The rivalry between the United States and Russia is entering a new era with the election of Donald Trump. While Trump has made no secret of his desire for better relations between the two nations, he has also called for a more muscular and efficient US military.
The new President seeks to modernize the US nuclear deterrent, expand effective missile defenses, and significantly increase conventional military capability, while reforming and revitalizing NATO.
These plans will no doubt rub up against Mr. Putin's objectives. Putin's Russia is determined to demilitarize NATO in Eastern Europe, end Western economic sanctions, allow the permanent amputation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity including the Crimea, secure Bashar Assad's rule over all of Syria, and in general establish Moscow in world affairs on a plane of "equal status with Washington".
This last goal is not going to be acceptable to any US president. It would give Russia a veto on U.S. activity abroad and a free hand in its self-proclaimed sphere of influence. Moreover, it would divide NATO, demoralize the EU, and almost certainly encourage further Russian aggression.
Nevertheless, since both sides wish to negotiate, the two urgent tasks for the new administration are: 1. formulation of strategic objectives, and 2. adoption of a strategy that gets the United States and its allies where the US would like to go. That means bringing Russia to the table from a position of US strength, rather than the calculated weakness of the last eight years.
For his part, Putin has redoubled his efforts to intimidate the U.S. and its allies. The examples are many and worrying: the destruction and capture of Aleppo, the exclusion of the U.S. from the diplomacy over Syria, the attempted Russian coup in Montenegro, the re-intensification of fighting in Ukraine, the continuing information warfare against the U.S. and its allies in Europe, and of course the public trumpeting of supposed of nuclear and military superiority.
Strategic Choices and Realities
How can a President Trump strategy negate Russian efforts at intimidation?
The two critical strategies lie with US military and economic power. The military side is already well known. President Trump has not only aggressively embraced the nuclear modernization but his defense team has also publicly advocated rebuilding the conventional deterrent and creating a successful cyber-strategy. The modernization of conventional and nuclear capability and its deployment at the earliest possible time to Europe will have two immediate advantages: it will demonstrate the resolve to uphold US commitments to her NATO allies; and it will force Europe into commitment to raise is defense spending in order to field effective and capable military forces in Central and Eastern Europe -- as the new defense secretary highlighted in his Senate testimony.
This enhanced ground, sea, air, cyber, and electronic set of capabilities will reassure Europe and continue to deter Moscow. It will begin to counter balance Putin's continued threats to use nuclear weapons early in any number of regional scenarios as a means of intimidating the US and its allies to "stand down" before a crises has become a conflict.
Meanwhile, Russia's defense budget is under severe pressure as the drop in oil and gas prices in the past few years has dramatically cut into Russian government revenues. Economic sanctions, too, are hurting Russia's overall economy and that as well is curtailing government revenue.
It is true that sanctions alone—which will probably continue to at least July unless rescinded—are not a strategy. But when applied together with a real buildup of NATO forces and U.S. comprehensive defense modernization, they constrain Russia's options as it will have severe difficulty in matching a rebuilt US conventional capability.
In fact, the EU's decision to continue the sanctions actually reflects the success of Trump's pressure on Europe in forcing US allies to assume more responsibility for their own self-defense. And this example suggests how economics and defense policies can work together to create strategic outcomes that add to U.S. and allied leverage.
The proposed American conventional modernization must embrace the entire zone from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It must be coordinated by the U.S. with its allies. It is thus hoped that by doing so, the conventional modernization will help check Russia's nuclear threats.
The US and Europe should agree to hold a major NATO summit in advance of a Trump-Putin sit-down. This move would demonstrate renewed NATO strength and resolve. Simultaneously, a joint U.S. and NATO economic strategy to squeeze Putin's war machine—both through sanctions and through smart, nationalistic economic policy.
Energy Policy is the Key
Here is where history can be a useful guide. A key pillar of then-President Ronald Reagan's successful strategy to end the Soviet empire was to dramatically lower energy prices through the decontrol of domestic oil prices in January 1981. Subsequently in 1985 Reagan successfully got both Great Britain and the Saudi Kingdom to cooperate to dramatically increase OPEC oil production. As a result, the price of crude fell from $30 to $6 a barrel and with it $20 billion in lost oil sales revenue annually flowed out of the Soviet exchequer.
Both 1981 and 1985 Reagan administration efforts had the effect of dramatically curtailing Soviet oil export earnings. This meant a serious loss of revenue to the Soviet government which hindered their ability to invest in the military technology modernization effort needed to meet the challenges of the 1970's revolution in military technology. Soviet industry simply could not meet new defense needs without securing major technology transfers and investments from the West.
Fast forward to 2017. The new President, incoming Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, have long supported increasing US energy production and exports to both Europe and Asia. In a rare moment of energy unity during the previous administration, Congress passed legislation in December 2015 lifting the three-decade old ban on U.S. crude oil exports.
Now we also know Russia is seeking to get OPEC to curtail production to raise oil prices. We also know it is highly unlikely that Russia will actually reduce oil exports given its heavy reliance on oil and gas export earnings to supply the government revenue. Russian energy costs are denominated in rubles, but earnings are in dollars -- so there are compelling motives for selling as much oil (and gas) as possible. Russia's economic capacity to sustain its defense program and its overall state budget rests disproportionately upon its ability to sell oil and gas abroad.
Both sanctions and the low energy prices have affected this capability and preserving them is very much in U.S. interests. Millions of acres of United States government regulated land have just recently been put beyond oil and gas production by executive action by previous administration. This is in addition to the millions of acres owned by the US government already previously put out of bounds for any energy exploration or production.
Increasing US oil and gas production, coupled with Canada and Mexico's potential could easily make North America the energy giant on the globe, break the back of OPEC, and give the United States significant leverage in world fossil fuel policy and prices. The Keystone pipeline, as well as other pipelines, refineries, and terminals can be greenlit to enhance the production, distribution, and export of American oil and gas.
At a Capitol Hill event two years ago, the Ambassadors from the three Baltic nations told us that getting American natural gas to Eastern Europe would be an extraordinary achievement, as it would—in their words—"turn Russia from an energy bully into an energy supplicant".
Gas converted into liquefied natural gas (LNG) can be exported from the United States. Once our prices become truly competitive, the European gas terminals already in Lithuania and Poland that began initial operations recently can receive our exports as well.
Beyond that process the EU is constructing interconnectors across all of Central and Eastern Europe that will gradually unify the continent. Those interconnectors and terminals are already adding to Russian difficulties in selling Europe gas--the resource Moscow most uses for political gain because of its historical monopoly position.
The new administration can also accelerate the process which grants terminal construction licenses, as well as approval for oil and gas exports. Alternatives such as the Southern Gas Corridor from Azerbaijan through Turkey to the Balkans, and the exploitation of recently discovered huge deposits of gas found in the Eastern Mediterranean off Israeli, Egyptian, and Cypriot shores for export to Europe can further bolster US energy policy.
Europe, however, is not the only market for American gas and oil. China currently is heavily dependent on high-sulfur coal for its electrical production. Its old coal power plants do not use environmental safeguards and thus air pollution is leading to a significant rise in the incidence of cancers and other serious health problems among China's population. Combined with India, the two nations have 2.5 billion people while all of Asia taken together now has 4.5 billion people, or nearly 60% of the world's population. The energy demand of such a population can be a major opportunity for the US energy production sector.
US gas resources as well as new technology that allows for the economically viable and useful capture of coal based carbon green-house gases could help spring an energy revolution in the western Pacific, further enhancing US energy policy as a geostrategic tool. There are East Asian firms in South Korea that are already exploring constructing terminals to store US sourced energy.
These initiatives deserve Federal government, support as they advance American and NATO economic and strategic interests vis a vis Russia and China. As President Ronald Reagan demonstrated, military strength alone while critical does not guarantee global peace and security: a smart, aggressive, and self-interested energy policy makes America stronger and the world safer.
The failed 2009 reset with Russia and Putin's belligerence does not mean we are doomed to war. As Victor Davis Hanson observes, given our new-found fossil-fuel wealth and our continued technological superiority, we are in an unusually strong position if we would simply seize "realist avenues" where cooperation can benefit both countries.
Realistically, the US-Russia rivalry will remain in place -- but a "strong and nationalist United States," writes Hanson can be a diplomatic, military and economic "hinge" upon which United States efforts to "discourage" Putin from doing things unwise can succeed. That, however, requires an America willing to, in Hanson's words, "carry huge sticks".
Unfortunately, America has not done so for nearly the past decade. But changing such a strategy now to one of "peace through strength" is exactly the path we encourage the new administration to take. It worked to end the Cold War. And can be the foundation to secure once again a safer America and an allied Europe. That, indeed, would reflect a new "art of the deal".
Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at American Foreign Policy Council. Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis.