The Trump Administration may be steeped in controversial due to the provocative nature of Donald Trump, stiff resistance to an emerging public policy agenda, and staffing choices, but the President still has a job to do. Where the President’s domestic policy will be shaped by the President, his staff, the reaction of Congress, and public sentiment, he will enjoy a larger degree of independence when it comes to setting foreign policy. Committing to the abandonment of free trade agreements and demanding US allies take a more equitable stake in their partnership with the US, Mr. Trump has already opened the floodgates to change and an extremely ambitious foreign policy agenda. Like his predecessors, he will, of course, have to deal with the issues that he has inherited. In terms of foreign policy and national security, frozen US-Russian relations tops the list of priorities.
When it comes to US-Russian relations, Mr. Trump hopes to hit the reset button. In fact, Trump’s failure to outright condemn the Russian seizure of Crimea, which started the Ukraine Crisis, and willingness to repeatedly praise Russian President Vladimir Putin for his strong leadership qualities has earned him considerable criticism. The handling and firing of his National Security Adviser Micheal Flynn over his secretive and inappropriate contacts with Russian officials has only provoked further scrutiny of Trump and his team. Where Trump faces intense pressure to condemn the Putin government from within the US and America’s NATO allies, Mr. Putin appears to want Mr. Trump’s support for Russia. Putin is apparently willing to “reward” the US for cooperation on the Syrian Civil War and the Islamic State under Trump, yet it also appears the Putin government intents to "punish" the Trump Administration for dissent as it did the Obama Administration.
Personal space refers to the distance needed between two people to ensure they feel comfortable and secure. For close relatives and friends, that distance can often be measured in inches; whereas, strangers and acquaintances require up to several feet between each other. Like all stress-inducing situations, the intentional violation of an individual’s personal space reveals a great about how that person will respond to a given situation. Domineering men like Vladimir Putin like to routinely violate the personal space of others to assert their dominance and assess how they might react under stress. During the 2014 G20 Summit in Brisbane , the Russian Navy deployed ships off the coast of Australia and Vladimir Putin awkwardly embraced Barack Obama as though they were best friends.
Putin was assessing if the stoic Obama would react awkwardly, i.e. demonstrate weakness and insecurity, or become angry, i.e. a lack of control, so he could later use the President’s personality to manipulate him. Russian shows of military aggression against the US and European neighbors had become increasingly commonplace under the Obama Administration. They are a means of simulating security threats and assessing the personal weaknesses of leadership when under stress. The reports of the Russian spy ship named the “Viktor Leonov” spotted more than thirty miles off the coast of Connecticut, Delaware, and Virginia may well have been a test for President Donald Trump. Although he opted to respond to reporters with greater sarcasm than President Obama, President Trump responded in what appeared to a relatively calm and controlled manner. If the Putin government is truly testing the new President, increasingly provocative encounters will follow.
While Russian shows of military aggression are used to intimidate critics of the Putin government, Putin also likes to use deliberate transgressions to demonstrate that he expects others to let him do as he pleases. The 2015 downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces, after Russian forces freely and repeatedly crossed into Turkey’s territory, was the consequence of someone not willing to accept Putin’s dominance, which Putin increasingly framed as a betrayal of trust. Because Putin's leadership style is authoritarian in nature, his thinking truly drives the policies of the Russian state. As Putin is overly-aggressive to abusive in the pursuit of his and Russia's perceived interests, i.e. he is unwilling to balance the interests of others unless forced to do so, the Russian leadership solely acts to fulfill its perceived interests.
With all that in mind, Russian support of the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War and the Ukraine Crisis are driving the US, Europe, and the Middle East to treat Russia as an enemy, which is evaluating the risk of a nuclear world war. The West sees the Ukraine Crisis as a confrontation made necessary by dominance while Russian support of the Assad regime is seen as a destructive move to support a regime that provoked a civil war for the sake of maintaining power. From the Russian perspective, however, the Ukraine Crisis and Western criticism of Russian intervention in Syria fits nicely into the Cold War narrative of US provocation. The Putin government frames both situations as necessary responses to NATO expansion, Western interference in the domestic affairs of other nations, and US efforts to overthrow unfavorable governments.
Although the Putin governments claims all its policies were made necessary due to Western meddling, the West believes Russia planned these events long before Western reactions to developing situations justified current Russian policies. Both sides will say they are confronting the other for provocations, yet neither will confront the underlying grievances that drive the antagonist relations between the West and Russia. These deepening conflicts between major world powers did not start a few years ago nor are they solely rooted in current disagreements. Whether these conflicts were engineered or predictable reactions to the leaders of the US, and Russia pursuing their perceived interests, what really matters is how to confront and resolve these conflicts.
Instead of obsessing over who is to blame for these current to the International Community threats and further provoking each other, it is more important to recognize why these conflicts have just now emerged as serious crises. Since the world emerged from the Cold War, the International Community has emphasized the need to foster positive relationships and the development of the global economy. By engineering an International Community where there was a mutual interest among all governments to sustain peace and stability, the hope was that armed conflicts could be avoided. What happened was that legitimate conflicts of interests and grievances were repressed when they needed to be confronted in a constructive manner.
Where maintaining the status quo benefited the United States and its powerful European allies, rogue nations like North Korea and Iran quickly realized the desire of world powers to avoid armed conflict afforded them an opportunity to improve their influence within the International Community. Observing the appeasement of rogue nations, as well as efforts to avoid confrontation and armed conflict at all costs, Moscow saw opportunities to improve Russia’s position as a global power by defying the will of the United States and the International Community. Because legitimate grievances from the Cold War were ignored, leftover Cold War sentiments have been revived by political leadership to foster distrust between the Western and Russian Peoples. Fixated on their resentment of efforts by groups like the CIA to engineer coups, for example, the Russian People are quick to overlook the wrongs of their own leaders in order to criticize the US government.
Thanks to the misbehavior of the CIA and NSA as exposed by the Edward Snowden revelations, the Putin government has been able to act with impunity in Ukraine and Syria from public outrage by framing its actions as a response to Western provocation, even though the West sees Russian actions as provocations. Due to increased competition from the economic woes of the Great Rescission, civil unrest as exemplified by the Arab Spring Revolutions, and the inability of Western forces to cope with all global crises, the leaders of Russia saw an opportunity to resolve their Cold War grievances in a way that favors them the most. In other words, leaders, who are stuck in a Cold War mindset, believe they have been able to seize upon strains in the International Community to assert their influence and use fear of conflict to empower their nations. Unfortunately, the current Russian leadership does not appear to respect the devastation of nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, the only means to avoid armed conflict at this point is the embrace of cold war polarization. By their very nature, cold wars are wars of attrition where proxy wars, like the Syrian Civil War and the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, are used to weakened competitors. In order to win a cold war, the victor must outlast its opponents, which the US did during the Cold War by building a network of allies larger than that of Russia. As this approach can take decades, there is a need to resolve the grievances fueling such conflicts far quicker. This requires global leadership to move beyond provocative posturing and confront deeply entrenched grievances between the West and Russia. This requires the Trump to confront the Putin government for its wrongs and confront the grievances that divide the American and Russian Peoples.
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