Resetting the Russia relationship: A China play, too?

Why We Wrote This

President Trump has long wanted closer relations with Moscow. Now he has a new motivation that has bipartisan support: a desire to constrain China.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan (left) and Dmitry Nikitenko, first deputy general director of Pirogov National Medical and Surgical Center, speak to the media as they stand in front of medical aid sent from the United States at Vnukovo International Airport near Moscow, June 4, 2020. The U.S. sent the supplies to help Russia tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

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U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be making overtures to Moscow in a new bid to improve ties that he has long wanted to strengthen. But this time, the international context is different, and President Trump has a new motivation for wanting to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin: China.

Recent signs of a possibly warmer relationship include arms control talks next week between U.S. and Russian officials, and President Trump’s suggestion that he would invite President Putin to a summit of the Group of Seven, even though Russia has been suspended from the group of economically advanced democracies.

They may come to nothing; members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are warier of President Putin than the U.S. president is. But as China spreads its influence and ambitions, growing numbers of lawmakers are coming to share President Trump’s hostility toward Beijing.

Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon made a surprise visit to Beijing and restored diplomatic relations with China as a means to circumscribe the Soviet Union. Could President Trump be attempting a reverse Nixon gambit, using Russia as a counterweight to China?

Relations between the U.S. and Russia, which have been in a deep freeze since the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea six years ago, may be showing the first small signs of a thaw. And that’s in part because of the Trump administration’s hardening stance toward its main superpower rival, China.

The most significant indication of a possible reset came last week, with the announcement the United States had agreed to meet Russian negotiators in Vienna later this month to discuss the future of the decade-old New START agreement on nuclear arms control.

That’s important in itself. New START, which limits the number of nuclear warheads Washington and Moscow can have, was negotiated by the Obama administration and is due to expire early next year. President Donald Trump has already pulled Washington out of a number of other arms treaties. If New START were allowed to lapse, the world would be without any formal arms control arrangements for the first time in almost half a century.

The mere fact that the Vienna meeting is taking place does not guarantee a deal will be struck. First, there are the complex technical issues involved in any arms control deal. President Trump’s White House has devoted far less attention or preparatory work to structured diplomatic encounters than have past administrations.

Political and strategic considerations on both sides could also slow progress. Russia may not think it’s worth seeking an early deal as November’s U.S. presidential election approaches. The Trump administration, for its part, has been arguing that New START and other arms control accords are worth little unless they include China, too.

Not so bad, after all?

But in the wake of mixed signals, the decision to enter negotiations on New START does suggest reluctance in Washington to see these last arms control limits simply expire.

That’s not the only sign President Trump is interested in some form of reengagement with Russia at a time when he is adopting an increasingly hostile tone toward China over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the White House arranged the dispatch of dozens of ventilators to help Russia deal with COVID-19. Interestingly, that came a month after Russia flew a planeload of medical supplies to New York – pointedly organized by two Russian companies subject to the U.S. economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

President Trump also said this month that he plans to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the next meeting of the Group of Seven economically advanced democracies, due to take place in the U.S. – despite Russia’s suspension from the G-7 since Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

As with the New START talks, an invitation in itself would not necessarily mean any early move toward a thaw in relations. Again, there are likely to be obstacles, both practical and political: European G-7 members are less keen on a rapprochement with Russia, especially if it is aimed against China, and many members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle are skeptical as well.

They have not forgotten Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election – something that President Trump has downplayed or dismissed but which was confirmed not only by U.S. intelligence agencies but by a bipartisan majority on the Senate intelligence committee. That’s one reason the president has been frustrated in his long and openly stated desire to engage with the Russian leader and get a “fresh start” on ties with Moscow.

But again as with New START, the underlying message of the president’s statement on the G-7 is important. It highlights the relevance of the administration’s growing tensions with China.

President Trump didn’t just mention adding President Putin to the guest list. He criticized the existing G-7 structure – grouping the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan – as outdated. And he proposed inviting the leaders of a trio of democracies in China’s own neighborhood: India, Australia, and South Korea.

We’ve been here before, in reverse

Whatever pushback he might get from the current G-7 to a formal expansion of the group, the broader strategic and geopolitical aim – paying much warier attention to China’s growing power – could well gather momentum. It could also outlast the Trump administration.

It was President Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, who launched a diplomatic and military “pivot to Asia” to take account of Beijing’s growing international influence and ambitions. And since the outbreak of COVID-19, which Chinese officials initially kept under political wraps, attitudes toward Beijing have been hardening among both Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress.

While there’s far less bipartisan appetite for easing sanctions or warming ties with Russia, the China factor could, over time, change that calculation.

In superpower diplomatic history, there is what might be called a mirror-image precedent for just such a diplomatic recalibration: President Richard Nixon’s surprise 1972 visit to China. That move, establishing diplomatic ties after decades of shunning Beijing’s Communist regime, was in part designed to strengthen America’s diplomatic hand against its main rival, the Soviet Union.

On the chess board of international strategy, could President Trump now be attempting a reverse Nixon gambit?

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