Trump Russia
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M K Bhadrakumar |

There is a long history of Russia being kicked around as a political football in the United States. The circumstances leading to the latest Russia sanctions bill passed by the US Congress has a striking similarity with the so-called Jackson-Vanik Amendment [J-VA] of 1974, which put road blocks on the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union initiated by President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the late sixties.

The J-VA specifically prevented Nixon from granting MFN status to the Soviet Union and the non-market economies of the Soviet bloc. Then, as now, Russia was a toxic subject on account of its refusal to liberalize its immigration policy to allow Soviet Jews to leave for the Western countries. In Senator Henry Jackson who piloted the J-VA, we even have the counterpart of Senator John McCain – in their visceral Russophobia.

Read more: Blame the anti-Russia brouhaha on the CIA and Pentagon

Domestic politics also crept in, inevitably, because the Jewish lobby’s support was key to the secret presidential ambitions that Jackson harbored. Thus, Jackson’s political ambitions combined with his ideological antipathy toward the Soviet Union.

However, what matters at the end of the day is Trump’s own behavior in the downstream. His pride has been dented. And he is an egoist. But Trump is also a fighter.

The J-VA was passed with over three-quarters of US lawmakers supporting it, which made a presidential veto pointless. That is also President Donald Trump’s predicament. His statement on Wednesday after signing the Russia sanctions bill into law speaks for itself. Nixon found himself in a helpless position because he was also badly wounded by the Watergate scandal. Trump also is fighting back at his detractors who call him a stooge of Russia but he is still commanding the heights.

But the main difference today is the absence of Henry Kissinger, the gray cardinal par excellence. Kissinger found an ingenious way to get around the road block – via ‘trilateral talks’ involving the Congress (read Senator Jackson), Moscow and the Executive Branch (read Kissinger himself)! (The Soviet side was represented by the formidable Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, one of the shrewdest operators the Kremlin ever assigned to the Washington Beltway who served in the post at a stretch from 1962 to 1986.)

The combination of the US Congress, the defense and intelligence community and mainstream media is not an easy block to surmount even for Trump.

Read more: Tehran takes exceptions to new sanctions

Of course, Kissinger played the role of the master conductor and jealously preserved his prerogative to fine tune the ‘trilateral talks’ – essentially, to carry forward the détente process. HK had the advantage also of having a longstanding ‘back channel’ dialogue with Dobrynin. Of course, HK was increasingly in the driving seat even as Nixon was sinking in the Watergate scandal. (Nixon resigned in 1974.)

Indeed, times have changed. Rex Tillerson and Henry Kissinger cannot be compared. Tillerson’s remarks about the Russia sanctions bill at his press conference in the state department on Tuesday reveal the man himself – a decent, candid guy who keeps his fingers clean:

  • I will be meeting face to face with Foreign Minister Lavrov this weekend on the – on the margins of the meetings in Manila. We – he and I have already spoken. I would say our conversation following the actions has been professional. There’s no – there’s been no belligerence. I think Foreign Minister Lavrov and I understand our roles. We understand our responsibilities. And I think he’s as committed as I am to trying to find ways that we can bring this relationship back closer towards one another.

Tillerson’s remarks about the Russia sanctions bill at his press conference in the state department on Tuesday reveal the man himself – a decent, candid guy who keeps his fingers clean

Read more: Pulling the plug on Afghanistan

  • Now, the action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the President nor I am very happy about that. We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts. But that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the President accepts that, and all indications are he will sign that, that bill. And then we’ll just work with it, and that’s kind of my view is we’ll work with it. We got it. We can’t let it take us off track of trying to restore the relationship.

Read more: 93,000 Pakistani soldiers did not surrender in 1971 because….?

In any case, Russia ties have become a template of a titanic power struggle in America in a way that has no precedents. The combination of the US Congress, the defense and intelligence community and mainstream media is not an easy block to surmount even for Trump.

Trump also is fighting back at his detractors who call him a stooge of Russia but he is still commanding the heights.

But then, fortuitously for Russia, there is a knight in shining armor riding a white horse approaching the arena – European Union. The EU has given notice that it will have veto power over the US’ sanctions bill. A press release by the European Commission in Brussels on Wednesday says that “European interests” must be taken into account in the implementation of any sanctions against Russia by the United States. The crux of the matter is that Germany will not allow the US to interfere in its flourishing business ties with Russia, especially in the field of energy. Moscow is delighted.

However, what matters at the end of the day is Trump’s own behavior in the downstream. His pride has been dented. And he is an egoist. But Trump is also a fighter. His statement on Wednesday (after signing the bill) strongly hints at uncontrollable fury. Meanwhile, word has just come about Trump’s latest tweet an hour ago.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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