By Emanuel Pietrobon
During the G20 which took place in Osaka, Donald Trump shown apparent conciliar wills with his Russian and Chinese counterparts, despite the fact the two countries are considered the main threats for the US national security according to the most updated version of the National Defense Strategy.
Vladimir Putin invited Trump to the celebrations of next year's Victory Day. Yet, despite the proclaims of esteem and mutual respect, relations between Russia and the United States keep being very cold.
It is clear that Russia is a secondary objective compared to China on Trump's foreign agenda, because it is unable - for structural reasons difficult to resolve, to return to the Soviet greatness, and therefore it is less dangerous on a global level. It is equally true that Russia is, and will always be, an existential geopolitical rival for the US due to its extension over Mackinder's Heartland.
Trump kept repeating that he would like to have good relationship with Russia, but it is precisely his administration that further exacerbated the escalation born during the Obama era by increasing the military presence of US personnel in Eastern member countries of NATO, extending and prolonging the Ukraine-related sanctioning regime, and providing Ukraine with millions of dollars of lethal weapons. But still, it is not utopian to think that Trump could make some concessions to Russia in the event of a second mandate, for example the recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea. But even if this event is going to happen, it won't be because of the will of building a friendly partnership but because of the presence of an urgent contingent interest: the need to turn away Russia from Beijing's sphere of influence.
The American agenda has only one purpose toward Russia: annihilation through a multidimensional, increasingly suffocating and neverending containment. To understand the origins of the so-called "Cold War 2.0" is mandatory to resume "The Grand Chessboard", a niche book published in 1997 by American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the main directors of the USSR collapse.
The book is structured like a testament in which the strategist exposed the guidelines to follow for the years to come to properly exploit the victory in the Cold War and avoid the resurrection of Russia as a great Eurasian power during the 2000s. The most important suggestions were the following: enlargement of the European Union and NATO to the former Communist East, removal of Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucaus countries from Russia's sphere of influence, constant pressure over European and Central Asian Russian borders, and a farsighted work of diplomacy to avoid the rise of an anti-hegemonic coalition formed by Russia, China and Iran, and the realization of the Mackinderian nightmare of a Russia-friendly Germany-led Europe.
According to Brzezinski's vision, it was a primary interest to turn away Ukraine from Russia and incorporate it into the Euro-Atlantic community, because "Russia without Ukraine ceases to be a Eurasian empire". Consequently, Moscow would be forced to change its focus on the ever-problematic Central Asian neighborhood, an inevitable source of troubles rising from the re-appearance of anti-Russian feelings and Islamist insurgency, and on China, the main competitor of Russia in the continent.
22 years after the publication of the book it is self-evident that Brzezinski's suggestions were carried out gradually, clearly and intelligently, and that today Russia finds itself more encircled than ever.
Despite the promises given by Manfred Woerner, general secretary of the Atlantic Alliance from 1988 to 1994, to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Communist countries have been gradually incorporated to NATO. The Caucasus has been shaken up by US-backed coloured revolutions. Central Asia and Muslim-majority regions within Russia have been invested by a dangerous Islamist insurgency with no signs of extinguishing that pose a serious threat to domestic security, as shown by the cases of Chechnya and Dagehstan.
Furthermore, the Eurasian Economic Unions is far from being a truly cohesive geopolitical player, because the Russian attempts to keep the former Soviet states under Moscow's influence are challenged by other important players with hegemonic interests over Central Asia, such as the US, China, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran.
Moldova and Belarus remain Russia's last two strongholds in Eastern Europe, but control over them is exercised in a myopic manner: the Kremlin ignores completely the needs and desires of the populations of economic prosperity, and the increasingly frequent popular protests that are shaking the two countries are a bad sign that Moscow should not underestimate. In the first case, the discontent could favor and accelerate the path of adhesion to the EU (and then to Nato), also because of the strong influence exercised by Romania, in the second case there is the after-Lukashenko dilemma, because the power vacuum could be exploited by Russia's rivals to provoke colored revolutions which have been already successfully tested in other former Soviet countries.
Ukraine was transported out of Russian orbit with the so-called Euromaidan, and the nowadays political class is making of the confrontation with Russia a useful means through which building a new national identity, more European and liberal and less tied to its own history and Russia. The country's adhesion to the EU is likely to happen in the coming years.
As for the last two points, namely the Mackinderian fears of potential anti-hegemonic coalitions, it is clear that they have been partially averted, partly because the France-Germany axis is completely prone to Washington, especially on foreign policy. Anyway, the US foreign policy for Eurasia has caused an inevitable partnership between Russia, China and Iran.
But the three countries are very far fromg being allies or really close partners united by anti-American purposes, they are considerable as natural-born rivals forcibly driven to cooperate by contingent interests, but they did not show any will to take the decisive step. Chinese banks, for instance, are carefully avoiding in incurring US secondary sanctions, letting Russia and Iran with no liquidity in all the sanctioned sectors. Not even the Trump-led trade war, over time extended to technology, convinced the Chinese to circumvent the sanctions and help its closest partners.
Post-Soviet Russia's strategy is based on counter-balancing, and the Stalin-made encirclement theory has been buried and no one is thinking about updating it. Basically, it is matter of stopping US plans through the outbreak of frozen conflicts or disturbing actions: Transnistria in Moldavia, Abchasia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Crimea and Donbass in Ukraine, military intervention in Syria, or logistical and diplomatic support to Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The strategy allowed Russia not to completely lose control over areas of geostrategic interest, but at the same time it does not provide absolute guarantees for the future: the frozen conflicts did not stop the process of Euro-Americanization of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; Nicaragua and Venezuela are economically strangled and Russia cannot intervene from that point of view, Belarus is showing signs of weakness, former Soviet Central Asia countries are increasingly exposed to non-Russian influence, and the NATO military expansionism proceeds at a fast pace.
It is clear that Russia, which is a diplomatic giant but an economic dwarf, will not be able to support the counter-balancing in the long-term, and Trump's Reagan-like hard-line is one of the reasons: the US aims at bringing the Putin-built system to collapse. The sanctions act on the background of similar pressures on Russia's main partners, and the launch of a new space race, with the ambitious targets of the human-landing on Mars and the militarization of the Earth's orbit, and a new arms race. Trump's announcement of the next creation of the so-called Space Force is very reminiscent of Reagan's Star Wars and the risk is that Russia may fall into the trap, again, retracing the same fatal mistakes that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union.
In such a highly competitive and conflictual context, Russia needs a global rethinking of its strategy, in particular from an economic point of view - perhaps looking at the ambitious Made in China 2025 and other Xi's projects focused on the pursuit of diversification and self-sufficiency, because the rise of Trump has shown the world that the American empire is not declining at all and in Eurasia the US is a few steps away from checkmate, for Brzezinski's happiness.
Russian military repeatedly thwarted Turkey's attempts to deploy its troops to Syria, and stopped militants from moving further south