Future of U.S.-Russia Relations After The Bounty Reports

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A jaw-dropping intelligence story surfaced on 26th June, 2020, in the New York Times, telling that a specialized branch of the Russian Federation’s military intelligence agency GRU, Unit 29155, secretly offered bounties to affiliates of the Taliban inside Afghanistan for carrying out successful deadly attacks on the outgoing U.S. and allied forces there.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump took to Twitter and called it a hoax and an effort aimed at damaging his reputation and that of the Republican Party especially at a time when the presidential election is just a few months away. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, told NBC News in a video call that the story is a hundred per cent bullshi*– denying any such role played by Moscow. And the third, last, and most important party to rebuff these reports was the Taliban, who said they do adhere to the terms and conditions of the agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020.

After Donald Trump’s dismissal of the story as “fake,” other top officials of his administration such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’ Brian rushed to the defense of the president, calling the leaked intelligence assessment as “important and serious” but “unverified,” and thus not of the level to be shared with the president, at least verbally so.

Robert O’ Brian, especially, went so far, and perhaps inadvertently so, as to confess that they have actually been deliberating for months to prepare a list of potential responses to Moscow if they reached to the bottom of such reports, while refusing to answer when exactly did they first learn of such reports- further complicating things for the Trump administration in their denial of truth in the leaked intelligence assessment and their apparent unresponsiveness.

On the other hand, top democrats such as Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have accused Mr. Trump of “being soft on Vladimir Putin,” in the broader context though, and have further stressed that the particular reports be pursued relentlessly to ensure the safety of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Joe Biden, a strong democratic candidate in the US presidential race, called the revelation “shocking and horrifying” and, went so far, as to label President Trump’s entire existence in the Oval Office as a gift to Vladimir Putin.  

It is pertinent to mention here that following the late February 2020 U.S.-Taliban peace deal in Doha, Qatar, the number of U.S. troops has just been reduced to around 8,600 from then 12,000. They are expected to witness a full withdrawal from the war ravaged country by mid-2021 if the Taliban shows a wholehearted adherence to the agreement on the ground. 

So far the U.S. alone has lost as much as 28 soldiers in various violent attacks in Afghanistan since 2019. Given the complex multiplicity of militant groups on the Afghan soil, it remains unclear as to which of these attacks were actually orchestrated under the influence and patronage of Moscow.

If the reports turn out to be true, it will have far reaching implications, irrespective of who wins the November 3, 2020 U.S. presidential election: Would it mean that Vladimir Putin wants the U.S. and allied forces to remain trapped in an unending war in Afghanistan, so that he could more aggressively pursue his country’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Europe and even North Africa and South America? Would it mean that Putin wants the U.S. and their partners to stay in the war torn country to actually continue doing his country a big favor- neutralizing and pre-empting the radical jihadist elements from proliferation and intrusion into the central Asian republics that has the potential of ultimately threatening Russia herself? Or, and finally, would it mean that Mr. Putin wants to settle his country’s score with the U.S. from the Soviet times and force the latter into a hasty and embarrassing pull out by unleashing paid mercenaries and Taliban affiliates onto her and her NATO allies?

The above questions do not have easy and quick answers, at least for now, owing to the lack of political stability and the greater number of warring factions and peace spoilers in Afghanistan, the capricious nature of the U.S.-Russia relations, and more importantly, the apparent inability, on part of both academic researchers and policy makers in the U.S. and Europe, in effectively and timely deciphering and predicting the foreign policy overtures of Russia due to Vladimir Putin’s apparently spectacular strategizing and policy-making prowess.

More important, if the reports are corroborated, will be to see how the U.S. will respond, or not respond at all. In the latter case, the U.S. as a superpower will be embarrassed globally and will likely lose the confidence of its allies and partners in terms of security guarantees. In the former case, Russia will more likely be slapped with some more biting targeted economic sanctions. Such a move, nonetheless, will have the potential to nudge Russia, often dubbed as a rogue state in the West, into further collaboration with other anti-America roguish states and violent non-state actors in the world, and creating further chaos and instability that no one can really afford. Then, the million dollar question that the Trump administration should try answering is, how to engage with the powerful bear?

According to a top U.S. based retired Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies, who preferred to remain anonymous, “The only real means that the U.S. really has is sanctions, since anything more is likely to lead to real conflict. However, given the nature and orientation of the current president in Washington and the multiple levels of domestic chaos in the U.S. at the present time, I doubt that anything will occur in the near future.”

Alienating Russia seems to be more disastrous than accommodating her and perhaps this is why Mr. Trump appears not to be too tough on Vladimir Putin. He has said at multiple times that “If we could all get along, that would be great.” The question is, at the cost of what?

Thus, Sir Winston Churchill stands vindicated once again when he called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Having said all of the above, it is believed that the ball really is in Russia’s court. If she avoids pursuing a belligerent foreign policy especially one vis-à-vis the U.S. in conflict ridden countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Argentina and Venezuela, none other than Russia herself and the Russian people would be the ones to reap the benefits of such a move as it will further her trade ties with the rich West. It is really up to Putin’s Russia now as to which course of action it is going to pursue, which one not to pursue, and why.

Nasir Muhammad
Nasir Muhammad
Nasir Muhammad holds an M. Phil in International Relations and teaches at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Central Punjab, Pakistan. He can be reached at nasir.edwardian[at]gmail.com

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