Sunday, July 15, 2018

Putin-Trump Negotiation Fraught with Possibilities

It was November 1998. I was breakfasting alone in the dining room of Hotel Obryskya in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

Unexpectedly, I encountered two American couples. One was from St. Louis, the other from Denver. Both couples looked to be in their early forties. There were there for adoptions.

Krasnoyarsk is a large city, five time zones east of Moscow. It's appearance is reminiscent of Pittsburgh. Up until 1996, it had been closed to the west.

Twenty years ago, American adoptions of Russia's orphaned children was quite common. Both couples admitted that they were excited, yet apprehensive.

"You have to understand what they're saying." The Denver woman explained. "That Americans are here for adoptions, so that they can sell the babies' organs in America."

I was taken aback!

"Who, would say that?" I asked, shocked by this revelation.

"Oh, they are old Soviet social workers you find at these orphanages." The man from St. Louis quipped.

"They must think that we're monsters." The St. Louis woman added.

"We would never do such a thing." I responded angrily, remembering the angry looks that I had witnessed from Aeroflot attendants still sporting the outdated "hammer and sickle" insignia of the former Soviet Union. "Why would they even suggest such barbarism?"

"It's apparently ingrained in them." The Denver man concluded.

Six months later, my then fiance shared, "they were always collecting our unwanted toys, to give to the poor children in the United States."

We now know that both claims were fictitious. Americans don't adopt Russian babies for the purpose of selling their organs. And, American children are not the recipients of worn out toys from Russian children.

Pravda said otherwise. It represented the pinnacle of Cold War propaganda. In Donald Trump's words, this was "fake news."

Vladimir Putin concurs. He may be the most learned leader in the world on this subject. He has been quick to recognize the same forces at work in America.

To hear Putin's critics, you would assume and probably conclude that Putin is a strong advocate of media censorship. His apologists counter in insisting that he "only takes issue with fake news."

Both Russian and American media have some answering to do! There must be some semblance of factual representation by all media outlets concerned. It's critical, not to mention responsible! There is an opportunity at our wake. We cannot cloud it with petty partisan slants and certainly not with "made up" news!

This quickly arranged summit in Helsinki, has the look of the impromptu. Nobody knows what to expect. The Trump Administration thinks they know, at least part of what Putin expects to get out of it. What does America want? Well...

Media Establishment types and political hacks proclaim that if the new "Start" treaty is extended by five years, the summit will be considered a "success." Our President has more lofty aspirations.

Democrats insist that Russian election meddling should be the forefront of any discussion. It looks doubtful that President Trump will allow this issue to impede his agenda. He knows what Russia wants. He knows that Putin expects to give something in return. Election meddling is a concern. But, the topic potentially could change the tone of the negotiation.

So, what does Russia want?

Crimea. The Eastern Ukraine coal fields. Lifting of sanctions. Normalized trade relations, to be welcomed back to what would again be the "G-8." Not to mention extension of the "Start" treaty. Plus, some cooperation on the war against I.S.I.S..And, hopefully, no missiles in former "Warsaw Pact," Baltic, and Balkan countries.

Do they expect to get these concessions?


How flexible is Donald Trump?

The U.S.President is neither conservative or liberal, but pragmatist, as many conclude. Donald Trump knows that the Russians cannot and will not relinquish their hold on the Crimean peninsula. If it means going to war, they'll do it. At this stage, it's more practical to blame Barack Obama for the current predicament while asking for something in return.

Putin expects this. He would be shocked if Trump didn't drive a hard bargain. He knows that nuclear proliferation isn't a bargaining chip. Both nations equally view it's importance. Neither is Syria. True, it would be a minor concession if Russia asked Iran to exit the country. But will they?

Trump knows that, "Recognition of Crimean annexation, lifting of sanctions and return to the G-8" would be an expensive "home run," albeit an expensive one for Putin. How expensive?

There are several movable parts to the equation. Beginning with Eastern Ukraine. Putin expects the Americans to demand immediate cessation of hostilities there. Not to mention withdrawing all Russian military advisers from the region.

Where Crimea is 95% Russian, Eastern Ukraine is 30% Russian. Which translates to a sizable minority, but a minority nevertheless!
This is a major coal producing region. Leaving it to the Ukrainians would be huge! It would make them less dependent on Russia for their energy needs.

Then there is Georgia!

Today Abkhazia and South Ossetia are found in the Russian orbit. In the case of the latter, ethnic Georgians were expunged from the region. Russia later established military bases in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has contended that they made the move to "protect their oil pipeline."

Georgia sees their admittance to N.A.T.O. as their long term salvation.

Is Georgia a bargaining chip for Putin? Possibly. Georgia sources on the ground say that the traditional ties between Russia and Georgia go back to Georgian fear of the Turks. While Georgians like Americans and embrace the American culture, there will always be the question of proximity.

Nowhere to be found in the Russian-American discussion is the role that Christianity may play. Georgia is one of the oldest Christian counties in the world. It is one of the "cradles" of Christianity. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was officially Atheist, Russia is experiencing a Christian revival like no place in the world.

The Russian population in Georgia was 25% in 1959. Today, it is slightly less than 5% of approximately 5.3 million people. Putin knows that as long as there is an Islamic Turkey next door to Georgia, there will always be a need for some sort of relationship between the two countries.

Returning Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control would be viewed as a concession, but a doable concession; considering what the Russians would be getting. The same would hold true with Eastern Ukraine.

Could Trump get more? Probably, if not definitely!

A non-aggression treaty with the former Warsaw Pact, Baltic and Balkan countries would be on the table. Not that these countries would see it as a end all solution! There is zero trust and much justified fear within the psyches of these Europeans.

From Russians point of view, the populations of these Eastern European countries, coupled with Ukraine's population exceeds their own! Stalin's atrocities remain in their collective. The thought of hostile countries, to their West and South, armed to the teeth, brings chills to spines of Russian military leadership.

Russia could provide some help with North Korea.The Americans and Russians could easily come together in support of a nuclear free Korean Peninsula. Both relish he idea of a nuclear free Korean pennisula.

Anything else?

How about "free elections in Cuba;" under the auspices and scrutiny of America and Russia jointly. Putin would see this as nothing short of "exchanging Cuba for Crimea," yet not a total loss. We must remember that the Castro regime and it's aftermath was naught but a tattered remnant of the Old Soviet empire. Putin is interested in restoring Russia to it's original glory! But, not necessarily it's original Soviet glory...

Trump might kill "two birds with one stone," by instigating a "low cost Pork, Corn and Soy Bean deal," similar to the 1980 "wheat deal," or the 1989 "Bush's legs" overture. A bargain price on these commodities would be felt by the Russian people. And, it would partially make up for the losses incurred by Midwestern farmers in the trade dispute with China.

Last, but not least, Trump could demand that Russia allow American automakers to sell their cars, "duty free" in Russia. I recall my wife's cousin's husband paying almost $10,000 for a used Nissan in 2004. The same SUV could have been purchased for half of that amount in the U.S..

While it might not help Russian domestic production, duty free Chevrolet, Chrysler and Ford products would be immensely popular with the Russian people.

In truth, the Russian people are struggling. Low cost cars and commodities would ease the pain!

Let's not forget the space race!

A planned Russian-American voyage to Mars would capture the hearts of both nations. Considering the collective scientific knowledge, it's practical.

Is so much possible? Probably not! But what if it were?

Russia has it's eye on the Arctic and justifiably so. These top of the world lands contain oil, natural gas and precious metals including gold, in breathtaking abundance. Russians know that they control at least half of the Arctic. Normalized relations with the West would free up resources to take advantage of this remarkably potent treasure house.

Donald Trump's challenge will come from Democrats and members of his own party, including Neo-Con Senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain who will be unable to see past Crimea. In their eyes, a war would be preferable!

It reminds me of a somewhat wry proclamation made by a Russian friend: "We simply need to buy another 20 years; so that certain people on both sides will have time to die."

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