• 20:25
  • 16.08.2017
It looks like it’s all falling apart between Trump and Putin
политика
16.08.2017

It looks like it’s all falling apart between Trump and Putin

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So dominated has Washington politics been by the frenzy over Russia’s supposed interference in the US election, that is easy to neglect another, perhaps more important, Trump-Russia question. What, if anything, is actually happening in relations between the two? Is Donald Trump pursuing his oft-stated campaign pledge to try to improve the climate with Moscow, or has the whole project been derailed by his enemies at home? Might it actually have gone into reverse?

The reason for asking this now stems from comments made this week in Brussels and in a BBC interview in Kiev by Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to Nato who was recently appointed to the new post of US special envoy on Ukraine. Volker, as his former role at Nato and his current research position at the McCain Institute would suggest, is a long-standing hawk on Russian matters, and his words showed no softening of his views.  

Speaking after a visit to the east of Ukraine, where Ukrainian government forces are confronting pro-Russia rebels, Volker insisted that Russia, despite its denials, was directly involved and that far from being a “frozen conflict”, what was going on was “a hot war”, with more deaths and more violations of the 2015 ceasefire this year than last.
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Most striking of all, however, was his disclosure that the new US administration was “actively reviewing” whether to supply weapons to the Kiev government. Kiev had repeatedly asked the Obama administration for weapons, but was always turned down on the grounds that the US wanted to do nothing that risked escalating the conflict. If the Trump administration now overturns that policy, it would be hailed by Kiev as a big victory and could hardly be seen as a friendly act by Moscow. Volker for his part denied Russia would regard it as “provocative”, saying instead that it could “help change its calculations”. In what direction, of course, might be another matter.

Whether or not it actually happens, even mooting such a policy change could signal that the Trump administration has given up on any rapprochement with Moscow in the near future. Relations, it would seem, are destined to return to their frosty state under Obama – or worse.

Nor is this the only indication of the wide gap that seems to have opened up between Trump’s early ambitions towards Russia and today’s reality. The US Congress is in the process of passing a new set of sanctions against Russia, North Korea and Iran, one of whose effects will be to make it impossible for Trump to lift existing Russia sanctions unilaterally, even if he wanted to. What is more, there has been no suggestion (yet) of any presidential veto.
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Before this, there was Trump’s speech in Poland before the G20 summit in Hamburg, where he affirmed his commitment not just to Nato, but to Article 5 – an attack on one is treated as an attack on all. He also called on Russia to halt what he called its “destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere”.

And two months before that, in April, Trump had ordered a multiple missile strike on the Shayrat air base in Syria, in response to a reported chemical attack on civilians. The attack was blamed on Syrian government forces, with Russia – though it denied any involvement – implicated by virtue of its support for Bashar al-Assad.

One by one, all these actions can be seen as bringing the Trump administration more and more into line with the virulently anti-Russia mood in Congress. But are things quite what they seem? Take a look at each seemingly anti-Russia move more closely.

The Syria air strike was notified to the Russians in advance and there were few Syrian and no Russian casualties. Meanwhile, it recently emerged, the CIA has quietly ended four years of covert support for some Syria rebel groups, with the consequence that a ceasefire across southern Syria is largely holding. It may be, as has been argued, that the CIA programme had little effect, but ending it sends a signal.

Trump’s speech in Warsaw offered the barest minimum on Nato and Russia that any US President visiting Poland could reasonably offer. It was regarded by many Poles as a huge disappointment.
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The sanctions bill going through Congress – and likely to pass into law by September – is an initiative not of Trump, but of Congress and reflects both its hostility towards Russia and its suspicion that Trump has wanted to do a deal with the Kremlin on sanctions behind the legislature’s back. This complicates any plan for better relations with Moscow, but need not impede progress in other areas. It would appear, for instance, that in spite of condemnation and ridicule, US-Russia talks on cyber-security at some level have been convened.

And so to Ukraine. The Obama administration pretty much left Ukraine as a problem to be solved, or not, by the Europeans. In appointing a special envoy on Ukraine – on Ukraine, not to Ukraine – Trump, or at least his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is making his interest known. The choice of a cold warrior for the post could be astute, in that – as his recent visit shows – he appears to command the trust of President Piotr Poroshenko and the Kiev government.

That, however, is not all. It appears that the creation of the post was the brainchild not of Trump or Tillerson, but of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. It is hard to believe that Putin would have been overjoyed at the naming of Volker. But if it Putin’s thought it a good idea for the US to appoint a special envoy, this suggests that Russia wants some diplomatic movement on Ukraine, too.
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Volker’s talk about arms sales might then be a gambit to help things along – because this was not all he said during his travels this week. He spoke about wanting to “make a push” towards a solution, of trying to “start the right strategic dialogue with Moscow, and – crucially – of a “new window of opportunity” because both Trump and France’s President Macron wanted to end the conflict.

And perhaps not just Trump and Macron, but Putin, too. In the six months that Russia-fever has raged in Washington, Putin has kept his cool, saying nothing beyond simple denials. He delegated anger over the US air strike in Syria to others. And when rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine declared a new “state” of Malorossiya last week, they got no joy from the Kremlin whatsoever. Compare that with Russia’s instant recognition of two separatist enclaves in Georgia in 2008. Plus, the talks with Trump at Hamburg overran, and the two – as is now known – picked up where they had left off at dinner. They must have discussed something in all that time.

All of which suggests that US-Russia relations – in the real, rather than the Washington, world – may not be as stalled in negativity as they seem. And if this is so, then Donald Trump’s hope for greater trust with Moscow as a key to solving other problems may not – yet – have run out. 
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