Can Russia 'Help' as Much as Trump Says It Can?

Nov 14, 2017, 01:00 PM

Donald Trump has a message for the “haters and fools”—those who pounced on him when he suggested, aboard Air Force One this past weekend, that he placed greater faith in Vladimir Putin’s denials about interfering in the 2016 U.S. election than in the conclusions of the “political hacks” in his own intelligence agencies.

“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump tweeted. “I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!”

There’s a certain logic to the notion that we’re better off if the world’s largest military powers get along. But what specifically can Russia do to help resolve all these conflicts? Here’s a breakdown of what the president may have in mind.

Russia isn’t nearly as central to the drama over North Korea’s nuclear weapons as is China, which has a defense treaty with North Korea, accounts for roughly 80 to 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, and can—by withdrawing this support—push Kim Jong Un’s government to the brink of collapse. But Russia is nevertheless the largest European source of North Korean imports, accounting for around 2 percent of total imports, and a past patron of the communist Kim government during the Cold War. And Russia, like China, borders North Korea, has participated in previous talks to restrict the North Korean nuclear program, and is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which means its vote is critical to passing international sanctions.

Russia has backed tough but limited UN sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests. It has adopted a similar position to China’s: that the United States and North Korea should both cease their provocations, make compromises, and enter into negotiations. But Putin’s government also seems to be playing what Reuters describes as a “double game,” perhaps to prevent the U.S. from toppling the Kim regime and extending its influence in East Asia right up to eastern Russia—just as America did with NATO forces on Russia’s western border. It has quietly tossed a lifeline to the North by, for instance, routing North Korean internet traffic through a Russian company and expanding trade in energy supplies with the North.

Trump acknowledged as much in his comments on Air Force One on Saturday. He noted that while his government has successfully convinced China to reduce its financial and trade ties with North Korea, as a means of pressuring North Korea to make concessions on its nuclear program, Russia “may be making up the difference. And if they are, that’s not a good thing.”

Russia and the United States are the most powerful countries involved in the Syrian Civil War, with the Russians on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Americans on the side first of anti-Assad rebels and, more recently, forces fighting ISIS. They are as crucial to ending the conflict as they have been to shaping and prolonging it.

Trump and Putin demonstrated this weekend that they are making progress on a peace settlement, issuing a statement in which they vowed to bring about a “political solution” to the Syrian war through constitutional reform and UN-supervised elections in which displaced Syrians abroad will be able to vote.

Such a deal, as Trump has pointed out, would save lives; a ceasefire brokered by Russia, the U.S., and Jordan this summer in southwestern Syrian has, in fact, already saved lives. But the peace plan is still aspirational rather than operational. And if peace is eventually achieved, a key question will be: On whose terms? The Trump administration has occasionally butted heads with Russia in Syria, such as when it launched strikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and shot down a Syrian warplane that was targeting U.S.-backed rebel fighters. But it has mostly focused on uprooting the Islamic State from the country, leaving the Russian air force and Iran-supported militias to strengthen Assad’s grip on the country. When a State Depar...