This post was originally published on Defiant.
Late-December 2016 news coverage of the diplomatic conflict between the United States and Russia made repeated reference to a game Russia is better at ― chess.
If we were using chess notation to record the incident, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s move declining to retaliate to U.S. president Barack Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomatic officials and imposition of new targeted sanctions would be marked with at least one exclamation point.
Actually, Obama’s more of a basketball guy. So maybe this metaphor is more apt ― Putin shook his man so bad he broke his ankles.
The game isn’t over, of course, but Putin has reframed the United States’ retaliation for Russian meddling in the recent U.S. presidential election not as an escalating conflict between national interests, but rather as an act of petulance from a sore-loser, lame-duck president.
Everyone, of course, expects things to improve for the Russians once Donald Trump is inaugurated.
Trump’s fondness for the Kremlin contains serious contradictions. Russia’s primary interest is in weakening the United States’ imperial power. Trump’s interest is in extending it ― that is, “Making America Great Again.” Furthermore, Russia’s most important strategic alliances are anathema to U.S. imperial interests ― none more so than Russia’s relationship with Iran. How can Trump possibly resolve this?
“Russia’s primary interest is in weakening the United States’ imperial power. Trump’s interest is in extending it — that is, “Making America Great Again.””
Perhaps no other contradiction in Trump’s inconsistent vision is more significant than this one, because it threatens the United States’ fundamental place in the world, and some of the timelines twisting out from it end in nuclear war. It demands analysis and understanding.
The first step in reaching this understanding is dispelling the notion that Russia is a “rival” of the United States and seeks to supplant us as the leading global superpower. This is a vestige of Cold War coverage of the rivalry between the Soviet Union ― which was much bigger than Russia ― and the United States. In fact, Russia has no meaningful capacity to contest the United States as a global power. Our economy is 55 times the size of theirs is. Our military budget is roughly 14 times the size of theirs. Hell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends more than twice as much every year as the Russian military spends.
Our navy has nearly three times the personnel and more than 10 times the naval aircraft. And while the United States has 10 large aircraft carriers, Russia has exactly one. Russia controls 18 foreign military bases. The United States controls more than 800.
Still, expansive U.S. power cannot long tolerate even regional alternative centers of power. Eventually our ambitions will run up against their power and either we will submit to them ― or we will overpower and supplant them. The first option is an invitation to global resistance and the end to the imperial project altogether, so the only regional powers we tolerate are those who serve as lieutenants to the U.S. empire. Russia is unwilling to act as such, an outrage to our sense of supremacy, and thus a “threat to our national security.”
The media and mainstream experts explain Russia’s regional ambitions in mystical or idealistic terms of “traditional spheres of influence” ― terms which Russia themselves and their network of Russophile allies in nearby countries echo.
All of this, however, is a cover story for the basic material fact that Russia’s economy is export-driven, dominated by energy resources and other raw materials ― and that these exports are primarily consumed by nearby European and Asian economies.
Getting these exports to market means transiting the surrounding countries of their “traditional sphere of influence,” and these economies thus have a symbiotic economic relationship with Russia ― the Russian Federation is typically one of their primary trading partners. This creates a network of interests that make this region of acute concern to Russia’s economic elites. Hence their drive to establish regional primacy.
Russia could conceivably establish its regional dominance on terms acceptable to the United States and pass on economic and military benefit to the empire as we demand it, but the nature of Russia’s export economy and the changing shape of the global market is such that they simply do not have the margins to afford such capitulation.
Neither are the Russians in a position for direct confrontation with us, so they move in asymmetric and circuitous manners, using tools including cyberwarfare and quasi-covert confrontations with potential U.S. regional allies such as Ukraine.
And of course they have the ultimate equalizer at hand ― a massive nuclear arsenal that requires that we both tread carefully with them and give them prominence in international dialogues.
Regardless, even with a relatively modest military, the Russian military is still the world’s fourth-largest force, and despite the Russians’ energy- and raw material-focused export economy, they still have one of the world’s most advanced systems of industrial production.
These resources can be turned to other aspiring regional powers for the sake of creating a multi-polar world without America in charge ― they use strength in numbers against the U.S. hegemon.
Iran is the most significant ally of this sort in the Middle East, and together the two countries are collaborating with the other major Middle East opponent of American/Israeli/Saudi power ― Syria ― in the theater at the center of this struggle today, the Syrian civil war.
Now, it is possible that Trump is simply an isolationist, a true “America First-er” as his sloganeering reference to anti-internationalist Nazi sympathizers of the World War II era would have it. If that’s the case, then there is no contradiction between his desire to roll back U.S. interference in the region and Russia’s desire to minimize American imperial meddling in Russia’s backyard. But how does Trump square this away with his hostility to Iran and his alliance with the most militant elements of Israeli foreign policy?
This commitment goes deeper than words.
Trump’s nominee for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was an Iran hawk whose former colleagues have publicly expressed worries that he will lead the United States to war with Iran. Trump has also named a hardline ambassador to Israel who is aligned with the most expansionist parties in the region, the ones most committed to conflict with Iran.
How does he follow the path signaled by these appointments, set down in his persistent threats against Iran, and at the same time collaborate with their most significant military and political ally?
It bears noting here that the United Staes has allies in the region, too ― allies who pose existential threats to the Iranian and Syrian regimes. Israel, for one, serves as a proxy military force for U.S. and Western imperialism, striking blows when necessary to the anti-imperialist regimes in the area, or at least posing threats to each of them on terms we could not get away with politically.
Saudi Arabia, for another, has used its unique position as the host of the holiest sites in Islam and its tremendous oil wealth to carry out a protracted ideological project turning Sunni Arabs and other Sunni Muslims ― a strong majority of the region ― to a set of cultural and political commitments that undermine the movements most historically threatening to U.S. imperialism. Arab nationalism, anti-colonialism and communism, in particular.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting at least two proxy wars against one another at the moment. First in Syria where the Saudis, the United States, the Gulf States and Turkey have been backing Sunni jihadist “rebels” fighting against the secular president Bashar Al Assad, Russia and Iran ― but also in Yemen where the Saudis have been collaborating with U.S. forces to put down an Iran-supported Shi’a-led alliance resisting a Saudi-imposed government.
So there are a finite number of permutations for resolving the contradiction posed by varying relations between Russia and its allies ― Iran in particular, but also Syria ― and the United States and its allies ― Israel and Saudi Arabia. Let’s take them one by one.
The easiest option would be for Trump and the United States to simply turn on Russia. Each of the last three U.S. presidents have done this. Pres. Bill Clinton was close to then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin but ended up at a skeptical distance from his replacement, Putin.
Pres. George W. Bush notoriously “looked into (Putin’s) eyes… and got a sense of his soul” and invited him to do cowboy shit on his Texas dude ranch.
Obama sought a “reset” with Russia then ended up with the Kremlin allegedly hacking his political party’s computers to ratfuck his preferred successor. If Trump flipped, it would be part of this trend.
But there has been no issue on which Trump has been as consistent as his defense of the Putin regime. Even his anti-immigration message has wavered more than this commitment to the Russian state, going so far as to drop his own running mate in the grease on the issue during a presidential debate. Flipping on Russia would be easy, but it would have been easy before now ― so why hasn’t he done it already?
“But there has been no issue on which Trump has been as consistent as his defense of the Putin regime."”
There is no good, apparent answer for this. One possibility is that KGB-veteran Putin is using his asset recruiting skills to manipulate Trump, flattering him and playing into his overwhelming narcissism and so he cannot deal with Russia rationally.
Another, more sinister possibility is that Trump is somehow exposed to the Russians, claims reported by CNN to have been presented to Trump by the United States’ senior-most intelligence chiefs. We have no idea about the details of his complex and likely corrupt business dealings ― he might be in a vulnerable financial position to Russian business interests, something alleged during the campaign.
If the United States does not flip on Russia, the options from there are further limited. Russia could, for one, flip on Iran and Syria and side with the United States and our regional allies.
Russia and Iran, however, are about to win in Syria and there seems to be little reason for them to abandon the strategic alliance that has extended their power to grow closer to the losing side.
This scenario would also by definition benefit U.S. and Western imperialism, which is not just a threat for Russia in the Middle East. Their major interest is in restoring their economic power in Eastern Europe, including with the Balkan States ― members of both the European Union and NATO.
Empowering the most powerful elements of these rival alliances runs contrary to Russian national interests.
Another option is that the United States could stick with Russia and shift our regional alliance away from Saudi Arabia and Israel in favor of Iran and Syria.
This is very unlikely and dangerous. First, it is one of the only political moves Trump could make that his base ― personally loyal to him beyond almost any other value or interest ― abandon him. Their hostility to Iran goes back nearly 40 years and has been cultivated by generations of authoritative reactionary ideologues.
Abandoning Israel would furthermore be tantamount to apostasy for many of them. It also runs entirely contrary to every single one of his personnel appointments made to date.
That said, Israel has often followed U.S. military policy in the region and they have settled differences with enemies before. Prior to the Camp David Accords, Egypt was Israel’s major military rival. The two have been at peace ever since.
Whether Iran would suppress its proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas would be a key point of contention here, which would both be easier said than done and probably way outside Iran’s interests ― these are two of their most significant assets for power projection, their capacity for countering Saudi Arabia’s ideological hegemony in Arab culture and politics.
The opportunity to end one of the most vexing regional conflicts might interest the ruling classes of all the contending nations, however, and make a thaw profitable.
There seems little hope, however, of including Saudi Arabia in any such compromise. They are far too exposed in their political projects against Iran, the legitimacy of the Saudi state rests on a sectarian religious authority definitionally hostile to the Iranian regime, and the monocultural, hidebound, isolated, tiny and incestuous Saudi ruling class sees control of the Persian Gulf in particular as a zero sum game. Iranian advance is the Saudi elite’s defeat.
A U.S. switch to Iran would also be crushing to the Saudi’s national identity ― which is marked by their historic alliance with the United States ― and this would lead to outcomes that are unpredictable in their specifics, but easy to predict in their broadest outlines. It would mean war.
Such a war is a deeply serious matter. If long standing suspicions of a nuclear pact between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are true and the Saudis gain access to nuclear weapons it raises the stakes to the most dangerous levels. The United States turning towards Saudi Arabia’s rivals would pose an existential threat to the regime. They should be expected to respond proportionally to that threat.
Nonetheless, the very isolation and narrowness of their ruling class poses persistent problems to their class allies in the United States and the West. If the Saudis’ usefulness on a regional basis has been eclipsed, there might be a strong push to trade them out for a more cosmopolitan conservative elite such as Iran’s if such a switch is politically feasible.
After all this there is one more permutation possible. The United States could align itself with Russia while still opposing Iran sharply. As recent U.S. foreign policy indicates, there’s no requirement that alliances and strategies be coherent and consistent.
Trump has no idea what he’s doing and many of the hardliners in his administration are naive ideologues and crackpots. Why not end sanctions on Russia and grow closer to their fellow reactionary autocrats while simultaneously maintaining their hostility to Iran and its allies and proxies in the region?
Russia would like this. The things the United States is likely to do in a Trump-led conflict with Iran are most likely to their benefit. Chief among these is Trump’s threat to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. The “stick” of the deal is that if Iran violates it the previous sanctions regime is supposed to snap back into place.
But if the United States unilaterally cancels the deal, there is no reason to believe that such sanctions would return.
It seems decidedly unlikely that Trump will have the global influence and respect necessary to put such a challenging regime into place, especially when the sanctioning nations have no reason to expect that their actions will contribute to a lasting solution to the conflict. If the agreement is scrapped, Iran has no limits on their nuclear program or other military advances and no limits on their economic activities, something that benefits its major military and commercial partners ― including, of course, Russia.
As for an actual U.S. war in Iran ― something, again, that major administration figures have advocated ― such an invasion would be far less successful than even the Iraq fiasco, with no meaningful base of popular support in the country. In fact, there would be a broad-based insurgency against such a crime.
Iran also boasts a much larger and more treacherous terrain and significant proxies abroad capable of extending asymmetric resistance to U.S. forces and our allies.
Even U.S. air strikes and other direct attacks short of full war could be met with proportionate Iranian attacks on U.S. forces and allies in the region, an escalation that has nowhere to go but this very no-mans-land of ground war in Central Asia. If the United States ends up down that path our capacity for imperial influence on the region will come to an end, possibly along with our empire altogether.
Again ― this has been Russia’s hope all along.
Russia and Iran and Syria versus the United States and Israel and Saudi Arabia. Either we buddy up with all of them and ditch our friends, they buddy up with all of us and ditch their friends, we buck them altogether or we split the difference and side with Russia while maintaining our hostility to their proxies.
If Trump can’t or won’t flip on the Russians in total, the options all end up rather ugly.
It is important to remember in the end that there is only one constituency that really matters to the U.S. empire ― the financial elite and billionaire ruling class ― and that class sees that Putin has established a formal oligarchy and unfettered capitalism without liberalism, a monopoly economy in the private interest.
If Trump keeps the U.S. empire alive, American elites win that way, but if he can’t, they can use the time until it falls apart to draw closer to the Russian oligarchs and create relationships that will position the U.S. ruling class to extend that order here. They can’t lose as long as fellow arch reactionaries are calling the shots.
If Putin was able to punk Obama on his way out, you have to expect he’ll also play Trump on his way in. If Russia did interfere in the campaign ― and the proof that it did so is still very weak ― it was because they wanted someone easy to manipulate running the empire they want out of their way.
The most likely outcomes of it all will destroy lives all around the world. We have to resist this not by taking the pathetic liberal road of defending empire, but rather by fighting U.S. war-making and empire on progressive, liberatory terms ― not for the sake of a chauvinistic regime such as Putin’s.
Maybe Putin and the Russians see an outcome better than the ones outlined here ― I’ve never been very good at chess or basketball ― and God only knows what crazy shit Trump might come up with.
But whatever comes, unless we can supplant the Trump regime, Russia, its oligarchs and its power-elite fan club in the U.S. will define the terms, and that isn’t good for working people and their families in Russia, in Iran, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.