Toward a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain

It’s time for Donald J. Trump to re-assert his authority over US foreign policy. It’s also time for Vladimir Putin to renounce the concept of a Russian “sphere of influence” in the Ukraine and throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war must end and its brutal regime replaced by an interim government agreeable to both sides — with the Geneva 2012 diplomatic principles re-established. In other words, it’s time for a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain.

The world is quickly careening out of control. US-Russian relations have been dramatically set back to a Cold War status, perhaps worse. There is much blame to go around on all sides, but the fact of the matter is that the original Cold War ended without an alternative structural balance of power throughout the entirety of Europe. The US assumed that the demise of the Soviet Union meant the global legitimization of a unipolar world-wide American configuration. However, geopolitics is never that easy. Back then (as today) the Soviet Union might have been dead, but Russian strategic interests still live on.

After NATO expansion into the countries of the old Warsaw Pact, Western political meddling in the Ukraine was a bridge too far for Russian military planners. The so-called “rule-based international order” has never really replaced the “iron fist” in the nature of international relations. Although the Ukraine had the right to join the EU and eventually NATO, Russia deemed the coup in Kiev “illegal” and moved to protect its vital military interests from further NATO expansion eastward. In both the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, Russia viewed its strategic and existential position as potentially violated.

The US would have done exactly the same thing if similar events had happened in northern Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine has been used in its many different manifestations over the course of the last two hundred years. Furthermore, there is no legality in international law to such a concept as the Monroe Doctrine. In fact, Soviet military meddling in Cuba almost caused a superpower nuclear war in the autumn of 1962. I still break out in a cold sweat with the vivid memory of those horrific October days. It is tough to be fifteen years old, and worry that your life might soon becoming to a dramatic end in a thermonuclear exchange.

The great irony of the Trump administration is that the new president came into office advocating a position of entente with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. But neither Trump nor Putin had articulated, in rough form or in depth, such a strategy. Putin has the reputation as a master of tactics, but he is without a long-term policy with regard to NATO or Russia’s role as the world’s only Euro-Asian power. It is precisely Russia’s geographic position — situated on two continents, with a multiplicity of neighbors — which makes Moscow central to any global peace initiative.

Trump is a political neophyte. He seriously underestimated the push-back he would receive from his policy projections with regard to Russia. Such a policy should have been kept secret for fear of the US anti-Russian “deep state”. Trump would have been smart to adopt a more conventional campaign position before exposure to such a dramatic change in US foreign policy. Meanwhile, Putin’s dislike of Hillary Clinton’s dirty tricks toward the 2012 Russian election eventually worked to exacerbate matters for Trump during and after the US campaign of 2016. Trump might have been a political neophyte, but Putin’s tactics backfired in the extreme.

Now the situation is dire. Trump has been sidelined by a Congress in complete sync with the anti-Russian virus rampant within the US deep state — the State Department, the Pentagon and the myriad of US intelligence services. While it is true that Trump cannot end the sanctions against Russia without Congressional approval, it is also true that Trump is still Commander in Chief. Therefore, Trump and Putin could still alter the European status quo (the facts on the ground) by severely diminishing their respective military postures on the European continent.

The US could pull back nearly all of its troops from NATO in exchange for a similar (but not completely equal) Russian maneuver toward the Ural Mountains. The US could agree not to arm the Ukraine, while both sides could begin to fast-track the original Minsk agreements. The political future of the Crimea and NATO would be set aside until such time as the rest of the long-term European security architecture has been decided. The US could still be a guarantor of European security, but from its side of the Atlantic. The same is true for Russia, but from the Asian side of the Urals.

This would be the essence of the European leg of a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain. France and Poland would in all likelihood welcome the easing of tensions, while Germany could begin to draw down most of its offensive military configuration. Russia would be able to re-establish its western strategic depth, but not with an eastern European sphere of influence. Germany would not be allowed a large land army, but its security would still be maintained through understandings with both the US and Russia, as well as its EU relationship with Poland and France. It is highly unlikely under such a political and military security architecture that any European nation might have designs on their German neighbor. The EU could remain in place, and any European nation could become a member (Russia included).

While a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain would probably be met with disdain by the US establishment, the opposite might take effect in Europe. In order to sweeten the deal, for US Congressmen and Senators, a Syrian component is highly recommended. With the prospect of US-Russia relations easing in Europe, it would be irrational and contradictory for negative relations to remain in the Middle East.

Here is a general outline of the nature of a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain in Syria: First, Russian and American air power must be used to punish any party which attempts to break a permanent ceasefire on the ground in Syria. Second, Iran must not be allowed a land bridge through Syria, either to its forces near Jordan and Israel, or to the Hezbollah. Third, all foreign militias must begin to leave Syria. Fourth, Russia must cooperate with the US on an understanding that the Geneva process of 2012 — for a mutually-decided interim government, the structure of a new Syrian constitution and an eventual internationally monitored election — be the blueprint for the future. Fifth, the goal of the process is to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria, while establishing the basis of a new and legitimate Syrian government. Sixth, Assad must be warned that he has no future in Syria and that the government in Damascus shall be neutral. That is, neither allied to Iran nor Saudi Arabia.

The success of a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain will be based on an inter-European understanding that a type of conventional disarmament is in the interests of all parties. However, in order to persuade a skeptical American public and establishment, it is paramount that the current Russian-Iranian alignment in Syria must end. Only when Russian policy in the Middle East is more balanced — toward the interests of Israel, Egypt and Jordan — will a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain be truly acceptable to both the Democratic and Republican parties in the US.

The current trajectory of relations between Moscow and Washington are unsustainable. In fact, they are dangerous in the extreme. Does the world really want another Cold War? Can the Middle East continue with its series of regional proxy wars without the eventual miscalculation of the two hostile nuclear states? Then, there is the revolutionary policy stemming from Tehran. Israel will not long tolerate Iran on its borders or in Syria and Lebanon altogether. Iran seems to want to force Israel’s hand. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue throughout the course of the JCPOA (the next five years of the Iran nuclear deal).

In the aftermath of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US must realize that it can no longer “go it alone” as a unipolar superpower in the Middle East or across the globe. The American people certainly realize that the US role as the “world’s policeman” must be superseded by some responsible alternative. Simple isolationism is certainly not the answer. The US needs cooperation with other poles of power in a new and peaceful arrangement of multi-polarity without spheres of influences. Within this concept, every nation has a vital part to play for a peaceful world. This is precisely why a Trump-Putin Grand Bargain makes such logical sense.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).