New Delhi: Although India does not possess the geopolitical wherewithal to bring Russia and the United States closer, it would certainly benefit from their closeness which would come at the cost of China, India’s strategic competitor and all-weather friend of Pakistan. After Robert Mueller’s inquiries cleared Donald Trump of charges of colluding with Russia in the 2016 election which brought him to power, the US president has prioritized revival of Washington-Moscow ties. To that end, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. What are the real chances, however, of US-Russia relations mending to the extent of becoming friendly? Slim as they look now, a lot also depends on the give-and-take from both sides.

US-Russia relations not only have a large bilateral component but they also contain an appreciable trilateral angle involving China. This dynamic had its origins in the closing stages of World War II but truly came into its own with the falling out of the two communist fraternal allies, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, in the early nineteen-fifties. In Henry Kissinger’s telling, Konrad Adenauer was among the first Western statesmen to be privy to the Sino-Soviet rift, which after Joseph Stalin’s death grew progressively worse and resulted in clashes on the Ussuri River on the borders of the Soviet Union and China. Alerted by Soviet attempts to involve the United States in the clashes on its side, Kissinger and Richard Nixon, the president, saw an opportunity to prop China against the USSR, and Mao Zedong was more than eager to meet America halfway by declaring to stay out of the Vietnam War. Nixon adroitly played the China card to compel the Soviet Union for a detente. The opening to China was by no means easy for Nixon and Kissinger had to battle it out with an establishment that had supported Mao’s nationalist right rival, Chiang Kai Shek, in the Chinese civil war. The Watergate scandal consumed Nixon before he could taste the fruits of the China initiative, which in turn prospered under several of his successors to make China an economic superpower until Trump arrived to challenge China’s rise. Trump’s trade war with China and his attempted re-opening to Russia are two sides of the same coin. It also represents historical revisionism on the part of Washington with China now being sought to be contained with the assistance of Russia. Washington’s game plan was not lost on China which rushed foreign minister Wang Yi to meet Putin and Lavrov a day earlier to their scheduled discussions with Mike Pompeo. Wang subsequently warned against “outside interference” in China-Russia relations without naming the United States.

US-Russia relations are complicated by post-Cold War US-Russia differences, the US-China trade war, and lastly by close but asymmetrical Moscow-Beijing ties. US-Russia relations have not lived up to the post-Cold War promise on account of NATO expansions to embrace some former Soviet bloc states and narrowly missing Ukraine. NATO’s open door to Ukraine caused the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea whose reversals are non-negotiable for both the United States and its Western allies. Pompeo underlined this in his meetings with Putin and Lavrov and added that Ukraine-related sanctions would stay. Russian anxieties about its western front arise from the catastrophic invasions of Napoleon Bonaparte and Nazi Germany in successive centuries. Beyond that, Vladimir Putin’s personal political insecurities have led him to destabilize democracies of Western Europe and the US. Robert Mueller has found no prosecutable evidence against Donald Trump but there is enough to implicate Russia in election meddling. This alone makes a reboot with Moscow an almost impossible task for Trump, and the establishment and the American deep state are further profoundly committed against Russia. Adept at geo-economics, Trump’s geopolitics lacks purpose, direction and vision (for example, Venezuela and Iran), and this could also ruin the Russia move. For that matter, Russia and the United States occupy opposite places in the Venezuela and Iran crises, and it is unthinkable on present evidence that Donald Trump can reconcile the large differences. Consulting with West European allies might conceivably provide appealing new options, but Trump is not interested.

Then there is Russia-China relations to consider. It is not as blissful as it appears on the surface. The power asymmetry between Beijing and Moscow can no longer be overlooked. Once its mentor, Russia exports oil and arms to China which only goes to enhance China’s geopolitical and geo-economic rise. In 1992 according to the World Bank, China’s nominal GDP was almost level with Russia’s; today, it is eight times the size. As the world’s number two economic power (number one on a PPP basis), China can influence geo-economics in the neighbourhood and beyond as Russia cannot. Russia does not have the equivalent of the Belt and Road Initiative even factoring for the distrust BRI evokes in the region. Russia’s dwindling population makes a Chinese demographic invasion of the Russian Far East a real and present danger. China has participated in every major Russian military exercise and decorated Putin with an exceptional “friendship” medal but these only serve to reinforce the impression that China is feeding off Russian power till it is exhausted.

As clearly as all this is evident to Russia and Vladimir Putin, the only remedy of making up to the West and the United States is closed off by the mutual insecurities that the two sides share. NATO rearmament right up to the borders of Russia heighten its apprehensions about a new Cold War. And Russian presence in eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea brings ugly reminders of the Iron Curtain. Worsening all this are Putin’s personal political fears leading to crude attempts to undermine Western democracies. If the Cold War could be ended peacefully, the present state of East-West tensions poses a far lesser challenge. But the US president, however determined, cannot resolve it in isolation. The US deep state has often been unfair to Russia, but Russian bloody-mindedness also knows no bounds. All the same, if the vast threat from China is to be countered, it is best for the West and Russia to make peace and act in unison. China represents a threat to the world order in the way perhaps that Nazi Germany did with its industrial might and pitiless ideology.