External Affairs

After Kerry’s Moscow Visit, Hint of a US-Russia Thaw Over Syria

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Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shakes hands with US xecretary of state John Kerry during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2016.  Crdit:  REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shakes hands with US xecretary of state John Kerry during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2016. Crdit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Moscow: US Secretary of State John Kerry departed Moscow Friday after his fourth face-to-face with Vladimir Putin in barely a year, and it is starting to look possible that the relentless downward spiral driving Russia and the West into a new Cold War might just be reversible.

Kerry came to the Kremlin bearing an extraordinary new proposal for military cooperation between Russian and US military forces in Syria. Almost unthinkable even a few weeks ago, the draft US plan would create a joint US/Russia command centre, mechanisms for intelligence-sharing and even possible common airstrikes against “extremist” targets.

The Kremlin has so far been publicly non-committal on the idea, even though it appears to acknowledge the need for the common front against terrorism that Putin called for in his UN General Assembly speech last year  – just before Russia sent its armed forces to intervene directly in Syria’s civil war.

But Russian experts say the proposed deal represents a clear break with the Obama administration’s former insistence that Russian activities are “part of the problem” in Syria. It also seems to admit that Syrian rebels are never going to succeed in overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad by force, and that the jihadist armies aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic Front pose a much greater long-term danger than Assad to both Russia and the West.

Most satisfying for Russian foreign policy experts is the implicit acknowledgement that no settlement of the Syrian imbroglio can be attained without active Russian cooperation.

Nice unites

News of the horrific terrorist attack in Nice early Friday morning hit just as Kerry’s talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov were winding up. Both foreign ministers rushed to the French embassy in Moscow to express their condolences. And there, a telling exchange took place.

“I think people all over the world are looking to us and waiting for us to find a faster and more tangible way for them feeling that everything that is possible has been done to end this terrorist scourge and to unite the world in the most comprehensive efforts possible to fight back against their nihilistic and depraved approach to life and death,” Kerry said.

Then, according to the Voice of America, he turned to Lavrov and added: “And you and I and our teams are in an enviable position of actually being able to do something about it.”

The hint of a breakthrough between the US and Russia in Syria is just one signal that relations may be thawing. Another is the abrupt turnabout in Russian-Turkish relations, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan penned an unexpected letter of apology to Russia over last Novemeber’s Turkish shootdown of a Russian bomber over Syria. Both sides appear to be moving swiftly to mend their fences and there are strong signs that Erdogan might also give up his insistence that Assad must leave power
Even the confrontation in the West, where a NATO summit in Warsaw last week determined to station four rotating battalions in former Soviet-controlled eastern Europe, to confront alleged Russian aggression, is starting to look more manageable.

Russia has looked askance at NATO’s eastward march over the past two decades,  incorporating former Soviet allies and even former republics of the USSR into a military alliance that Moscow sees as fundamentally hostile. The present upsurge in tensions began two years ago, when a pro-Western revolution in Kiev raised the spectre of a NATO-allied Ukraine – something the Kremlin had repeatedly declared to be an unacceptable encroachment into Russia’s security comfort zone. But Moscow’s reactions – to annex Russian-populated Crimea with its naval base at Sevastopol and foment rebellion in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine – were viewed in the West as a serious disruption of post-cold war order, and signs of a newly aggressive Russia that needed to be countered.

Russian security experts are parsing the results of last weekend’s Warsaw summit, and finding mixed signals. The decision to deploy a rotating force of four battalions in the former Soviet Baltics was expected, but is nevertheless regarded as a violation of NATO’s earlier commitments not to station foreign forces on those territories. Yet the overall tone was markedly less confrontational than feared, and included some clear statements that will be welcomed in the Kremlin. These include assurances that Ukraine will not be invited to join NATO anytime soon, and the expression of hope for renewed Russia-NATO dialogue.

“While we don’t see any clear trend on either side that would point the way out of this crisis, the potential is there for reasonable leaders who see the dangers can stop this cycle of escalation,” says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. “Both sides have political and economic limitations that should rein-in enthusiasm for any new cold war, and at the same time there are reasons to pool our efforts, for instance in the fight against terrorism.”

NATO still an issue

In the run-up to the NATO summit, Russia suggested several measures that could dial back the dangerous military buildup, especially in the crowded Baltic theatre. On a visit to Finland 10 days ago, Vladimir Putin suggested an agreement could be reached to require all military aircraft flying in the Baltic region to switch on their transponders – the electronic signal that broadcasts identity and position.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu late last month ordered the military to work out a new set of rules for carrying out manoeuvres near NATO forces, to reduce the danger of miscalculations amid mid-air and high seas close encounters between Russian and NATO military forces. Speaking to the Moscow daily Kommersant, Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, Alexander Grushko, said Russia would be willing to update a 1972 agreement regulating the behaviour of ships and planes manoeuvring in close proximity.

Discussions could include “the minimum allowed distances between ships and aircraft in the same area, establishing special radio frequencies for them to communicate, and so on. There could be a package of measures which would enable more efficient operations and better understanding of each others maneuvers amid such encounters,” Grushko said.

Experts also say that renewed meetings of the NATO-Russia Council could offer hope for wider rapprochement. They were completely suspended for almost two years during the crisis, but one was held last April, and another last Wednesday held serious discussions about the Russian plan to reduce tensions in air-and-sea encounters.

“The resumption of direct meetings is an optimistic sign,” says Pavel Zolotaryev, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. “The council was created to prevent misunderstandings, but it was used as an instrument for pressure on Russia when its meetings were halted.”

Zolotaryev says Russia may also be encouraged by statements made by French, Greek and Italian leaders at the NATO summit, indicating dissent from the general view of Russia as a resurgent military threat.

“We perceive that a lot of Europeans favour different priorities from putting efforts into confronting Russia. They are not so willing to follow Washington blindly as they were in the past,” and that suggests an easing of tensions is possible, he says.

The shifting balance in Syria, and broader cooperation in the war on jihadist extremism, may also change the conversation about European security in positive ways, Russian experts say.

And even if Russia and NATO are doomed to repeat history along a new confrontation line in Europe, they say, Russia is not going to repeat the mistakes of the former USSR by engaging the West in a global contest for dominance.

Viktor Litovkin, military editor of the official ITAR-Tass news agency, says that NATO is overwhelmingly superior to Russia in every key measure, including population, economic power and military forces, and hence the very idea of Russia as a big new threat to Europe is preposterous.

“The US wants to drag us into a new arms race, as they did before, in order to bankrupt us through military spending,” he says. “But we won’t do that. Russia will counter NATO in smart ways, whatever is needed to defend ourselves, but not more.”

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