Joseph MicallefDuring the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump roiled the foreign policy establishment by praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He suggested it was time for a comprehensive re-evaluation of U.S.-Russian relations and broader co-operation between the two countries, especially in the fight against jihadists.

In doing so, Trump raised political and strategic issues.

By praising Putin and challenging the prevailing view that Moscow posed a long-term threat to American interests around the world, the Trump campaign underscored its anti-establishment credentials and its distance from both the Republican and Washington foreign policy establishments.

The move also gave credence to a strategic view circulating in Washington and closely associated with Michael Flynn (President Trump’s now-deposed national security adviser) that the threat posed to the United States by jihadists outweighed the threat posed by Russia. Since Russia was also threatened by jihadists, there was, in theory, a basis for a realignment of American-Russian relations and expanded co-operation in combatting international jihadism.

Russia has a significant Muslim population, estimated at 12 to 15 per cent of its citizenry or around 27 million people. Moscow has the largest Muslim community in Europe, outside of Istanbul, at as many as 2.5 million inhabitants. Roughly half are Russian citizens, the balance immigrants, many undocumented, from the Caucasus.

Birth rates between Russia’s Muslim and non-Muslim citizens point to a steady increase in the Muslim population. It’s estimated that by 2050, more 50 per cent of Russia’s population will be of Muslim descent, although not necessarily practising Muslims. Muslim conscripts make up more than 50 per cent of the Russian army’s new soldiers and by 2030, this will increase to three-quarters.

The Russian Caucasus have been a hotbed of jihadist activity since the Russian empire began to encroach on the region in the 18th century. Russia has fought two recent, bloody wars in Chechnya, from 1991 to 1994 and from 1999 to 2000. Since then jihadists have carried out an ongoing insurgency in the region and have staged several high-profile terrorist attacks in Russia.

Chechen militants have a reputation for being among the Islamic State’s most ferocious and effective fighters. It’s estimated that 2,500 Russian nationals, many from Chechnya and the surrounding region, have fought with IS in Syria and Iraq.

Jihadism represents a serious threat to Russia.

However, expanded co-operation with the West and an increase in Russia’s role in combatting jihadism would come at a steep price. At very least, it would require the revocation of the economic sanctions placed on Russia following its intervention in Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea. More likely, it would precipitate a Yalta-like agreement under which the U.S. and its NATO allies would recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics and some portions of Eastern Europe – what Moscow typically refers to as the “near abroad.”

Such an agreement would end the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, and would most likely end western aid to Ukraine. Where it would leave the Baltic states or NATO’s newer members is unclear.

Although Russia has often spoken about a joint effort with NATO to combat jihadism, especially in Syria, it has stopped short of indicating what such co-operation would entail and what Moscow is prepared to bring to the effort.

There is a larger issue here than whether the struggle against jihadism might offer a basis for resetting U.S.-Russian relations: to define the nature of Russia’s ongoing relationship with the West.

The Soviet Union emerged from the Second World War as one of two undisputed superpowers. During the Cold War, the U.S.S.R. represented an alternative and unique ideology for organizing society, albeit one that had become corrupted and diluted.

Modern Russia is no longer a superpower, the Kremlin’s pretensions notwithstanding. It has a formidable military force, however, as well as an advanced military-industrial base and, most importantly, more than 7,000 nuclear warheads and the missile forces to deliver them. It can no longer challenge the U.S. across the globe and no longer boasts the stable of client states it once had. Its presence in Latin America and Africa, once hotbeds of Soviet-American rivalry, for example, is largely nonexistent. Instead, Russia behaves more like an emerging power trying to define its role in the world.

Its primary focus has been in the near abroad, the region previously incorporated into the Soviet Union or under its control, and the Middle East. The latter is particularly important to Moscow since the region represents the petroleum swing producers, whose production can have a significant impact on the prevailing price and because Russia sees issues there where it can gather diplomatic chips to trade for concessions elsewhere.

The problem with the Kremlin’s foreign policy is that its concept of national security is outdated. There’s an inherent contradiction between Russia’s dependence on western capital and technology, and its desire to control its periphery.

Students of Russian history note that the country’s lack of defensible frontiers and its history of repeated invasions from the west create a five-century-old geopolitical imperative. Only by controlling its periphery can Moscow be certain of protecting its core. During periods of Russian strength, that periphery extends; it retreats during periods of Russian weakness. At the height of the Cold War, Moscow succeeded in pushing that periphery all the way to the Adriatic Sea, albeit briefly, and well into central Europe.

Over the last several decades, hydrocarbon exports have represented around 70 per cent of Russia’s foreign earnings and around 50 per cent of the federal government’s budget. During periods of high oil prices, Russia generated surpluses sufficient to finance the modernization of its industry and military. It was still dependent on foreign technology in many industrial sectors, especially petroleum, but the rapidly-growing economy and rising personal incomes made Russia an attractive place to invest.

That didn’t mean that the Kremlin’s desire to exert more control over its periphery contradicted any less with its desire to attract foreign capital and technology. But it was less dependent economically on Europe and the U.S., and better able to afford the price of an aggressive foreign policy.

Since 2008, low oil prices have meant that Russia has been in a period of very low to negative growth and declining real wages. The government has run persistent budget deficits and has been forced to dig into its reserves. It has cut back spending, especially for military modernization. Its intervention in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea resulted in economic sanctions that further aggravate the economic slowdown.

Moscow’s desire to control its periphery, much of which is now part of NATO and the European Union, is incompatible with long-term improvement of its relationship with the United States and its allies. More importantly, it represents an adherence to a national security paradigm that’s largely obsolete.

No state today could mount a significant military threat to the territorial integrity of Russia. Neither Europe nor the United States have the military manpower or political will to mount an invasion. China’s military forces are large enough to pose a threat to Russian control of its Far Eastern regions, but that’s more the stuff of fiction than practical consideration.

But the lessons of the colour revolutions in some former Soviet states hasn’t been lost on Moscow; especially that those colour revolutions received political and financial support from the U.S and Europe. The Kremlin correctly sees such actions as legitimate threats to its ruling elite.

In the age of the Internet, circumstances have changed. When the threat to Moscow came from military might, geography was critical to defence. But geography is irrelevant to social media. Instantaneous digital communication and dissemination of news makes proximity meaningless.

As long as the Kremlin defines security in terms of controlling Russia’s periphery, its relationship with the U.S. and Europe will be problematic. Russia’s gambit in Ukraine has misfired spectacularly: NATO has increased its forces along the east European periphery; under pressure from the Trump administration, its members are beefing up their defence spending; and Russia has been subjected to crushing economic sanctions.

More importantly, there’s no evidence that the U.S. or EU would consider an agreement that would reset Russia’s relations with the West, end the sanctions and give the Kremlin a free hand to shape the national governments along its periphery more to its liking.

High oil prices will make it easier for Russia to pay for an aggressive foreign policy, but they won’t eliminate the contradiction between that policy and the need for better economic relations with the West. The fact that oil prices will likely stay low for the foreseeable future means there’s no easy way out of its dilemma.

It’s in the West’s interest to improve its relationship with Russia. But it needs to convince the Kremlin it won’t pursue a regime change, while making it equally clear it won’t abandon NATO’s newest members or tolerate Russia’s attempts to instigate its own counter-revolutions or to intimidate those states into adopting policies more to Russia’s liking.

U.S.-Russian relations are unlikely to improve as long as the Kremlin adheres to a concept of national security welded to history. Nor will they improve if the U.S. and NATO see every instance of political unrest as an opportunity to encourage new colour revolutions that ultimately necessitate a further eastward expansion of NATO to defend.

Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.

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