The Future of US – Russian Relations
For about half a century, the rivalry between the US and Russia dominated the world stage and, to a great extent, the Middle East. Russia initially sided with Israel at it’s formation as many Israelis (especially those in kibitzes) were Communist. Later, they shifted and began backing several Arab states, including Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
That era appeared to end when the USSR dissolved a quarter century ago.
Today, the “Great Game” between the US and Russia is back on. NATO military forces are shifting eastward into territory that was once considered part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian Bear bombers are patrolling outside US and other NATO nation’s airspace. And, the two powers are once again maneuvering against each other in the Middle East – especially in Russia’s long time ally, Syria.
The field has changed though. NATO ally, Turkey is attacking its long time ally, the US, and accusing them of supporting the ouster of its President Erdogan. Iran has evolved from a” pariah” state to a major regional power. The US is left on the sidelines as Turkey and Russia craft a peace plan in Syria. And, Israeli – US relations are at their lowest point in history.
In a piece of irony, the US is now accusing Russia of interfering in US elections, even though the US has blandly interfered in other nation’s elections for decades.
There are four factors for this situation: American diplomatic bumbling, Obama prioritizing politics over foreign policy, Russian resurgence, and a Turkey that is looking east, rather than west.
Even many Democrats have noted that Obama has been a foreign policy disappointment. His progressive ideology, combined with a short attention span in foreign affairs have kept the Obama Administration “pivoting” from problem to problem without focusing long enough to secure a solution.
This is obvious in US – Russian relations. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the Russians with a “reset’ button to show that they wanted to reset US – Russian relations so the two nations would cooperate more. In 2012, Obama promised the Russians, while a microphone was inadvertently on, to be more cooperative once the 2012 presidential elections were over.
These promises of warmer relations were interspersed with condemnations over Russian interference in the Ukraine, American military movements along the Russian borders with the Baltic States and Poland, confrontation with Russia in Syria, and economic sanctions against Russia.
This, in turn forced Russia to more closely ally itself with China, which was pressuring the US in the Pacific region.
There was also a political aspect to Obama’s treatment of Russia, especially in regards to charges of Russian hacking during the US elections. CNN recently said, “White House officials worried that publicly outing Russia would appear to be an effort to help Clinton, and the deliberations coincided with Trump’s complaints about a rigged election. Administration officials were sure Trump would lose in November and they were worried about giving him any reason to question the election results.
So it was the certainty that Hillary would win which caused the White House to hold back. Clinton was leading in national and swing state polls and there really was a great concern on the left that Trump would refuse to concede. So why announce some sort of cyber-attack threat right before the election? Better to wait until she has won and take the political question off the table.
In an interview with the Atlantic, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff criticized the administration for failing to act sooner and more forcefully. He wrote, “I think the president should have come out earlier with attribution [for the cyber campaign]. I don’t accept the argument that [the administration] couldn’t come out earlier because they hadn’t established the evidence of attribution. The evidence was clear for a very long time before they were public about it. Senator [Dianne] Feinstein and I made public attribution [regarding Russia in September], before the intelligence community did, which is rare. I also think the process of sanctioning Russia should have begun far earlier, and we should have worked with our European allies to impose costs on Russia. That would have also telegraphed to the American people how serious this was.”
This political and foreign policy vacillation played into the hands of a resurgent Russia under Putin. The anti-Assad posture of the Obama administration has strengthened Russia’s bonds with the Syrian government and guaranteed what has been a centuries old Russian strategic goal – a warm water port.
Russia has also benefitted from Obama’s recent actions against Israel. Russia has criticized the US actions against Israel at the UN (even though Russia voted for the resolution).
Ha’aretz reported: “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal that the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the UN and the European Union – adopt the principles he will present in his speech on the Israeli-Palestinian in Washington on Wednesday afternoon. …Lavrov warned against the impact of the U.S. domestic agenda on the Middle East Quartet and the UN Security Council,” the ministry stated. “He spotlighted harmful attempts to use these platforms for the Democrats’ and Republicans’ bickering.”
“Lavrov’s statement echoed some of the fears that have been voiced in recent days by the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem that the Obama administration would likely make additional attempts to advance international steps on the Palestinian issue before Donald Trump becomes president on January 20.”
Chances are that Russia is actually playing for inside position as the “honest broker” at future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at the expense of the US, an opening that Obama and Kerry have provided.
Obama’s anti-Russian moves are also limited, which is why Obama merely expelled and sanctioned some diplomats – a common ploy practiced by the US and the USSR during the Cold War. The weak response against Russia has come from Obama’s inability to take unilateral actions under current laws. While Obama previously signed an executive order that would allow him to freeze the assets in the United States of people overseas who have engaged in cyber acts, it only applies to actions that have threatened U.S. national security or financial stability. Further, use of the existing law would require (1) actual election infrastructure to be designated as ‘critical infrastructure’ and (2) the administration to prove that such infrastructure was actually “harmed” , conditions which the National Security Council say have not been met.
There is also the fact that covert actions like cyber attacks against Russian computer systems take time – longer than the 20 or so days that Obama has to act.
Finally, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has warned that if U.S. adopts new sanctions against Russia, the government in Moscow will resort to counter-measures. The logical response is to expel some US diplomats.
There is also the question of how long those sanctions might stay in place with a Trump presidency. “We ought to get on with our lives,” Trump responded, when asked by reporters about possible sanctions.
Obama’s weak foreign policy has also made the US unnecessary in diplomatic negotiations in the Middle East. In the latest snub to Obama and the US State Department, on Wednesday Turkey and Russia reached an agreement for a ceasefire in Syria, Turkey’s foreign minister said the two countries have reached a consensus that will be presented to participants in the conflict on expanding the ceasefire that was established in Aleppo earlier this month.
The truce would be followed by peace talks between Syrian President Assad’s government and the opposition
Moscow said that that Donald Trump’s administration will be welcome to join the Syrian peace process once he takes office.
Further isolating the Obama; Russia, Iran and Turkey also are ready to help broker a peace deal after holding talks in Moscow where they adopted a declaration setting out the principles any agreement should adhere to. Arrangements for the talks do not include the United States and are distinct from a U.N.-brokered deal. Negotiations, remain hazy, but Moscow has said they would take place in Kazakhstan, a close ally.
The final factor is the dramatic change in Turkey, which has tried to look towards the West since World War One. Turkey applied for membership in the European Economic Community (the European Union’s predecessor) in 1987.
All that changed when Turkey threatened the EC over immigration controls. The threat virtually ended any serious consideration of allowing Turkey to join the EU.
Turkey has also frayed its ties to its other Western ally, the US. It is attempting to extradite Turkish exile Gulen and has filed a criminal complaint against the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence, and the top US general in the Middle East for backing Gulan.
This has critically injured NATO as Turkey has the second largest military in the alliance and is critical for any American offensive against ISIS. Turkey is also a critical part of America’s ballistic missile defense system.
Only 9 out of 50 Turkish staff officers remain at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels and Turkey has been absent in recent NATO meetings.
Although the US still has influence in the region, without Turkey in its corner and a firm foreign policy, Russia has a level of influence it only dreamed of fifty years ago.
The Trump Response
The reason for the frantic action by the Obama Administration is that they are fully aware that Trump will radically alter US foreign policy after January 20th.
Trump has already made it clear that he doesn’t like the Obama foreign policy initiatives and will quickly change them. After the UN vote, Trump sent out the following comments on social media, “Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O[bama] statements and roadblocks. Thought it was going to be a smooth transition – NOT! We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Probably the first response will be moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem as a response to the UN actions taken. Although Congress had pushed this for decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents had avoided doing it because of the regional tensions it would create.
There will also be a cost to the United Nations. American voters have felt that the UN takes too much American money and Trump agrees. After the United Nations vote, Trump questioned its effectiveness Monday, saying it’s just a club for people to “have a good time.”
The president-elect wrote on Twitter that the U.N. has “such great potential,” but it has become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
Trump’s criticism of the U.N. is by no means unique. While the organization does engage in large-scale humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts, its massive bureaucracy has long been a source of controversy. The organization has been accused by some Western governments of being inefficient and frivolous, while developing nations have said it is overly influenced by wealthier nations.
After this latest UN vote, Republican (and some Democratic) congressmen will probably vote to cut back US payments to the UN.
Traditionally Russia and Turkey have been antagonists over the centuries. Trump is aware of that and appears to be willing to side with Russia, although that is a departure from previous US policy. Although National Security Advisor Flynn has been seen as pro-Turkey in the past, Trump is well known for firing subordinates who disagree with him. If Flynn tries to hamper Trump’s policy, Trump will have no compunction about firing him.
Trump is expected to side with Russia and the Assad government in terms of reaching a peace agreement in Syria and developing an anti-ISIS strategy. This will give the US more leverage in terms of crafting a Syrian peace agreement to the determent of Turkey. It will also help warm relations with Egypt.
Another sore issue for the US and Turkey will be the issue of Kurdish governance. The US has supported the Kurds and it appears that Russia and President Assad are willing to give the Kurds some degree of autonomy within a whole Syria – something Turkey will not go along with. However, Russia and Assad will prefer a strong Kurdish movement as a counter against Turkish influence.
The “Russia Card” will also be used in terms of countering China in the Pacific Rim, much as Secretary of State Kissinger used the “China Card” to counter Russia in the 1970s.
Trump’s relations with Russia will hamper US relations with European allies, especially those in NATO. Eastern NATO nations are concerned about Russian expansionism and are concerned that Trump will not use NATO power to aggressively counter Putin. Trump will face the choice of strengthening US ties with these nations by providing military support or upsetting his warm relations with Russia.
Trump will also face a conundrum in Europe in regards with immigration from the Middle East. The EU is divided on the immigration issue, while Turkey is threatening to open the doors of immigration into Europe. After siding with Russia and Assad on Syria, will Trump want to further antagonize Turkey?
However, there is much that is still undetermined. Obama’s frantic rush to set foreign policy in the last few weeks of his administration is fraught with danger. Successful diplomacy is the product of years of negotiations with all partners. By pushing these issues at the last minute, it forces Trump to act in ways that he wouldn’t if the diplomatic transition were better handled and Trump were given a chance to act in informed leisure.
Why It Could Be Good for Trump to Skip Some Intelligence Briefings
By John Mueller
December 16, 2016
As he does with considerable regularity, Donald Trump has elevated the eyebrows of the foreign policy establishment with his practice of undergoing intelligence briefings only once a week on average, instead of daily. Now his team says that he is getting the President’s Daily Brief three times a week, along with daily briefings from his appointee for national security adviser. Although Trump’s reduced schedule of briefings is commonly interpreted as an effort to diss the intelligence community, it seems that Trump’s chief goal is to keep himself from becoming bored. As he put it on Fox News Sunday a few days ago, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years….I don’t need that.” But the problem with intelligence briefings is not so much that they cause boredom in the recipient as that they routinely induce terror.
Rethinking the Threat of Islamic Extremism: The Changes Needed in U.S. Strategy
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 22, 2016
The United States has made great progress in improving its homeland defenses and international counterterrorism efforts. It has restructured its security partnerships with largely Muslim states to help them give the same emphasis to counterterrorism that they have given to military security. The United States is also making major progress in defeating the ability of ISIS to hold territory, act as a protostate, provide sanctuary for training fighters, and ISIS’s efforts to widen its grasp and number of affiliates. At the same time, far too much of the U.S. effort is now centered around the immediate threat from ISIS, and the external threat it poses to the U.S. homeland and Europe. Far too few in the United States understand the importance of the strategic partnerships the U.S. has forged with largely Muslim states, the fact that the primary fight with Islamic extremism is inside Muslim states, and that it is a fight for the future of Islam—rather than the limited threat it poses to faiths and countries outside.
Eight possible Trump responses to the UN Israel vote
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
December 24, 2016
President Obama — whose antipathy toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Middle East’s oldest democracy appears to have predated his accession to the White House — fired one final shot at the Jewish state by abstaining on a United Nations Security Council resolution that reversed decades of United States policy, reversed assurances given in the Oslo Accords, and declared the Old City of Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian land.” In effect, Obama rewarded Palestinian intransigence. After all, Israel made peace proposals to the Palestinians in 2000 and 2008, but the Palestinians never responded.
Mr. Obama’s Middle Eastern legacy
By Jim Talent
American Enterprise Institute
December 28, 2016
Andy McCarthy recently offered a comprehensive analysis in these pages of Barack Obama’s decision to abstain from the UN’s vote condemning Israel. It’s an excellent explanation, well worth reading, or rereading for those who saw it the first time. I’ll add a few words about the vote itself, and the broader Middle Eastern picture that confronts Donald Trump as he prepares to take office. The UN resolution condemns the Israeli settlements as illegal. This presumes that there is some body of recognized law, binding on both parties, against which the settlements can be judged. But there is no such law; as Andy notes, there is only a dispute about who is sovereign over the different parts of the West Bank. Disputes have to be resolved by agreement or by coercion. There is no third way. The real question at issue is therefore not the settlements; it is whether sovereignty over the West Bank will be settled at the bargaining table or on a battleground.
Where Next for Syria?
By Yezid Sayigh
December 19, 2016
Seemingly unthinkable just a few months ago, the fall of Aleppo represents a major victory for forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The pressing question now is where these forces will head next: eastwards, so as to confront the Islamic State, or to the west and south in order to roll back opposition strongholds in Idlib province and around Deraa city? The Islamic State appeared to resolve the question in mid-December with its dramatic recapture of Palmyra from regime forces and its swift onward push towards the strategic T-4 military airbase east of Homs. But the regime has persistently prioritized defeating the opposition in western parts of Syria over confronting the Islamic State, and will likely continue to do so until it has achieved the former goal. That is no surprise, but the regime’s opponents, Syrian and foreign, still appear unprepared for what lies ahead.
Next Year In Jerusalem?
By James S. Robbins
American Foreign Policy Council
December 21, 2016
In his March 2016 speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, then-candidate Donald Trump promised that his administration would “move the U.S. embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” Last week, ambassador to Israel designate David Friedman said he looks forward to working “from the U.S. embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.” Senior aide Kellyanne Conway has confirmed that the move is a “very big priority for this president-elect, Donald Trump.” Trump’s intention to keep his promise is creating a political uproar. “Madness,” fumed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It will “constitute a potentially explosive provocation,” said Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, imam of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, said the move would be tantamount to a “declaration of war.”
Trump and the Middle East: Between Hope and Apprehension
By Salim Abdullah el-Haj
When Republican nominee Donald Trump won the majority of Electoral College votes in the American presidential elections on Nov. 8, it astonished many communities across the world. The outcome was unexpected, given that most analyses and predictions had pointed to a completely different trajectory than the one that occurred that night. However, everyone soon realized they were facing a reality that needed to be dealt with seriously to avoid negative side effects, and this is what characterized international political activity in the two weeks following the election. Considering the possibility that there may be a major difference between Trump the president and Trump the candidate also helped move along communications between the newcomer to the White House and a world apprehensive about his inclinations.