December 14, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - The Grand Bargain with Russia that Wasn't


What a difference a year can make. It was in late December 2016, as the Obama administration announced new sanctions against Russia for interfering in the US election, that the incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn secretly hashed out how Moscow might respond with the then Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. As we now know, Flynn asked the Kremlin not to retaliate, and it didn't. 

Flynn's request was not an isolated affair. The entire approach toward Russia then was laying the groundwork for something bigger, something Trump and his key advisers badly wanted: a grand bargain between Washington and Moscow. As the president-elect told the London Times in January, “let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia.” Asking for the Kremlin’s patience last December, then, is best understood as a prologue for what was to come once Trump took office. Why else would the Kremlin go along with Flynn’s request?

A year later, however, what’s prologue is past. And in the interim the odds of a grand bargain have collapsed. On the American side, mounting evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the ongoing investigation have weakened the case for a quick rapprochement. On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin has shown no willingness to reverse his country's invasion of Ukraine or to account for its cyber attacks and election interference abroad. 

US policy toward Russia isn't quite what Trump had envisaged during the campaign or the transition. The US military presence in Europe has been beefed up, and the White House is now considering sending defensive weapons to Ukraine. Congress passed another round of sanctions this summer, which the president signed. 

And, yet, Trump and his top advisers seem undiminished in their desire to turn the page in the American relationship with Russia. Just last Thursday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the administration would “badly” like to normalize relations with Russia, zeroing in on Ukraine as the chief obstacle to restoring the relationship. 

For his part, President Trump has been just as quick to defend Putin as he was a year ago. "I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," Trump said last month of Putin’s denial that Russia interfered in the US election. Last week, at his rally in Florida, Trump returned to the campaign standard of scolding NATO allies who “don’t pay” and claiming they unduly antagonize Russia.

It’s all music to Putin’s ears, or at least it should be. But if the Russian president is still receptive to these overtures by Trump and his team, as he was with Flynn’s request last December, then he’s not showing it. If anything, Russia’s leadership seems more skeptical now than a year ago. 

Having been burned once for withholding its retaliation, the Kremlin has since become obsessed with “parity” in all things between Washington and Moscow. In an interview last month, for example, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that requests by US ambassador Jon Huntsman for more meetings with Russian diplomats were turned down in order to keep “parity” with the number of meetings Russia’s ambassador had with American diplomats. It was a small refusal by the Kremlin, more an act of diplomatic preening than anything. But the snub reveals how atypical Flynn’s granted request for patience from Russia was last year. 

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What Was Trump’s Russia Plan?

Andrew S. Weiss/Wall Street Journal

Upon entering office, President Trump and his advisers intended to jumpstart a strategic realignment with Russia, even going so far as to see President Putin as a willing ally in this cause. But as Andrew S. Weiss writes in the Wall Street Journal, this idea was ill-founded. “The ostensible strategic aims behind this outreach reveal, at a minimum, a remarkable naivete about Russian foreign-policy objectives,” he writes. From Syria to China, the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions do not exactly line up with Washington’s interests, Weiss cautions. 

What Putin Really Wants

Julia Ioffe/The Atlantic

“Putin is not a supervillain,” Julia Ioffe writes in the latest cover story for the Atlantic. Russia is in decline. Putin is in decline. And however much ruthless competence and supernatural genius are wrongly projected onto the Russian president, Putin’s power remains vulnerable and defensive at its core. This long and detailed essay by Ioffe is a must-read, and her conclusions are stark and important. “Putin set out to show that there is nothing special about America, that it is just another country,” she writes. “Whether he is right depends in no small part on whether enough Americans—especially powerful or politically connected Americans—still believe their system is worth defending.”

Democracy Is Far From Dead

Bruce Jones and Michael O’Hanlon/Wall Street Journal

Rumors of democracy's demise have been greatly exaggerated, write Bruce Jones and Michael O’Hanlon in the Wall Street Journal. While the wave of new democratic states that started in the late twentieth century has indeed crested and may even be receding a bit, when adjusted for population size, democracy looks as strong as ever. “India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil, with a combined population of two billion, have, for all their admitted troubles, been holding generally steady in recent years,” Jones and O’Hanlon write.

Donald Trump’s Jerusalem Move May Prove Too Clever by Half

Martin Indyk/Financial Times

The twice US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk is a good person to suss through the fine print of President Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And it is the fine print that we should be focused on, he writes. While Trump’s announcement seemed decisive and straightforward, what follows next is anything but. A new embassy in Jerusalem will take years to build, he writes. As well, Trump’s imprecise designation of “Jerusalem” as the capital, without the qualifier “west” or “undivided,” adds more confusion than clarity, Indyk notes.

There Was No Peace Process for Trump to Destroy

Roger Cohen/The New York Times

“I am not convinced Trump gave a lot away,” Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times of the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The main reasons trotted out against the designation, Cohen writes with a self-described sense of “sorrow,” quickly fade as credible. For example, no one really believes the United States is an impartial broker beyond reproach in the peace process, Cohen writes. The idea that withholding recognition of Jerusalem demonstrated such an impartiality was more illusion than reality, he adds. It’s a well-argued, if dispiriting analysis that fittingly enough ends with a “Sigh.” 

Jerusalem Denial Complex

Bret Stephens/The New York Times

“Words I rarely say: Trump was right. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Bret Stephens tweeted out last week with a link to this column in the New York Times. The decision by the president to recognize Jerusalem certainly demolished a number of long-standing premises about the peace process — and it’s about time, Stephens says. One-by-one, Stephens refutes the “pieties” that have long been held up in the region as truth yet bear less and less resemblance to the reality on the ground. Trump’s decision, he concludes, “aligns the United States with the country toward which we are constantly professing friendship even as we have spent seven decades stinting it of the most basic form of recognition.”

Pentagon Papers Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg on Trump and North Korea

Edward Luce/Financial Times

Even at 86, Daniel Ellsberg easily bends Edward Luce’s ear for more than two hours in this interview for the Financial Times. He certainly has a lot to discuss. The man made famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers about Vietnam was also a senior nuclear planner during the Cold War. And he remains just as busy as ever. Ellsberg continues to be an advocate for whistleblowers and a clarion call for avoiding nuclear catastrophe. It is a fascinating interview, with more than a few relevancies for the present. 

Brexit Talks Headed for a Second, More Difficult Phase

Steven Erlanger/The New York Times

After months of wrangling, histrionics, and politicking, it’s over. Or at least the first phase of the Brexit negotiations is over, as Steven Erlanger explains in the New York Times. Now comes everything else — the “hard part,” as he puts it. As Erlanger explains, the initial deal resolves little and offers even less of a reason for celebration by Theresa May’s government. “The pact put a patina of success on an effort by the government that was characterized by internal quarreling and an occasionally humiliating and ultimately hopeless effort to bend the European Union to its will,” he writes. Erlanger’s is a smart analysis of what’s been agreed to and what yet remains unresolved. 

A Foreign Policy for 'Jacksonian America'

Jason Willick/Wall Street Journal

On the face of it, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and President Trump are cut from different cloth when it comes to foreign policy. Cotton, who served in the Iraq War, favors an active, aggressive, and robust role for America abroad. Trump, who continues to question the wisdom of the Iraq war, campaigned on a much more restrained US presence abroad. In Trump’s Republican Party, one might expect the latter to displace the former. Yet Cotton and his views seem not only ascendant within his party, but also may soon be on the rise in Trump’s administration. This interview with Cotton in the Wall Street Journal is a key to understanding why. 

Chile Learns to Harvest Its Formidable Solar Power Opportunities

Benedict Mander/Financial Times

Necessity is the mother of invention. Lacking traditional carbon-based energy reserves, Chile has turned to solar power in the last five years. And the results have been a sea change, as Benedict Mander writes in the Financial Times. “Chile is now producing some of the cheapest energy in the world, fueling hopes that it will become a solar version of Saudi Arabia,” he writes. Nor is the revolution simply due to new technologies. Regulation reforms that opened up the long moribund energy sector to more competition allowed renewables to demonstrate their considerable natural advantage under the Atacama sun. 


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