Week of May 5th, 2017

Trump – Putin Phone Call May Finally Signal Summit and Movement on Several Issues

The story of Russo-American relations has been a strange on for the last year. During the campaign, Trump signaled a desire to improve relations with Russia – relations that had soured due to the Russian takeover of Ukrainian Crimea.

However the promise of improved relations quickly became a political football. After Trump won the election, Democrats quickly accused the Russians of materially helping Trump win the election, although no evidence of such a thing has come forth. There were also accusations that the Trump transition team had contacted the Russians before Trump had been sworn in as president.

All this did was make Trump and his administration loath to make any moves that could be seen as friendly to Russia. Relations have soured and last month, on the same day Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat down with Putin in Moscow, Trump himself said the U.S. was “not getting along with Russia at all.”

In fact, in some cases, Trump seemed to take an anti-Russia policy position on purpose. He moved quickly to launch missiles against Russian ally Syria after the chemical incident. He has also not removed the sanctions put in place by the Obama Administration.

However, this week’s phone call between Trump and Putin may show that the hesitancy to work with Russia may be over. The call signaled that they could meet face-to-face during an international summit in July. Originally many thought a Trump/Putin summit would take place in the first few months of the Trump Administration.

In its synopsis of the call, the White House said the leaders agreed that “the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence.” Such measures could include “safe, or de-escalation zones to achieve lasting peace,” the synopsis said.

The White House called the chat between Trump and Putin “very good” and said the U.S. would send a representative to cease-fire talks that resumed in Astana, Kazakhstan.

This compares with the chilly meeting that Putin had earlier that day with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the two clashed over Ukraine, human rights and election meddling.

One interesting difference between the White House and Kremlin reports on the call was the Russian note that Putin and Trump were likely to meet face-to-face at the G20 Summit in Germany in July.

“Putin, Trump speak out in favor of continuing telephone communications, as well as in favor of organizing personal meeting on margins of G-20 Summit in Hamburg on July 7-8,” the Kremlin said.

The White House confirmed the possibility of a meeting later.

However, the Kremlin’s description of the call made no mention of safe zones in Syria – a sensitive subject since any safe zones would threaten the control of Syrian territory by Russia’s ally Assad.

The warmer relations seem to be a result of a confluence of domestic American politics and international issues that demand Russo-American cooperation.

Although the story of Russia helping Trump win the presidency is still heard, the lack of compelling evidence that proves that Trump’s win was due to Russian help makes the story old news. The story has also been overwhelmed by the US attack on Syria, which proved there was no quid pro quo involved.

Trump’s new found respect for NATO also shows that he isn’t abandoning old allies for a better relationship with Russia. He has also allowed the bolstering of US forces in Eastern Europe.

However, not everyone in Washington thinks this was enough. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Tuesday urged their colleagues to take “real action” against Russia to punish the country for its “destabilizing behavior and counter its malign influence.”

“Now is not the time to send a signal to Russia that all is forgotten or forgiven,” McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.

But it’s quite clear that the international situation is taking precedence over domestic politics. Russo-American cooperation is necessary to cool the two major international hot spots – North Korea and Syria.

“Without the participation of a country such as the U.S., it’s impossible to resolve this problem [Syria] effectively,” Putin said after the talks with Merkel in Sochi. “We will continue to be in contact with our American partners and we hope to reach an understanding on joint steps in this important and sensitive field.”

Both leaders are anxious to defeat ISIS, although there is a difference of opinion on who the winner should be.

The security zones issue is a sensitive one. Putin’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, presented the plan to set up four buffer zones manned by troops from Russia, Iran and Turkey and possibly other forces at a meeting with anti-Assad groups last week in Ankara, according to Yahya al-Aridi, a senior opposition representative.

Many versions of zones ideas were floated in the Syrian war, the Israelis, Jordanian and Turkish advanced such notions under different names to establish buffer zones on their borders with Syria, and if the previous plan mentioned above is accurate, it would be a new version suggested by the Russians to create buffer zones to monitor

A ceasefire between Syrian government forces and their opponents excluding ISIS and Alnusra, when such cease fire is finally established. But all such scenarios may not find any realistic chances of implementation due to the declared position of Syrian legitimate government that all notions that violate Syrian sovereignty and unity are not accepted.

However, the US will express opposition to an Iranian zone because it would give them too much influence in the region. And, the eroding political situation in Turkey, Erdogan’s animosity with Assad, and Turkey’s current military operations against the Kurds, who are American allies, make a Turkish zone undesirable to many.

The Trump/Putin phone call probably looked at other forces, including possibly American military forces, providing the manpower for some of the security zones.

An additional issue that will probably be a subject for the July summit is the future of Assad. Although the Trump Administration has made contradictory comments on Assad’s future as Syrian president, Trump is probably willing to show flexibility in return for Russian/Syrian concessions on other issues.

North Korea is also an issue of concern to both nations. And, although China is putting pressure on North Korea to limit its missile and nuclear testing, Trump is anxious to bring Russia onboard too. Russia borders North Korea and is a trading partner with the country. The two nations also have a bilateral agreement on defense industries and military equipment.

However, Russia has also imposed sanctions against North Korea. On March 2016, following the January 2016 North Korean nuclear test, Russia supported a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding the introduction of further sanctions against North Korea. Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said “the Kremlin is concerned over North Korea’s statements about its readiness to use nuclear forces and urges all states to display restraint,” in response to Kim Jong-un’s orders to the military to deploy the nuclear warheads so they can be fired at “any moment” and be prepared to launch preemptive attacks against its enemies

However, Putin isn’t as interested in curbing North Korea as much as Trump is. In this week’s phone call, Putin pressed Trump to de-escalate tensions with North Korea.

“Vladimir Putin has called for restraint and decreasing of the level of tensions,” the Kremlin said. “It has been agreed to work jointly on a diplomatic solution that will settle the crisis.”

This reiterated the comments made last week by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, who cautioned that the use of force would be “completely unacceptable.”

“The combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing has led to a situation where the whole world seriously is now wondering whether there’s going to be a war or not,” he told the UN Security Council.

One area of contention between the US and Russia on North Korea is the deployment of US anti-ballistic missile systems in South Korea. Russia sees it as “destabilizing,” while the US sees it as a necessity as long as North Korea poses a nuclear missile threat against South Korea and Japan.

In the end, what Russia and the US can agree upon is direct negotiations between the US and North Korea – something Secretary of State Tillerson has made clear that he wants.

Another issue that will surely come up at a summit is nuclear weapons. Trump told Putin in a previous phone call that he does not want to renew a 2010 arms control treaty that limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons the US and Russia can deploy.

The New Start treaty obliges both countries to reduce their strategic arsenals, including land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers to 1,550 warheads each by 2018. There are also limits on the number of missile launchers each side can have. A clause in the treaty allows the agreement to be extended by up to five years by mutual agreement – something Putin wants, but Trump is unlikely to approve unless concessions are made by Russia.

Trump had criticized the treaty during a 2016 presidential debate, saying Russia had “outsmarted” the U.S. with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Critics view the agreement as one-sided, requiring deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and abandoning missile defense in Europe.

Trump is concerned that the US has fallen behind Russia in nuclear weapons. There is also a concern that the US nuclear arsenal is growing obsolete and is need of modernization.

In many ways, the nuclear treaty is the keystone in the domestic politics of Russian relations with the US. While the Democrats have supported renewal of the treaty, they are also the ones claiming that Trump is too sympathetic of Putin and Russia. Meantime, Republican critics of Russia like Senator McCain also oppose renewing the nuclear treaty.

By opposing the treaty renewal, Trump politically boxes in Democratic critics, while gaining support from Republican critics. This gives him some political leeway to work more closely with Russia on the Syrian problem.

If Putin and Trump do meet for a summit in July, it will be to Trump’s benefit. The meeting will boost Trump’s image as a world leader. And, any agreement on reducing tensions in Syria will be viewed positively.

Any agreement on North Korea will be limited. Russia will affirm the need of international sanctions to punish North Korea for its missile and nuclear weapons programs. But, it will not get the US to budge on issues like anti-ballistic missile defense.

There, however, is the chance that Russia may be able to set up direct talks between the US and North Korea.

The final issue is nuclear weapons. However, at this time, neither Putin nor Trump has an overwhelming political need for any agreement. In fact, this issue allows Trump to show that he is tough when it comes to Russia.

There’s no doubt that Russian relations will remain subservient to domestic American politics. However, the wide range of issues gives Trump some flexibility to work with Russia, while keeping his domestic critics at bay.