Russia Removed from US Top Threats List

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump formally accepts the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar   - RTSJ4CL

President-elect Donald Trump’s top «defense priorities» list does not include Russia.

The memo dated December 1 was obtained by Foreign Policy. It was written by Brian McKeon, the acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. The priorities were reportedly conveyed to him by Mira Ricardel, a co-leader of Trump’s Defense Department transition team.

The memo focuses on the fight against the Islamic State, boosting the efficiency of defense policy, eliminating caps from the Budget Control Act, improving force strength, size, and readiness of the armed forces as well as working on a new cyber strategy.

Until now, Russia has been listed as number one threat by US officials, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper emphasized that Russia was a special threat.

Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official dealing with Russia, told Foreign Policy that Defense Department officials «would be pretty concerned» to see Moscow missing from the list. The removal of Russia from the top threats’ list is in stark contrast with the stance of Council on Foreign Relations, which believes that a potential Russia-NATO conflict is a top risk in 2017.

The Trump’s calls for better relations with Russia have influenced public opinion in Moscow’s favor. He has recently dismissed the affirmations made by US intelligence community that Russia hacked into Democratic Party systems during the election.

The nomination of Rex Tillerson for the position of State Secretary is viewed as a sign of the president-elect’s intention to shift on Russia policy.

Actually, it makes no sense for Washington to view Moscow as a top threat when both countries face one common enemy – the Islamic State and the like.

With arms control on the verge of collapse, tensions running high in Europe, a possible cyberwar at the door, hopes for cooperation in Syria frustrated, Russian diplomats activities in the US to be restricted and the Congress doing its best to prevent any thaw in the relationship, the time is right for turning the tide.

The United States’ failure to cooperate with Moscow on Syria resulted in a new format initiative launched by Russia, Turkey and Iran to address the issue. The group can be joined by other states, including the US. Donald Trump has stated that regime change in Syria would only cause more instability in the region. He believes that the Assad government stems the spread of terrorism.

The president-elect has suggested putting an end to the support for Syrian rebels. With Islamic State (IS) pushed out of, the parties could define the zones of influence and mutual obligations till international negotiations produce results.

Mr. Trump supports the idea of joining together with Russia. He said, «Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIL (IS)?» President Bashar Assad said he was ready to cooperate with the US president-elect. If so, how come Russia or Syria could be viewed as top threats to the US?

There are many burning issues waiting to be addressed. This is the time to launch meaningful talks to tackle the arms control agenda as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in February 2021 and the fate of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty is not certain.

NATO’s increased presence near its borders makes Russia take retaliatory measures. It increases the role of tactical nuclear forces in its military planning. Something should be done about the US-NATO ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans in Europe. It’s time to break the deadlock.

The B61-12 upgraded warheads deployed in Europe and the future of the plutonium agreement are also the problems to be addressed without delay in a constructive way.

There are chances to turn the tide. A group of European nations led by Germany has recently come up with a proposal to start talks on a new Russia-NATO arms control agreement to comprise regional caps on armaments, transparency measures, rules covering new military technology such as drones, and the ability to control arms even in disputed territories. The US can play the key role to make this proposal bring concrete results. The Russian and US leaders could launch a joint initiative to organize a OSCE-sponsored conference.

With Ukraine set aside as a separate problem, arms control talks could become a venue for dialogue on other pressing issues to be tackled within the framework of OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council. The agenda could encompass regional conflicts and the global fight against IS. Donald Trump has said he is ready to ally with Russia in the fight against the terrorist group. It could be a good start.

Libya appears to be an issue of common concern. This is a promising area of Russia-US cooperation. Joining together to address the problem of Afghanistan would also be a step in the right direction.

Lifting the anti-Russia sanctions would greatly enhance the prospects for success. As Politico puts it, Donald Trump can do it with a stroke of a pen. And he promises to consider this possibility.

At the recent meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped for improvement of Russia-US relationship after a new president takes office in Washington. According to him, Russia and the United States should «break out of this vicious circle» and proceed to a new level of relations. The Russian president would welcome new agreements with the US on issues of common interest.

The absence of Russia in the US president-elect’s threats list is a symbolic sign to indicate the advent of new thinking and new approaches. There is a fresh wind blowing. Prone to business-like approach, the president-elect is set to turn the tide because he is independently minded and not tied to the «establishment».

He has demonstrated the ability to stand up to pressure and do things his way. At last, there is a chance for both countries to set aside the differences and address the issues of common interest.



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