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Russia On Guard While Receiving Trump’s Charm Offensive

Moscow will be be welcoming but cautious

By a curious twist of irony, it is now Russian President Vladimir Putin’s turn to adopt what late Ronald Reagan once counselled in Soviet-American relations – Trust but verify. Putin might make a slight alteration, though – Trust but warily. Reagan spoke the famous words after deciding he could do business with Mikhail Gorbachev — in fact, to emphasize to the latter specifically the extensive verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed on 8 December 1987.

Gorbachev apparently responded: “You repeat that at every meeting,” to which Reagan answered, “I like it.” Putin is yet to have a jovial exchange of that sort with the US President-elect Donald Trump, but the ambience is striking.

Putin must be sizing up that Trump is making just the correct noises about Russia ties, the latest being his interview with the New York Times on Thursday where he said,

I would love to be able to get along with Russia and I think they’d like to be able to get along with us. It’s in our mutual interest.

And I don’t go in with any preconceived notion, but I will tell you, I would say — when they used to say, during the campaign, Donald Trump loves Putin, Putin loves Donald Trump, I said, huh, wouldn’t it be nice, I’d say this in front of thousands of people, wouldn’t it be nice to actually report what they said, wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia, wouldn’t it be nice if we went after ISIS together, which is, by the way, aside from being dangerous, it’s very expensive, and ISIS shouldn’t have been even allowed to form, and the people will stand up and give me a massive hand.

You know they thought it was bad that I was getting along with Putin or that I believe strongly if we can get along with Russia that’s a positive thing. It is a great thing that we can get along with not only Russia but that we get along with other countries.

But then, Trump fought shy of calling it a wholesome reset, pleading that reticence is in order “after what happened previously” (during the Obama administration). Trump made it sound like bonhomie, personal chemistry and the stuff of fighting the ISIS – nothing more, nothing less.

At any rate, Moscow has just made two major announcements, which are in the direction of strengthening Russia’s strategic deterrence against any belligerent military moves by the US. First, Moscow announced on Tuesday the deployment of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in response to the NATO military build-up on Russia’s western borders.

Military analysts regard the Iskander complex as superior to all domestic and foreign analogues in terms of its strategic mobility, stealth capability, flight mission, and high capability to fulfill combat missions in the conditions of fire and electronic countermeasures. Effectively, all Europe becomes a ‘duck’ now. The flight time of Iskander from Kaliningrad to Berlin will be about 3 minutes flat.

In political terms, Russia is staring down NATO, which means staring down the US administration. Putin implied recently in an interview with Oliver Stone that NATO’s ‘decision making’ is made for it in Washington.

Second, on Tuesday, Russian media disclosed the deployment of cutting-edge ground-to-ship Bal and Bastion coastal missile systems to the disputed Kurile Islands in the Far East. The Bal has a range of 130 kilometers and the Bastion 300 kilometers.

Moscow maintains that the deployment should not harm Russia’s talks with Tokyo on signing a peace treaty. Indeed, the deployment to Kuriles needs to be seen against the backdrop of the US testing a missile interceptor designed with the help of Japanese technology, as well as the test of America’s Standard SM-3 missile and the AEGIS missile defense system.

The US-Japanese missile defence cooperation is stated to be only directed against Pyongyong, but Moscow rejects it as specious plea. Of course, the deployment to Kuriles is a rebuff to Japan and a signal to Tokyo that Moscow will not make any territorial concessions, but strategically, it is the US posturing in the Russian Far East (on the pretext of the North Korean threat) and the US-Japanese alliance that worries Russia. (Read a Russian commentary Russia-Japan Territorial Dispute: Security, Defense Missile Issue Come First.)

Interestingly, Kremlin has hastened to seek Japan’s understanding. Putin is due to visit Japan on December 15.

These Russian deployments in its western and eastern border regions have taken place even before Putin and Trump have met. Evidently, Moscow expects the normalization of ties with the US to be a long haul. The Kremlin spokesman said on Wednesday, “Our bilateral relations are at the bottom so it’s hard to make them worse, but we certainly hope for resuming a dialogue (with Trump presidency) and we’ll start a difficult and slow process of bringing the relations back to a constructive course.”

The point is, Moscow will be wary. Despite the promising signs so far from Trump (including his Times interview), he’d need to overcome entrenched resistance from the American foreign-policy and strategic community and the US establishment to the very idea of improving relations with Russia. Trump’s shyness in using the term ‘reset’ to characterize whatever he has in mind, will be noted in Moscow.

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