Russia’s Trump Card against China and Reshaping Power Dynamics What Russia stands to gain from the US - China rivalry
On 18 December 2019, Donald Trump, the current President of the United States of America, was impeached by the House Judiciary Committee following allegations of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the third US President to be impeached after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton (while Richard Nixon stepped down before a vote could be cast on his impeachment). The charges brought against Trump were attempting to coerce Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky into helping him win the upcoming 2020 elections by launching an investigation against Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter regarding pressure by Biden, as Obama’s VP, to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating the energy firm employing his son. Trump apparently sought to ensure Ukraine’s help by withholding American military and diplomatic support for Ukraine.
Scandal or policy?
During the hearings, the acting Ambassador of the United States to Ukraine, William Taylor, gave testimony describing the deal as involving a $391 million package in exchange for Ukrainian authorities publicly investigating Joe and Hunter Biden. Additionally, once an inquiry into this situation was initiated by the House of Representatives, the White House formally announced its refusal to cooperate with the investigation. Trump contested the charges, while Zelensky denied having been pressured by the US President to interfere in the upcoming US elections.
During a phone call on 21 April 2019, Zelensky himself invited Trump to personally attend his inauguration ceremony. Trump replied cautiously, stating that at the very least, a high level representative would participate if he himself were not available (and indeed, it was former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry who attended Zelenksy’s inauguration). Trump’s refusal to attend the event is more significant than a simple matter of diplomatic protocol. By the looks of it, he stays clear of a still very sour issue between the US and Russia, as the latter’s President, Vladimir Putin, clearly stated that the War in Donbass is Ukraine’s internal affair that should be handled as such, which is in fact a denial of any Russian involvement in the conflict as well as a thinly-veiled warning to other actors to stay out of it. However, it is really a matter of Donald Trump honouring an entente with Putin? The US President has been known to butt heads with the Russian leader during his tenure, and also to take measures that incensed even some of the allies Trump has sought closer ties with, for instance by acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, drawing the ire of US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the rest of the Arab World. Furthermore, if William Taylor’s declaration is to be believed, Donald Trump was willing to send a hefty aid package to Ukraine to continue fighting Russian-backed forces in the country.
Zelensky most likely sought Trump’s presence as a means of fostering closer ties with the US and seeking to secure an ally against Russia. Trump tacit refusal to participate might well be interpreted as restraint in order to avoid souring things with Russia, although a more plausible and likely explanation is that he did not find any value in granting Zelensky this level of diplomatic support, which meshes with the topic discussed in their next conversation. In the phone call on July 25th, Trump explicitly told Zelensky that the US has done far more for supporting Ukraine than its European allies have, which Zelensky acknowledged, further lending support to the above thesis that Zelensky feels alone and in need of strong friends to provide assistance in ending the conflict and implementing his vision. In return for what the US has done for Ukraine, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens to whatever extent possible, strongly recommending that the Ukrainian President collaborate with Attorney General William Barr and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Donald Trump’s personal lawyers who came under investigation for allegedly engaging in questionable financial and natural gas dealings in Ukraine (with some of Giuliani’s associates in Ukraine having allegedly provided significant but unlawful sums of money for Trump’s electoral campaign).
Considerations on removal
All throughout the inquiry, Trump and his supporters have sought to attack its credibility, ostensibly to avoid legitimising it and opting instead to portray it as a “witch hunt”. A two third majority Senate vote is required to convict Trump and oust him from office. Considering that the Senate is dominated by the Republican Party, Trump’s removal seems unlikely. Nevertheless, despite Trump’s own confidence in his faction’s support, there are some doubts regarding the stalwartness of Republican backing. AP News stated that “Congressional Republican support (...) is showing no overt signs of buckling”. On the other hand, The Guardian states the opposite i.e. that Trump’s foreign policy and blunders have led the Republicans to reconsider their stance. Further opinions reveal a more divided stance: Politico puts forth the scenario that, in case of a secret ballot, the odds that Trump will be removed would increase significantly, although the author (former Republican adviser Juleanna Glover) also states that the procedures to enact this secrecy require precise coordination; CNN’s Robert Alexander further punctuates that Senate votes have thus far followed a tradition of transparency. Plus, although the Senate vote is supposed to be fair and impartial, Alexander cites Senators who made it clear that their vote will likely be a partisan one. Secrecy, it appears, is what can tilt the balance of the Senate vote and therefore Trump’s fate, for Glover mentions rumours that several Republicans would vote for Trump’s removal if the vote were secret.
There are several considerations that complicate matters, though. First of all, the population itself is much divided on Trump stepping down as President. While his approval ratings have stooped considerably especially with regards to his foreign policy, polls conducted by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters show that the populace is evenly split with regards to impeaching removing Trump as President; in fact, most Americans approve of Donald Trump’s handling of the economy and the trade war with China is not perceived as damaging to the US economy by the electorate. According to nationwide polls in the aftermath of Trump’s impeachment, it appears that the Democrats’ candidates (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg) all stand a somewhat better chance of winning against Trump or going head-to-head with him. That said, the margin is still very, very slim, meaning that there is no certainty as yet that Trump would fail to obtain his second term as President. That means that, in the event of his removal from office, Trump could still run for President and win, meaning there is a possibility that he would attempt to seek vengeance and identify the Republican senators who voted against him. Of course, a decision by the Senate can ban him from running again, but that would further risk decreasing the legitimacy of the trial as it would end up being seen as political lynching in the eyes of the population backing Trump.
Domestic foreign policy
Thirdly, on 3 January 2020, an American drone attacked a convoy near the International Airport in Baghdad, killing several high-ranking Iranian officers, including the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Major General Qasem Soleimani, revered in his homeland as a national hero, tremendously aggravating tensions between the US and Iran. Iranian officials have vowed dire revenge while jihadist groups urged armed retaliation. Amid concerns that this could lead to a harsh response from Iran against the US or its allies (including a nuclear strike), Trump’s removal from office has become a far less important item on the priority list at least until the more urgent matters can be considered settled.
Finally, it is worth noting that Trump received an interesting vote of confidence from Russian President Vladimir Putin who thanked him for having provided crucial intelligence to Russian authorities in thwarting a terrorist attack. This is important both due to the timing of the announcement (shortly after the impeachment) and the content of the statement made at the initiative of the Kremlin: Russian national security is notoriously a very sensitive matter and Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer himself. It is indeed something special for Russia to publicly admit they needed foreign help in handling domestic issues, especially from its long-standing geopolitical rival, the United States. Putin then followed up with dismissive commentaries towards the investigations against Trump, describing them as “an attempt by the Democrats to reverse the result of the 2016 election” and expressed his opinion that Trump will not be ousted on “trumped-up charges”.
The Russian angle
So, what is the significance of this PR boost from Vladimir Putin? Throughout Trump’s Presidency, the United States’ relations with the Russian Federation have waxed and waned, as the superpowers have clashed and collaborated diplomatically and, by proxy, militarily. More recently, Russia participated alongside Iran and China in joint naval drills to show support for Iran and ostensibly send a message to the US, the latter in turn responding with the aforementioned airstrike. Trump himself has stated that Putin is, above all, a “competitor” and that it is not a matter of friendship or enmity, and has advocated for increasing sanctions against Russia. In her statement on the Ukraine scandal, former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, asserted that the US and Russia are direct competitors on the matter of Ukraine, for the potential of Ukraine to become a democratic state with a market economy would make it a key US ally which is a direct risk to Russian security, while Russia consolidating dominance in Ukraine would lead to renewed attempts to expand its territory militarily if necessary and thus threaten US interests. Yovanovitch further stated that she was removed from her tenure in Ukraine due to corrupt elements in Ukraine collaborating with American officials, while Donald Trump and Zelensky criticised her lack of support for the latter in their July phone call.
That said, Trump and Putin’s ambiguous relationship has been consistently portrayed as problematic in Western media. They both expressed their willingness to improve relations and held a historical summit at Helsinki in 2018 where they gave statements regarding possible future collaborations on thornier issues such as North Korea or the reconstruction of Syria while denying once more rumours of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Furthermore, Trump has avoided criticising Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which Reuters contrasts with the US President’s far more categorical statements on the United States’ traditional European allies for less serious issues. Several observers have viewed Donald Trump as being friendlier with his Russian counterpart than would otherwise be normal, with CNN’s David Andelman enumerating several of the United States’ foreign policy decisions (e.g. the withdrawal of troops from of Syria, diminishing support for NATO allies, the betrayal of Kurdish allies, or refraining from taking stronger stances against the strengthening military ties between US allies in the Near East and Russia) as “favours” done for Putin. There are, of course, the infamous accusations that Trump’s successful run for President was due to Russian meddling. This has been further underscored by the Mueller investigation which tentatively implicated Russia but ruled out collusion with Trump, by Donald Trump’s apparent dismissal of investigations that pointed to Russian interference and by his insistence on the (largely debunked) theory that it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 elections, not Russia, and that this idea was suggested to him by Vladimir Putin. His troublesome call with Zelensky also reflects that theory, as he also exhorted the Ukrainian authorities to investigate Crowdstrike, the Ukrainian firm which certified Russian intrusion into the Democratic National Convention’s servers back in 2016, Referring back to Marie Yovanovitch’s removal as Ambassador to Ukraine, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan claimed it was the outcome of a smear campaign coordinated by Donald Trump through his associates, including Giuliani. On the other hand, there are also analysts who disagree with the claim that Trump’s politics are heavily influenced by Russia. For instance, Eli Lake considers Trump to be simply “unfit for office” in a column for Bloomberg, citing arms sales to Ukraine and a military intervention in Syria that killed Russian mercenaries as arguments in this regard.
Truth and consequence
It is at this point that we should state that the purpose of this article is not to analyse whether Donald Trump is indeed being manipulated with or without his awareness by Russian powers headed by the Kremlin or if he is simply pursuing his own brand of foreign policy or if he is simply ill-informed or ill-advised. This is a moot point to the purpose of this analysis, which is how Trump’s actions and trade war with China actually benefit Russian interests, even as analysts warn of a recession. The main topic investigated here is that Putin’s defence of and public support for Donald Trump is given because the situation that has been created is well in Russia’s favour, irrespective of whether Putin can directly influence American domestic affairs or whether Donald Trump is attempting to defend American interests (albeit using his own vision of diplomacy and geopolitical sense) or is trying to advance his personal interests at the expense of the United States’ greater needs.
For starters, if we take into account William Taylor’s testimony as well as the anonymous whistleblower complaint that initiated this political scandal in the United States, it becomes clear that a marked level of fragmentation in the US Administration persists well into Trump’s fourth year in office, with potentially competing interests that ultimately act against the US. A country where political leadership is divided and under investigation for cajoling with foreign elements to the detriment of national interests is a country that will find it hard to pursue any coherent geopolitical vision. Despite the apparent “friendship” between Putin and Trump, Russia and the United States remain geopolitical rivals, so the fragmentation of US politics makes it harder to pursue any strategy that can threaten Russia’s interests or sphere of influence. According to Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh, Trump’s actions have resulted in a significant deterioration of the image of Western democracy which undermines the status of the US as a world superpower; to that, we may add that the West’s promises of prosperity and fairness that come along with democracy will be even more open to rhetorical attacks by authoritarian leaders.
Furthermore, Trump’s aggressive policies towards Iran have had an effect that Russia is more than happy to welcome: it forces Iran to strengthen security and economic ties with Russia. The death of Qasem Soleimani may well have tossed aside any hopes for Iran to further comply with the nuclear deal that Trump disavowed in 2018. The most likely result will be that Iran will tighten military cooperation with Russia and bolster its army, thus strengthening military pressure upon key US ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but Trump boasted about the United States’ ability to “obliterate the Turkish economy” should the latter try to attack Kurdish forces (which Turkey sees as threats to its national security) following the controversial retreat of US forces from Syria, leaving many to see it as a betrayal of the Kurds that were crucial Western allies in Syria. In addition, Donald Trump has publicly expressed his support for Britain’s exit from the European Union (just as Obama openly admonished the British public against voting for Brexit), demeaning the latter’s credibility in the context of a growing trend in Euroscepticism which has been gnawing at the heart of the EU for some time. That trend worsened with jihadist attacks against EU countries (e.g. the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan shootings in 2015), the EU’s contradictory response over the humanitarian crisis it faced with the massive influx of refugees as of 2015 and mounting criticism against the multicultural model that some EU countries have adopted in an effort to reconcile the existing (and recent) ethno-cultural differences within their territories.
To that, we can add that the US foreign policy under Trump has resulted in strained relations with NATO allies, making it harder for the organisation to act in concert and act in unity as a bulwark against Russian interests. Case in point: following the airstrike that resulted in the death of Qasem Soleimani, none of the United States’ NATO allies have expressed unequivocal support for the US. Taking into account Trump’s statements that Iranian military officials led by Soleimani were plotting an attack that would have resulted in loss of lives of American citizens, the distance that NATO members take from the US decision to strike is an interesting contrast to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the US – then headed by another Republican President, George W. Bush – was able to send forces into the Middle East in a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein under the allegation that the latter was hiding weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States and the Western world in general. As the airstrike occurred apparently without the US consulting its allies (including its closest military ally, the UK), so did EU’s High Representative invited Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to Brussels for talks against the backdrop of US officials lambasting Europe for not supporting its strike. This only goes only to show that the US and its EU (and NATO) allies are drifting apart and fail to see eye to eye on geopolitically delicate issues.
The trade war
Perhaps the most important gain comes from the US – China trade war, currently in a brittle truce. Upon Trump’s election, we briefly touched upon this topic, speculating on the potentially strong damage that it can cause the US economy. It ultimately seems that the trade war has negatively impacted not only the Chinese economy but, to a certain extent, the American one as well. In the US, the increasing prices have impacted the consumers’ purchasing ability, while in China taxes on businesses have been diminished to maintain their competitiveness. In particular, US farmers have been heavily harmed by the trade war once China decided to stop buying any US agricultural products, and there is a risk of greater losses, though American farmers still largely support Trump and believe his decisions will benefit them in the future; that said, most Americans see the trade dispute as harming the economy, which we can infer to produce mounting public pressure on the American political class. China’s rate of economic growth, on the other hand, has declined to its lowest point in 26 years, although still at a positive 5.5%; its industrial output plummeted considerably to its lowest point in 17 years in May 2019, similarly to how the US manufacturing sector hit rock bottom for the first time in over a decade. Foreign direct investment in not only China, but the rest of Southeast Asia, has dwindled, and the stock market also reacted negatively to the trade war. Not only that, but China is now forced to take measures to soften the blow on manufacturers as well as small and private businesses, while also meeting its industrial output goals. To compensate for losses, US investors have begun outsourcing parts of their businesses from China to other countries; likewise, China has begun increasing its trade with emerging markets in order to make up for lost trade with the US, using such tactics as devaluing its currency to increase exports to other partners. The trade war can also result in public pressure on the Chinese government as well. Last but not least, the trade war resulted in damage to the world economy as a whole, including European countries. As Europe is Russia’s main trading partner, this can diminish the bargaining power of European countries towards Russia. If the damage is supposed to continue, we should not be surprised to see Russia leveraging its gas supplies as a means of relieving sanctions, though slowing economies do consume less energy.
Two argue, the third wins
In light of this phenomenon, it has become clear that Russia has gained greater prominence in China’s foreign policy. Whereas economically, China has typically had an unchallenged advantage compared to its neighbour, the United States’ more hardline stance against China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical ambitions have caused Russia and China towards a rapprochement of sorts, as noted in an analysis by the RAND Corporation, which further quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski’s concerns that an alliance between the two would be the gravest threat to the United States’ national interests. The RAND analysis then cites the National Defence Strategy of the US stating that “it is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions”. The ongoing trade war has pushed things in this direction as well, despite the economic asymmetries between China and Russia (and the fact that Russia’s Finance Minister stated that Russia does not seek to profit from the trade war). In addition to agricultural products, China decided to stop buying oil and liquefied natural gas from the US and decided to import it from Russia instead, which accounted in 2018 for nearly 16% of China’s crude oil imports and is its largest oil supplier.
In June 2019, China and Russia signed several high-value business deals, including on communication technology and natural gas. What’s more, Russia and China have announced plans to double their trade by 2024 to $200 billion. Militarily, worsening US – China relations have set the stage for tighter military cooperation between China and Russia, participating in joint military drills and agreeing on building a missile launch detection system in China with Russian help, in addition to China purchasing advanced air defence systems and aircraft from Russia. Cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which recently welcomed India and Pakistan among its ranks, is growing. Whereas Putin has recently offered his support for Donald Trump, he did not hesitate to criticise the US President’s trade policies alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, there are some authors that caution against making too many assumptions about Russia and China’s economic relations taking a radical shift. Oleg Remyga points out that, even if the entire output of Russia were to be redirected to China, it would still fail to satisfy the high demand in China and cannot hope to replace the US as a major trading partner, though he also states that the trade war results in Chinese authorities acting more flexibly towards Russian partners. A similar view is echoed by Ksenia Zubacheva. But we must ask ourselves if that is indeed the correct question to begin with – that Russia’s primary goal is to replace the United States as China’s main trading partner or that China now wants to engage Russia in deeper economic cooperation to compensate for the trade with the US?
Structural competition (sic)
We should first remember that, despite Russia and China being closer now than they have ever been, their cooperation is marked in equal parts by opportunity as it is by competition and rivalry. Their strengthening cooperation is not a goal per se, but rather an expression of higher goals. Indeed, neither country would turn down a partner that can help them diversify their export destinations and import sources. For Russia, this has been a long-standing problem owing to its reliance on oil and gas exports and on the European Union as its main trading partner. For China, the trade war with the US may well have made Beijing authorities aware of the vulnerability of having the US as its second largest trading partner and the necessity to build a wider network. Not only that, but as the much publicized “Power of Siberia” pipeline was launched on 2 December 2019, Russia and China both benefit in terms of energy security as both have diversified their energy partners (for Russia, the gain is estimated at $400 billion over three decades). For China, beyond immediate economic gains, energy security and fostering partnerships, it is also about sending a message to Washington that by pursuing the trade war, it will strengthen its ties with its rival such that the threat outlined by Brzezinski and the National Defence Strategy could very well materialize. Even though the message itself may not alarm Trump, it can result in a medium-to-long term challenge for Trump’s successor (whether in 2020 or 2024) to avoid an unfavourable shift of the existing power dynamics amongst the world’s superpowers. There is also another message carried by Beijing and Moscow’s budding partnership: whereas the US is straining its alliances thin and risks remaining isolated by losing international support, Russia and China are gaining allies.
How, then, does Putin’s support for Trump play into all of this? Despite the apparent Sino-Russian “friendship”, we have previously discussed that the US and Russia both have a common rival in China and the dangers it presents to their geostrategic interests, what with the Belt and Road Initiative and its efforts to dominate the South China Sea. In another piece, we detailed that Russia is attempting a reversal of the containment strategy it contended with during the Cold War. Back then, the US and China warmed their relations in order to contain their common adversary, the Soviet Union. Now, the US and Russia both have an interest in preventing Chinese influence from becoming a serious threat to their interests. Russia, however, does not have enough might to enact ambitious projects; it needs to build its economic clout carefully, patiently and methodically. The US, on the other hand, has the economic power to go into contest with China, and a President who has proven himself willing to engage it in a full-scale trade confrontation. The United States’ bone to pick with China is not limited to trade matters, but also to the latter’s claim over the strategically critical South China Sea, one of the world’s most important transport routes and home to potentially vast hydrocarbon and fishing resources. The control of this point would grant China an immense geostrategic advantage. The US interference in the region (by sending destroyers in the region and taking a strong stance against China’s ambitions) is not specific to Donald Trump; clashes had been known to occur since before his Presidency. Trump, however, has made it one of the main points of his foreign policy ever since his 2016 campaign.
Gaining in SE Asia
The significance of Putin’s support for Trump can therefore be viewed in light of Russia’s objective to keep China in check, on the one hand, and weaken the US politically and geopolitically, on the other, especially as the US President’s foreign policy has been assessed (not always by biased sources) to have generated significant problems to the reputation of American power. Not only that, but these policies have alienated European powers, forcing them to adapt to a geopolitical reality where America’s support and cooperation are no longer reliable or predictable, making them easier to deal with for Russia on economic and energy topics. Last but not least, the US – China standoff has given Russia the leeway to advance its agenda into Southeast Asia, where it had begun cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam on security matters not long before. Now, it has extended invitations to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) it spearheaded to several countries from the region: Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei and Thailand, all of whom have expressed their intention to join the union. This is encouraged by Vietnam’s thus far positive example, having gained some $10 billion-worth of Russian foreign direct investments from a free trade agreement with the EEU. It is not unlikely then that economic collaboration with the EEU can then be further followed-up by collaboration on matters of security and defence, such as arms sales, sophisticated military training for local troops or even joining Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organisation, all of which could serve to counterbalance China’s assertive position in the South China Sea and complicate matters for it.
This is ever more strongly punctuated by Russia’s expanding interest for the Philippines and increasing its geoeconomic weight in the South China Sea at China’s expense according to Express.co, with public statements that the interest covers “all kinds of power – distribution, technology, power generation; also, renewable energy”. Indeed, it is a bold move on Russia’s part, one that relies on Beijing’s need to rely on Russia and its Asian allies to offset the damage from its trade dispute with the US. Another interesting point is that in light of the trade dispute, Vietnam – one of the claimants in the South China Sea dispute – has gained much from additional US imports following trade diversion and agreed with Japan to “uphold rule of law in South China Sea”, which is code for “countering China’s military and economic expansion in the region”, thereby signifying Vietnam’s intention to speculate the three-way competition between China, Russia and Western powers to bolster its own economic growth, though the White House is weary of this development. Alongside Vietnam’s resistance, Malaysia – another claimant that has benefitted from the trade war – is more assertively escalating its resistance against China’s advances in the South China Sea.
Putin’s support for Trump comes at a time when the US President is facing heavy fire domestically after impeachment inquiries were initiated on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. However, further analysis suggests that this support is ultimately part of a deeper strategy by the Kremlin to achieve several goals:
1) weaken the United States domestically as uncertainty and suspicions of corruption would continue to plague the American political scene in case Trump is re-elected;
2) weaken the United States internationally as its foreign policy has allegedly resulted in damage to the reputation of the US as well as the estrangement and fragmentation of alliances which present less of a security and economic problem for Russia;
3) strengthen economic, energy and defence cooperation with China that brings Russia important benefits;
4) keep China’s geopolitical influence in check by pitting it against an outspoken and consistent adversary i.e. the US;
5) prevent China from attaining a decisive advantage in the South China Sea by directly engaging the other claimant states in matters of trade and defence, while the US continues to contest Chinese influence in the region and China’s adversaries become more important for Beijing;
6) weaken the NATO as a threat to its security owing to increased division through support for the current US government.
For as long as the US and China continue bickering, they continue weakening each other, whereas Russia builds its economic power slowly but methodically.
Interestingly, this reminds us of an old Chinese proverb: “kill with a borrowed knife”. The meaning of this saying is to attack a strong enemy by using the strength of a third party when a direct attack is ill-advised. It is indeed most ironic that this Chinese saying is precisely the best description of Russia’s geostrategy with regards to China and the United States.
Photo credit: pxhere.com.