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What's Trump's Game with Russia?

Binyamin Rose

Cold War rivalry can heat up any time

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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NATO was formed in 1949 with 12 member nations sharing the goal of checking the growing military power of the Soviet Union. Today’s Vladimir Putin is not easy to deal with, especially if you have little to offer him (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

D onald Trump will make amends with the CIA once his handpicked director, Mike Pompeo, takes over the intelligence agency.

Until then, Trump’s reported aversion to CIA security briefings will only intensify, following publication of a CIA assessment that Russia meddled in Trump’s favor during the election campaign by hacking Democratic National Committee emails to embarrass Hillary Clinton.

Such intrusion wouldn’t be a first for Russia. In his 2001 memoirs, Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Union’s ambassador to the US under six American presidents, revealed that in 1968, the Soviets offered financing to Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey in his race against Richard Nixon, a fervent anti-communist. Humphrey, an honest politician, was wise enough to say nyet. That’s history. But the blooming relationship between Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin that looks too cozy for comfort is a clear and present concern. In Trump’s worldview, is Russia a global rival? Or does Trump have some clandestine dealings with Russia that could pose a conflict of interest? That Trump and Putin have exchanged compliments is curious, coming from a president-elect who tweets insults at the pace of a putdown comic, and a former KGB agent who throws oligarchs in jail as easily as Trump chooses them for his cabinet. And talk at press time that Trump would appoint Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, whose sole diplomatic experience consists of negotiating business deals with foreign governments — including oil exploration deals with Russia as CEO of Exxon Mobil – only fuels the suspicions surrounding Trump.

Yet one analyst who suggests giving Trump the benefit of the doubt is Dr. Jiri Valenta, a former consultant to the Reagan administration, who, along with his wife Leni Friedman Valenta, runs the Institute of Post-Communist Studies and Terrorism.

Dr. Jiri Valenta: “ISIS is not going to be dislodged the way President Obama thought. We need more deployment, we need a total attack, and frankly, we need Russia’s cooperation on global Islamism”

“We have this situation where we simply cannot divorce ourselves from Cold War perceptions,” Dr. Valenta says, noting that new alliances are necessary in the war on terror. “ISIS is not going to be dislodged the way President Obama thought. We need more deployment, we need a total attack, and frankly, we need Russia’s cooperation on global Islamism.”

Putin has plenty of experience in that regard. He has been fighting a Muslim insurgency in five North Caucasus republics, including Chechnya, for most of his years at the helm. Dr. Valenta contends that Europe could face a major flare-up of terror in 2017, which will be difficult to combat, given Europe’s weak governments and the ongoing influx of new Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants. A politically paralyzed Europe cannot combat a new wave of terrorism. A strong NATO can, but not if Trump weakens it. Trump has raised doubts as to his commitment to NATO at a time when Russia is challenging the alliance’s mettle on several fronts.

A month before the election, Putin ordered nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad, threatening NATO’s northern flank, including Poland, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. During the campaign, Trump frightened these allies, saying his decision to defend them will be linked to whether they pay their fair share of NATO’s bills. Trump also dropped some campaign trail hints that he might recognize Putin’s conquest and annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine. On this point, Dr. Valenta is critical.

“Trump is not well equipped to understand why we need peace in Ukraine, which is necessary for the stability and balance in Europe,” Dr. Valenta says. “When Trump goes to see Putin, he has to be prepared to deal with all the issues and see the linkage between them.”

Trump might be taking some of his cues on how to deal with Putin from Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has maneuvered effectively to defend Israel’s interests in Syria, while staying out of the Syrian civil war, and most importantly, staying out of Russia’s way.

“That’s because you have a sophisticated prime minister who understands the region without a pathological distrust of Russia,” Dr. Valenta says.

But what works between Putin and Netanyahu, might not work for Trump and Putin, says Dr. Anna Geifman, a senior research fellow in the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University, who says prospects of peace in the Ukraine look dim. “What can you offer Putin for getting out of the Ukraine? Nothing. He really thinks the whole territory belongs to Russia.”

“You can’t deal with Putin unless you’re a Russian,” Professor Geifman adds. “I’m not sure that any president will be able to unless he is ready for a real confrontation with Russia.” she adds.

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