Publication: Strategic Survey 2017: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics
06 September 2017
Throughout the year to mid-2017, Eurasian politics continued to be dominated by Russia’s stand-off with the United States and Europe, and Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. Russia and the West viewed each other as a defence priority, if not an outright threat. In an updated foreign-policy concept released in November 2016, Moscow accused the Euro-Atlantic community of promoting instability and regional conflict, warning that it would take action if Western countries sought to interfere in the internal affairs of other states outside the framework of international law.
The election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 raised the possibility of a fundamental shift in the relationship between Moscow and Washington – one with major implications for European security and the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. Trump’s agenda appeared to imply a desire for greater cooperation with Russia in combating international terrorist groups – particularly the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL – in the region. He had shown little interest in the war in Ukraine, prompting speculation that the United States might lift the sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and wider role in the conflict.
Yet by mid-2017, Trump had failed to articulate a clear vision for the future of the US–Russia relationship. The resulting uncertainty was compounded by allegations that Russia interfered in the US presidential elections, and that members of Trump’s campaign team had colluded with Russian officials. As a consequence, there remained a risk that the relationship would deteriorate further. The US military conducted a missile strike on a Syrian air base in April and downed a Syrian aircraft in June, casting doubt on prospects for US–Russia counter-terrorism cooperation and reviving Moscow’s fear that Washington would continue to push for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally. Trump’s presidency did nothing to allay Russian concerns about the missile-defence programme and evolving conventional capabilities of the US. Ongoing militarisation by both sides imperilled arms-control treaties: in March 2017, US officials for the first time publicly accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Trump made no move to ease Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia; in June 2017, the US Senate put forward additional sanctions in response to Russian interference in the elections, as well as to codify the existing regime.