A Freeze Until Spring

What has caused and what will result from the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Russia?

In the last few days, Russian-American relations have dipped to a new low in post-Soviet history. The U.S. withdrew from bilateral negotiations with Russia on Syrian stabilization, and Moscow suspended the agreement prohibiting the use of weaponized plutonium, while a whole series of other steps and proclamations breed talk that all of this could lead to an actual conflict. Lenta.ru has tried to determine whether these concerns are justified and what awaits the dialogue between Moscow and Washington in the foreseeable future.

Suspending Cooperation in Syria: What Went Wrong?

From the beginning, there was no consensus of opinion about the head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry’s agreement about the Syrian ceasefire; the State Department took one position, the Pentagon, another. The American military did not want to work with Russian partners; they did not trust them. There were disagreements before, too, but now they have become more noticeable, taking into account that the Obama administration is already coming to the end of its tenure. This has prevented both sides from taking advantage of the full potential of opportunities afforded by the agreement.

Besides which, unfortunately, the U.S. still hasn’t managed to distinguish the moderates from the radical opposition. Speaking of which, many experts believe that nowadays, that isn’t even possible. One can agree with our diplomats, who say the ceasefire agreement had a certain one-sided character. Russia was able to convince Damascus, Iran and Hezbollah to suspend military actions, but the obligations that the Americans accepted on behalf of the opposition, alas, were never fully realized.

In the interest of fairness, it is worth noting that the problem facing the U.S. is extremely complex: there are several thousand armed groups waging war against Bashar Assad, from ideological opponents to ordinary bandits, making an effective agreement with even the main field commanders almost impossible.

The breakdown of cooperation between Moscow and Washington doesn’t mean the U.S. has taken the side of the terrorists by choosing between Russia and the Islamic State. But it still is telling: currently, the threat of the Islamic State group doesn’t quite seem large enough to Americans to spur a real partnership with Russia to battle it. There are lots of Hollywood movies about alien invasions, where all the people of Earth — Americans, Russians, Chinese and others — end their conflicts to battle the common enemy. From Washington’s perspective, the Islamic State group doesn’t embody such an existential threat.

Of course, it was a very sore point for the Americans that in the end, the Syrian army broke the ceasefire and went on the offensive in Aleppo. It’s likely Washington is truly disquieted by the possible consequences for the city’s civilian population. But suspending talks with Russia is not likely to improve the situation in Aleppo, or, for that matter, in Syria as a whole. It’s also clear that the failure of the negotiations is a huge personal defeat for Kerry, who put in so much time, effort and energy to reach an agreement. On a personal level, one can only feel bad for him.

[The Syrian Negotiation Process After the Nov. 8 Election

For the near future, it is unreasonable to expect the bilateral talks on Russian-American cooperation in Syria to resume; the time for that has passed. As for the long term future, much depends on the result of the U.S. presidential election. At least on the rhetorical level, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton differ quite strongly in their positions on the Syrian problem and on the Middle East.

I’ll take a chance and suggest that, on the whole, the role of the U.S. in Middle Eastern affairs will sooner weaken than grow stronger. Americans are tired of the region; tired of unsuccessful interventions, of unreliable partners and dubious friends. On the other hand, the United States is transitioning to energy independence and, in that sense, the Middle East is slipping down the list of foreign policy priorities. However, there is still the U.S.-Israeli alliance, the detente with Iran, and other factors that tie the U.S. to the region.

The Russian-American dialogue is not the only means of negotiation around Syria. There is the United Nations Security Council, multilateral Geneva peace talks on Syria, and Staffan de Mistura, special envoy of the U.N. secretary-general, is hard at work. By the way, de Mistura’s group includes one of the most authoritative Russian experts on the Middle East, Vitaliy Naumkin, who is highly respected in the region. The Syrian peace process will continue on many different playing fields, and some Russian-American contacts will also be preserved.

I will admit that because of the transitional period in Washington, for the present time Russia will put a finer point on cooperating with regional players, such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, possibly Israel, and even the Persian Gulf states. It’s clear that no amount of Russian-American cooperation will be a substitute for an agreement with the leading regional powers, even if it were possible to preserve it. It will be extremely difficult to find the common denominator, but nothing will work without one.

The Legislative Project “On Plutonium,” a Russian Signal

The legislative project concerned with suspending the agreement between Russia and the U.S. on the disposal of weaponized plutonium is a very loud and unequivocal political signal. Not so much to the current administration, but to its successors, since the same decision could have been phrased completely differently, in the regular course of business, so to speak. Moreover, there hasn’t been any hope for a long time now of fulfilling the 15-year-old agreement. But the Russian side has escalated things, linking the suspension of the agreement with a whole set of fundamental grievances with Washington.

The Russian argument that accompanies the suspended agreement can be divided into two parts. The first one is deeply technical. Moscow is dissatisfied with the method of weaponized plutonium disposal that the U.S. is implementing. There are doubts about how irreversible the process is, and there are suspicions that if there is an extreme need, the United States could refine the plutonium back into material that is suitable for creating nuclear explosives.

For me personally, this argument doesn’t seem particularly convincing. The current nuclear potential of the United States and Russia is not restricted by stocks of weaponized plutonium, but by the number of nuclear missiles. And even if Washington did cook the books with regard to disposing plutonium, it would not have gained any decisive advantage in the nuclear sector.

But as for political arguments, it’s all much simpler. First of all, even in Soviet times, Moscow always spoke out against ties, against making its strategic cooperation with Washington dependent on any other aspect of a bilateral agreement. On the whole, that principle worked. Now we are seeing an obvious step back from the traditional position: the announcement that renewed cooperation in the nuclear sector is conditional on the American side satisfying a long list of demands that have nothing to do with the agreement.

Second, the tenor of the political demands on Washington (canceling the Magnitsky list* and anti-Russian sanctions, reparations for losses in the sanction war, dismantling the American military infrastructure on the eastern flank of NATO, etc.) make them completely impossible to fulfill. Congressional approval is needed for some decisions, for others, the agreement of corresponding NATO administration, and so on. In other words, even if the White House agreed to completely and unequivocally capitulate before the Kremlin with reparations being paid to the victor, realizing this in practice wouldn’t work anyway.

A Message to the New President of the United States

While I was reading the list of Russian demands being made to the U.S., I remembered a well-known painting by Ilya Repin, “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.” But naturally, the Kremlin is not the Zaporozhian host. It’s hardly worth examining such a harsh ultimatum to the United States as an emotional reaction to the failure of the Syrian agreement or the product of some other kind of last straw from the American side. More likely, the Russian demarche is confirmation that in Moscow, there isn’t even hope for any improvement in bilateral relations. That is to say, nothing good will come in either case until the end of January, so we will see from there.

One might suppose that the legislative project on weaponized plutonium is now addressed not to Obama but to his successor. That means the future president will be presented with a list, of sorts, of Russian grievances and is supposed to make sense of it and possibly discuss the prospects with Moscow. If the Russian list is a kind of negotiating position, which assumes that further bargaining and compromise will then follow, then these tactics are understandable. However, a negotiating position in the format of a public document, moreover a legislative act, will inevitably make any future corrections more difficult.

A lot depends on what kind of team is assembled in Washington, how inclined the team will be to have a dialogue with Moscow, and what foreign and domestic problems the next president will be worrying about. But in any case, these are harsh conditions for renewing the Russian-American dialogue and of course, fulfilling them, even partially, will be difficult for any U.S. president.

The Predictable Leader and the Wild Card

When comparing the two U.S. presidential candidates, one could say Clinton is the cerebral cortex of the American political system, and Trump is its limbic system.

Hillary has a huge amount of experience, wide-ranging connections in political circles, is well-known abroad, and is a supporter of big business. However, Clinton will remain within the basic parameters of Obama’s strategy, with just a minor refresh and some corrections: a slightly finer emphasis on human rights, slightly harsher rhetoric regarding the Kremlin, and slightly more decisive opposition to Assad in Syria. There is no fundamentally new strategy apparent at the moment, and those who are now completely disillusioned with Obama will hardly support his deputy with enthusiasm.

Hillary will not make things easy for Russia, but at least it is more or less clear what one can expect from her and from the people she will take with her to the White House. Clinton is a pro at foreign affairs and knows not only America’s capabilities, but also its limitations. She is quite a predictable leader; a strict, sometimes obnoxious but calculating middle school teacher.

You can’t say that about Trump. He knows far less about foreign affairs, but intuitively, with his limbic system, understands more. He feels that another eight years of Obama’s trajectory will hardly solve America’s problems, and that some non-standard, non-traditional solutions are needed. Currently, Trump probably doesn’t even understand what those solutions could be. But there is a demand for change in American society, and the Republican candidate is trying to meet that demand as much as he can. If Clinton is the strict teacher, then Trump is the school bully: people are afraid of him and denounce him in front of the class, but many secretly admire and even want to imitate him.

I think this is a person who can surprise, and he likely will surprise us both positively and negatively. On the one hand, he’s not tied to Obama’s legacy (on the contrary, he will be disavowing it), but on the other hand, there is a risk that Trump will make decisions that are emotional, situational, personal and not well thought through.

An Equation with Many Variables

As far as I can judge, we agree more with Trump than with Clinton here, but I also don’t think we can say with confidence which one will be better for Russia. This is an equation with many variables.

Regardless of who wins, the election will mean an inevitable pause in the dialogue. The new administration will need time to put together a team, confirm key appointments with Congress, take an inventory of its predecessor’s legacy, and work out a foreign policy strategy. This usually takes about half a year, sometimes more. During that period, it will be worth paying attention to the nomination process for key administration positions; a lot depends on it.

For instance, Trump could nominate an experienced diplomat as secretary of state and give that person responsibility for a substantial portion of foreign policy decisions. Then the problem of Trump’s lack of experience in foreign affairs would be somewhat lessened. Clinton could nominate a person for that same position who has moderate and considered views, including views on Russian relations; for instance, Bill Burns, former U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Or, on the contrary, she could nominate some hawk from her inner circle. These are the people who will have the task of adjusting the election rhetoric.

This is why it is much more important for Russia to determine its position now: its interests with the United States, the limits of its flexibility, and the line in the sand up to which point we can compromise and when we cannot. The better we prepare for this new stage, the better the chances are that if our relationship with the U.S. doesn’t improve, then it will at least stabilize to a level that is relatively acceptable to both sides. It is very important during this period, as much as possible, to avoid statements and actions that the White House will view as anti-American, and that demand immediate retaliation.

* Translator’s note: The Magnitsky Act is a U.S. law that prohibits doing business with certain Russian individuals and businesses accused of being involved with the death of Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply