackling crises, might have outpaced Robert Mueller's investigation by far.
True, how Trump backtracked just as soon as he got out of Finland, where that "superpower" summit was held, should not surprise us. He had backtracked just a week earlier in London, sharing a less flattering view of Prime Minister Theresa May in a Sun interview than he showered upon her during their summit's culminating press conference. True, he betrayed his own intelligence agencies, but as long as Putin's reputation was skyrocketing, he, like Russian spies, did not care. He has turned Mueller's investigation into Russia's cyber espionage (to corral Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election), to portray as only Trump's cross to bear, not his. Yet, he was winning from much before.
Putin's master strokes were played over Ukraine, inside Syria, and with Turkey (and through the latter two, with Iran). His 2013 Ukranian intervention, following that country's 2009 indebtedness from Russian gas purchases, was universally unpopular. Just like Adolf Hitler's 1936–8 Sudeten infringements, which paved the way to World War II, not a finger was raised: NATO noise was more apparent than action, least of all, a deterrent; and though a German-led European Union also registered stern opposition, its own political map was being drastically reconfigured from within. Even Angela Merkel, its beleaguered Chancellor, could not find a partner to wag her finger robustly with her across Europe. An impending election in France and referendum in Great Britain stymied Europe's two other loud voices; and the populist sword overhanging West European countries had already notched its greatest victory across the Atlantic. Thus Barack Obama's passive foreign policy approach, especially with the military, could not rescue the west-leaning Ukraine. Nor was Trump's interest to challenge Putin evident anywhere. Ukraine was left as ready for Russia to swallow as it was for the Soviet Union after World War II.
Syria was much more action-packed. At least here Obama did commit troops (up to 50 in 2015, 450 more in 2016), indicating both Islamic jihadists and Syria's brutal Assad regime could and would be on the line. Even uprooting Islamic State (IS) took far more from the west than was anticipated: Putin's Russia stepped in to revitalise Basher Assad's forces. Not only with direct Russian military action and troops, but also an alliance forged with Iran, Syria's patron state. We see before our very eyes the last rebel stronghold succumbing to Assad's (Russia's) forces, with western input and presence virtually nullified under Trump's woeful watch.
Strategically, both Russian gains were US/western losses. With Ukraine, Russia is back on the verge of East European borders just when East European countries, previously under Soviet control, cannot hide their west-directed frustrations, and particularly against the European Union: riding on populist sentiments, Hungary's Vikor Mihály Orban and Poland's Andrzej Sebastian Duda began dismantling whatever held them together with their EU partners.
Collateral gains have whetted Putin's gains. After briefly skirmishing with Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey during the peak onslaught against IS jihadis, he swiftly turned to rapprochement, benefiting from Erdogan's personal vendetta against the west: the European Union for withholding Turkey's membership, and the United States for not returning Erdogan's bitter foe, the exiled Fethullah Gulen, from Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
Capitalising on solid Syrian relations that go back to the 1970s and the Baath emergence under Basher's father, Hafez al-Assad, Putin craftily plucked Iran out to complicate western interests. Trump's bitter opposition to Iran's P5+1 2015 agreement, which Russia partly brokered, helped lubricate this particular rapprochement. Iran's simultaneously solid relations with Syria, nevertheless, helped Putin not only make Assad "king" of the Syrian hills, but also dared the United States to cross the regional Rubicon.
Free-riding China is paying off handsomely. It is helping Putin flaunt his line of allies: in Iran, where Trump has Israeli-fed designs; in Afghanistan, where Trump did what he said he would not do as president, expand troop deployment (of more than 3,000, to add to the 18,000 already there); and even with both Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose leaders visited Moscow, fully cognizant of where the balance-of-power was shifting. He went out of this way to galvanise the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at its Wuhan summit this year, and goaded Kim Jong-un to not fall head-over-heels for Trump.
Behind all of this lies his most coveted gain. Though the 15-year-old 1995 Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), which began in 1982, ended in December 2009, it was renewed in 2011 until 2021. Both sides agreed to cap their arsenals so that, by 2018, neither side would have more than 700 deployed missiles (both intercontinental and submarine-launched) and bombers, 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers, and 1,550 deployed bombers. Not only is Trump bristling to scrap this so US arsenals can be revamped, but Putin is also poised to free-ride even Trump's intentions: he too seeks more cutting-edge nuclear missiles for his "America First" campaign. One ruefully recalls how Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI), or Star Wars, proposal stumped the Soviet Union in the 1980s, first financially, then pushing Mikhail Gorbachev into negotiating with the United States, before the Soviet Union crashed in November 1991. Putin is too blunt to want to avoid such an embarrassment again.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, as US leadership wanes, China is not the only country polishing its spurs. The recently humiliated Russia may be back in the game, playing by the book, hook, or crook. Though China carries all the cards, resources, and strategic advantages, Putin knows the craft, how to leverage, and supply the proper tactics.
Yet, he no longer has to dip into his own trick-bag anymore. He has, for the lack of a more appropriate adjective, a jester in the very White House that haunted the Russians since World War II who will play Putin's cards independently. That he is doing so on the back of a solid voter "base" that does not represent a majority, but remains strong enough to thwart any majority viewpoints (much as Russia has historically done), adds to the unfolding tragic-comedy.
Perhaps it's time for the rest of the world to switch off the Trump soap-opera and tune in to that destructive "base." It is here that the world's welfare is being held hostage. How James Bond bonds with the new setting may be the more quixotic box-office question, but that we would get the no-frills answer quick enough suggest the value in reviving his model.
Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).