Adam Garrie and I have discussed how the way is now open for Donald Trump to move forward with Russia to settle the two big crises affecting US – Russian relations: Ukraine and Syria.
The initial words spoken by Trump and Putin in the aftermath of Trump’s victory do hold out a measure of promise. In his public comments after his victory Trump was careful to say
“I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone. All people and all other nations.”
(bold italics added)
Whilst these words do not specifically refer to Russia, it is no secret to anyone at all familiar with international relations that the Russians – perhaps more than any other nation – strongly feel that the US has not been treating them fairly. They are bound to see in these words a first clue that Trump is genuinely interested in patching up relations with them.
The Russians have responded in kind. Taking the opportunity of a meeting with foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin, Putin had this to say about Trump’s election victory
“We heard the statements he made as candidate for president expressing a desire to restore relations between our countries. We realise and understand that this will not be an easy road given the level to which our relations have degraded today, regrettably. But, as I have said before, it is not Russia’s fault that our relations with the United States have reached this point.
Russia is ready to and seeks a return to full-format relations with the United States. Let me say again, we know that this will not be easy, but are ready to take this road, take steps on our side and do all we can to set Russian-US relations back on a stable development track.
This would benefit both the Russian and American peoples and would have a positive impact on the general climate in international affairs, given the particular responsibility that Russia and the US share for maintaining global stability and security.”
In other words the Russians are prepared to work with Trump to bring to an end the current period of heightened superpower tensions. If Trump is genuinely interested in improving relations with Russia – and all the indications are that he is – then the willingness on the part of the Russians to make a deal is there.
Time however is of the essence. Trump does not become President until January, the international situation remains tense, and the enemies of improved relations between the US and Russia are still there.
In Ukraine the Maidan government has dug in its heels on implementing the Minsk II agreement whilst blaming Russia for its own failure to do this. In August it tried to infiltrate a sabotage mission into Crimea, causing fears of war between Ukraine and Russia. In the Donbass, instead of disengaging its forces from the contact line as it has repeatedly promised, it continuously steps up attacks. There is mounting evidence that it is directly implicated in the recent series of assassinations of Donbass leaders – including the recent one of Motorola – and there were sketchy reports yesterday that members of another Ukrainian sabotage mission have just been captured in the Donbass, though details for the moment are sparse.
If the Maidan leadership senses a coming end to the sort of unqualified support from the US it has been getting, then given the character of some of its members and its inability to compromise, it is not impossible that it might decide to go for broke, and resume full scale war in the Donbass as a means of embarrassing Trump and of shoring up Western support.
In the Middle East the situation is if possible even worse. In October the US and Russian militaries in Syria faced off against each other, with public threats made of a sort that have not been heard since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The US air attack in September on Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor shows how dangerous the situation has become, with parts of the US military apparently barely under Presidential control. To cap everything, the US and Russia moreover now seem locked in a strange race to see who will be the first to win the battles in Mosul and eastern Aleppo, when the nature of the enemy in both places means that on the contrary they should be fighting alongside each other.
Beyond that there is the issue of the European sanctions, which are for renewal in January. The US under Obama has been pressing the Europeans to extend the sanctions, and though this push is being resisted by southern Europe, the wide expectation until recently was that they would be renewed.
Though the actual effectiveness of the sanctions is fast diminishing, they continue to have symbolic importance, with their very existence acting as a symbol of the bad state of relations between Russia and the West.
Meantime NATO has been busy assembling troops in eastern Europe close to Russia’s borders – in breach of its earlier promises to Russia – with NATO officials talking endlessly – and groundlessly – of “Russian aggression”, and the British Defence Minister even talking absurdly and completely irresponsibly of the possibility of war with Russia in 2 years.
As President elect Donald Trump cannot enter into any formal agreements with Vladimir Putin or with Russia. However an informal summit between the two men before Trump’s inauguration would be a powerful signal of their determination to work together with each other to solve the mountain of problems which have accumulated. It would annoy Obama and the neocons, but it would enable Trump and Putin to get to know each other better (they have never actually met) and would at least enable them to start to lay the groundwork for a move towards improving relations once Trump is inaugurated.
Most important of all, it would be the strongest possible signal to anyone with any crazy ideas in Washington and Brussels – and indeed in Kiev, Riyadh and Ankara – that they can expect no support or sympathy when Trump finally moves into the White House.
Trump has previously floated the idea of such an informal summit meeting with Putin before Inauguration Day. The international situation in fact makes such a meeting urgent. Though Trump’s in-tray will be bursting as he struggles to put together his administration, Trump should make it a priority.