Since the campaign President Trump has been going out of his way to repair relations with Russia. He has faced intense criticism from both Republicans and Democrats who prefer that we maintain an adversarial relationship with this country. Russia as a country presents several problems as they have their own national interests that they are trying to pursue which is sometimes at odds with ours. It is a very fair question to ask Why Russia? Why should we bother pursuing warmer relations with this country?
By itself Russia is not important. Taken on their own there is not much value in forming better relations with them. The value of Russia lies not with them but with their proximity and historical relationship with another country, China.
To understand the importance of Russia you first have to understand how the President looks at the world. Trump looks at the world thru the lens of the economy. That is his primary consideration. Military, diplomacy, human rights, climate, and everything else you can think of is only a distant second. From this standpoint the primary competitor of the US is China. It is the only country worldwide that is capable of overtaking the country in global dominance. By this standard Russia, with an economy the size of Italy, is barely a secondary power. In fact the military of Russia would be a burden to them in this case as they would not be able to afford it long term.
This worldview might be different from other people but it is not wrong. In a micro sense we see richer people being afforded better interest rates than poorer ones. We also see that when they default on their obligations the banks are more willing to work with the richer customers while taking the collateral of poorer ones. Trump has taken advantage of this himself. You would be foolish to think he is the only one to have done so. This also holds true in a macro sense. Debts of countries with weak economies like Greece do not get renegotiated and its people are forced into austerity while everything is done to make sure that countries with stronger economies are not inconvenienced by paying their debt.
In this world view everything flows from a stronger economy. Economy leads to military success as you are able to afford a bigger army and pay to keep it deployed longer and in more areas. Economy leads to diplomatic success as you have more leverage in dealings with other countries. Economy even leads to domestic tranquility as the populace is more content.
Every simulation done by the Chinese general staff on a potential conflict with the US assumes that Russia is a friendly nation or at worse a neutral one. A Russia that has a chance to be friendly to the US in a conflict with China is the worst nightmare for the Chinese. First off you have the massive border between Russia and China. There is just no real way to defend a border of that size while still keeping your coasts adequately protected. Second you have the type of military the US has and the type Russia has. At the end of the day the US is and always will be a naval power. Most of our force projection involves the navy and our carriers. Russia on the other hand is a land power. They also have the willpower to sustain casualties that the US cannot.
At first glance you would not see any great importance of Russia to China in trade. While it is true that the first priority of China in trade is the southeast region of Asia, this area is also the most easily disrupted if conflict were to arise with the US. The more China relies on this region for its wealth the more power it gives the US over it.
China knows that its navy will never equal that of the US. It is just too far behind and the US improves its navy all the time. This means that the Southeast China sea and Southeast Asia will always be at risk. Due to this the Chinese are spending trillions of dollars developing a land trade route modeled along the lines of the Silk Road used in the middle ages.
The silk road is not one straight line but rather a spiderweb of land based trade routes stretching from China all the way to Europe. These routes have to pass thru one of two major regions. The Middle East or Russia. The Middle East is the Middle East, there is no reasonable expectation for it to be a stable region anytime in the future. At any point in time any of its countries can enter a state of war. In any case the US already has significant allies in the region with Israel and Saudi Arabia. A Russia friendly to the US would mean that even these routes can be cut off.
The Chinese have been trying to set up an alternative world order without the US. From Brics, to its own version of the TPP, to various bilateral relations with countries around the world. In most of these endeavors Russia is its biggest partner and helps provide stability and credibility to these alternative institutions.
A Russia that is friendly to the US would mean that one of the primary members of this new world order would be able to make decisions that is favorable to the US.
Trump needs Russia in order to contain the Chinese and make it harder for them to compete with the US. China has a history spanning thousands of years. The current communist government does not see themselves as a New China but rather a continuation of the Old Chinese dynasties. Even Rome the longest civilization the west has had can only claim a history of 1000 years.
This gives the Chinese a mindset that favors the long term rather than the short and favors certainty above all else. The more uncertain they are over their alliance with Russia and all the plans coming from it the more they will be willing to give up to the US in the negotiating table.