Secretary of State Pompeo was in Sochi on 14 May for talks with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. And in his opening address, Lavrov observed: “I believe it’s time to start building a new, more responsible and constructive matrix of how we see each other. We are ready to do so, of course, if our US partners are interested in doing so as well … The fact that we are meeting for the second time in the past two weeks inspires certain optimism. Let’s give it a try and see what happens”.
President Putin subsequently hosted Pompeo for a short discussion, noting: “I got the impression that the President [Trump] is in favour of restoring Russia-US ties and contacts – and of resolving issues of mutual interest. For our part, we have said many times, that we would also like to restore relations on a full scale”.
It is clear that Mr Putin’s impression of a US possible apertura arose from Trump’s call to him on 3 May, in which co-operation on assuring ‘strategic stability’ was discussed. The remarks by both Lavrov and Putin indicate both a readiness and a generosity (i.e. calling the US Administration “our US partners”) that is a mite surprising, given the extent to which Washington has been inserting its spanners into all, and everything, Moscow recently has tried to do.
Why this Trump initiative – managed by two foremost US war hawks – precisely now? Ok, the Mueller investigation is closed, but Moscow will not be naïve enough to imagine that this draws a line under the Russian malign intervention narrative. Mueller has simply gifted the claim to Congress.
In one sense, Moscow’s warmth may be a surprise, but in another, it is not. America has viewed Russia as a ‘forever’ adversary, ever since Britain and America facilitated the return of Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin to the Bolshevik Revolutionaries, in order to disrupt Russia. And even as Trump was calling Putin, the Rand Corporation was releasing its paper, ‘Overextending and Unbalancing Russia’ which outlines specific “geo-political cost-imposing” policy options. Any shift by America from this belligerency, of course would be significant, and would warrant exploration. President Putin repeatedly has warned of the unthinkable consequences for humanity, should these two states decisively enter into conflict. This is the existential threat par excellence.
But what are Trump, Pompeo and Bolton up to? Co-operation on “strategic stability”? Where are the prime risks of strategic instability? Two immediately come to mind: the financial and trade war with China and Iran.
And though Mr Lavrov was cautiously positive – ‘let’s give it a try’ – he must know only too well that the chances are not great, and the forces opposing any rapprochement with Russia at all, are many. But nonetheless, these comments from Russia’s leaders imply that they are taking this initiative seriously.
More to the point, however, even the attempt to ‘give it a try’ may prove to be a poison chalice for Russia – at least in the Middle East. This is not to say that President Trump is proposing ties in order to trap Russia. His long-standing interest in restored relations with Russia are very plain. Nor is it to say that Moscow is being cynical: Mr Putin’s equally longstanding efforts at balancing between the westward and eastward ‘tacks’ of the Russian cultural ‘persona’, as much as his concern about the dangers from the collapse of arms limitation accords, are well known.
No, the risk arises rather, from the delicate balance that is the Middle East today. The region stands at a crucial juncture: the pendulum of power has shifted northwards, as a result of Syria’s defeat of the ‘Wahhabist’ campaign against it. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon now are both mobilised and energised. And there is something of a common thread of political understanding now linking these states, too. By contrast, Syria’s Gulf adversaries are enervated, weakened, and mired in their own internal crises.
Yet this new balance of power is not consolidated. It has not yet been stabilised. Rather, it is finely poised. Events could tip it in a number of different directions. The point here, is that Russia finds itself at the pivot of events – like it, or not.
The two events with the potential to be the first dominos, are Team Trump’s determination to realise Greater Israel, and connected to that, Russia’s stand toward Syria and Iran as the Trump’s plan for the Middle East unfolds.
Is this – on Iran and Syria, but principally on the push for Greater Israel – what Trump is looking to President Putin for help? Lavrov said during the Pompeo visit that the Iran issue – in heroic understatement – “is complicated”. Military historian Andrew Bacevich points out however, that it was Trump “who chose to make antipathy to Iran the centerpiece of his foreign policy. Trump could not extricate the US from the region, while simultaneously pursuing a more aggressive anti-Iranian policy than his predecessor. The pursuit of that anti-Iranian policy has had a great deal to do with the failure to bring US involvement in multiple unnecessary wars to an end. This was not something foisted on him by others, but has been his own doing from the beginning. When his subordinates disagreed with him about the nuclear deal as Tillerson and McMaster did, he replaced them sooner or later, and he chose even more bellicose and aggressive people to take their place. He has signed off on every aggressive anti-Iranian and pro-Saudi move he could”.
Is this what is going on? Trump wants Putin to act as policeman on Syria and Iran, so that he can unfold his grand peace plan: “”Anyone doing business with Iran will NOT be doing business with the United States,” Trump tweeted in August 2018: “I am asking for WORLD PEACE, nothing less!”.
Is this it? He wants the fall-out from his unremittingly belligerent hostility to Iran (viewed as principal obstacle to the realization of Greater Israel) to be contained, so that he can bring US involvement in unnecessary wars to an end – as an empowered and stabilized Greater Israel and Russia together take over the heavy lifting of stabilizing the Middle East? It looks very much that way, with news of a new strategic summit between Israel, the US and Russia being instantiated, to manage “regional security”.
The ‘Deal of the Century’ may well be delayed on account of new elections to be held in Israel in September, but in fact, components of the ‘Deal’ structure (the Jerusalem Embassy move; Golan sovereignty for Israel; the cuts to UNWRA; annexation of settlements, etcetera) are being unfolded, piece-by-piece as ‘facts’, even as the grand ‘blueprint’ remains unpublished – if it was intended ever to be published, that is.
Plainly, Russia wants to see a political settlement for Syria soon, and Moscow says it has noted something of a change in western rhetoric on Syria. Yet, a premature push on the Syrian government to accept unpalatable terms either coming from Turkey, in favour of a weighty participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Constitutional Council, or from the West for the easing out President Assad, may lead to a rupture of Syrian confidence in Moscow. Some in Moscow might consider this a lesser consideration in the bigger strategic balance, yet a bad breach with Damascus could threaten Moscow’s standing across a much wider regional constituency.
And Bacevich’s warning is very pertinent here: Trump precisely is unable to co-operate with Moscow over Syria because of his obsession with Iran – and his wedding to Saudi Arabia.
And if a Syria resolution is stalled – amidst an ongoing US escalation against Iran; US threats against Baghdad; and US efforts to divide and to set the Lebanese against each other – further complications for Moscow are certain. Why should Moscow want this?
After the Sochi meet, Lavrov said, “As far as Iran and the [nuclear deal] are concerned, I hope that wisdom will ultimately prevail … When I say we hope to find a political solution to the situation around Iran, we’ll work to ensure the situation doesn’t slip into a military scenario. I sensed the US party, too, has a mood to be seeking a political solution …”. But then, the next day, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, specifically denied that Pompeo had assured Moscow that the United States did not seek war with Iran, adding (strangely) that Moscow was “saddened to see the decisions taken by the Iranian side”. This latter being a reference to Iran’s decision to disregard certain elements of the JCPOA (short of withdrawal), provoked deliberately by Pompeo’s cancelled waivers in respect to the proliferation requirements of the JCPOA.
The problem here is that all these ‘additional complications’ which Lavrov noted, are not separate and discrete. They are directly linked to the ‘Greater Israel’ project of President Trump.