The US presidential campaign contained a constant undertone of Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

Putin said nice things about Donald Trump, and Trump about Putin. In fact, there is a small faction of Trump supporters that admires Putin. They like that he is a strong leader and his position on gay rights and other matters. They do not see him as a former communist, but rather as a defender of Western civilization.

Vladimir Putin Russia
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But, the key here is to understand the real issues that exist between the US and Russia. At the heart of this matter is Ukraine.

The National Security Argument

The Russian view of what happened in Ukraine is that the US engineered an uprising in Kiev that drove out the legally elected government. The US says it did not engineer a coup. Rather, it supported human rights activists opposed to a corrupt government in Ukraine.

After the change in Ukraine’s government, the Russians took formal control of Crimea. They tried to foment an uprising in eastern Ukraine. The US charged that the Russians were interfering with the internal affairs of the Ukrainian nation. The Russians countered that the US was audacious in making the claim.

The US claimed the Russians were not only arming and directing the rebellion, but also had military designs on the country. So, the US and Europe placed sanctions on Russia. Russia demanded sanctions be removed.

All this can be summed up by two charges. The Russians declared the US was backing activists masquerading as human rights groups in order to destabilize those countries it wanted to control. Russia stated that the goal of the US was to install pro-US regimes.

The US claimed that Russia was becoming internally more repressive. The Obama administration feared that Putin wanted to recreate the former Soviet Union with a new ideology. To the US, it was a matter of national sovereignty and liberal democracy.

Russia’s Historical Buffer

There is also a historical level to this issue. Russia has survived for almost three centuries because of strategic depth. Historically, control over the Baltics, Belarus, and particularly Ukraine was essential for Russia’s survival.

Without this buffer zone, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Adolf Hitler would have destroyed Russia.

In this context, the move by the US into Ukraine was a challenge to Russian strategic interests. Further, because the US knew it was a challenge, it appeared that the US sought to destabilize Russia itself. A pro-US government in Ukraine (with forces trained and supplied by the US) was not acceptable to Russia.

US strategic interests also operate under a historic context. If all of Europe were to unite under a single hegemonic power, it would pose a threat to the survival of the US. Russian natural resources and manpower coupled with Western European technology and organization could more than match US power.

In addition, the only force that could challenge US Naval power would be a united Europe. US national security has depended on control of the seas in terms of commerce and defense. US intervention in Europe in WWI, WWII, and the Cold War was designed to prevent the conquest and amalgamation of Europe.

The Reason Behind Putin’s Posturing

Because Russia failed to build a modern economy after 1992, it remained an energy exporter. When the price of oil crashed, the Russians faced an economic crisis of epic proportions.

Putin first had to maintain national morale. He had to show that regardless of economic problems, he had made Russia a great power. He was not in a position militarily to wage war in Ukraine, but he could still appear powerful.

Engagement with American and European aircraft as well as bold military exercises near borders increased the sense of Russian power at home and abroad.

This was also the key to Russia’s involvement in Syria, which has no strategic value to the Russians.

The intervention in Syria allowed Putin to appear to be engaging the US on equal terms… in a place where the prospect of a clash appeared great but had little chance of happening. Putin needed to buy time for his military to mature, or oil prices to rise, or both. Neither was likely to happen quickly.

An unofficial truce took hold in Ukraine. The Kiev government stayed in place, Russia held Crimea, and fighting in the east was reduced to a low, yet constant, level. A reality had been produced.

For Putin, this was a reasonable basis for an agreement.

Why Putin likes Trump

Putin’s interest in Trump stems from Trump’s lack of interest in foreign matters as well as his indifference to creating liberal democracies around the world. Trump’s view is that the US needs an overriding interest in an area to engage.

Given this view, Trump would likely agree that Russian hegemony over Europe is unacceptable. At the same time, Trump would not plan to engage so early and so deep in a region of Russian interest.

For Trump, a neutralization of Ukraine would be acceptable. The personal dimension, Putin hoped, would eliminate Obama’s desire to see him fall.

Beneath the jabber of the US election and the public charges and counter-charges, the situation between the US and Russia can be seen. The basis for a mutual agreement comes from those facts.

The reality is that Russia is not in a position militarily to conquer Ukraine, nor is the US in a position to defend it. Both sides know that conflict in the future is possible, but neither is ready for it now.

Trying to figure out Trump’s and Putin’s thinking isn’t easy. True goals are buried under layers of bluster. But intent is clearer than many might think. It would be a quick success for both sides and would strengthen two weak political hands.

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Article by George Friedman