The US President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday to sack FBI Director James Comey probably had nothing to do with the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the November election. But its timing – as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew into Washington for Trump’s first meeting with a top Kremlin official – was highly symbolic.
It conveyed Trump’s confidence that the narrative in Washington Beltway, which so far frustrated his grand design to open a new chapter in US-Russia relations in a spirit of constructive engagement, has changed in his favour.
Time will tell whether his judgment is impeccable. The odds are that it is. After holding the levers of power for 100 days, Trump would know there isn’t a shred of evidence that can implicate him. Importantly, Russians feel so too.
Therefore, Trump has retrieved his road map from the attic. The presence of Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office for an unscheduled meeting with Trump just before Lavrov walked in – accompanied by the famous “Russian spy” Ambassador Sergey Kislayk – has been a deliberate ‘curtain raiser’. Kissinger has longstanding personal equations with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and of course the grey cardinal of US diplomacy had engineered the era of détente with the Soviet Union.
The first meeting between Trump and Putin in July in Hamburg promises to be historic. Lavrov’s upbeat remarks after talks with his US counterpart Rex Tillerson and the call on the president in Washington on Wednesday raise high expectations about the meeting in July.
Trump and Putin propose to simply pole vault over the minefields that former President Barack Obama desperately prepared in the last several weeks in office aimed at blocking any audacious moves to dismantle his containment strategy against Russia.
Obama succeeded in creating great ill-will through unlawful steps such as confiscating the Russian properties in the US and expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. His lawyer’s brain plotted feverishly to make US-Russia relations the stuff bitter litigation and acrimony for a conceivable future.
However, Trump and Putin will move on, leaving it to the professional diplomats to skilfully clean the swamp. They refuse to get detracted from the détente in US-Russia relations. Obama’s bureaucratic mind would have calculated that until the sanctions are removed, there cannot be dealings with Russia at a practical level. But that is also not to be.
Putin has decided not to make a fuss about sanctions. He estimates rightly that if Obama’s containment strategy itself gets undermined, sanctions as such become irrelevant.
Lavrov flagged that the Kremlin views Trump as someone who is not ideology-driven but instead seeks concrete results, and subscribes to the opinion that the two countries should jointly work to solve international issues.
From Lavrov’s remarks, Syria topped his discussions. Evidently, fighting Islamic radicalism is Trump’s central preoccupation in foreign policy and Russia senses that he perceives Putin in particular as a natural ally in this struggle. From the Russian end, the expectation would be that working together on Syria can give traction to a broader partnership based on trust and mutual confidence.
Lavrov’s discussions regarding Syria were substantive. For a start, US will contribute to the operation of the so-called “deconfliction zones” agreed upon by Russia, Turkey and Iran recently at Astana. Russia welcomes this.
Lavrov said he discussed “in detail the steps and mechanisms which we can manage together.” Russia and US visualize the “deconfliction zones” as a step toward ending all violence in Syria and they agree “on the concept and even on practical steps concerning the geography of the de-escalation zones.” Trump reiterated that “defeating terrorism is the United States’ main priority… We see eye to eye here.”
Interestingly, US will continue to associate with the Astana process. Unsurprisingly, the White House readout nonetheless mentioned that US expects Russia to “rein in the Assad regime, Iran and Iranian proxies.” (Trump is due to travel to Saudi Arabia on May 20.)
Lavrov cited Ukraine, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestinian conflict as the other issues that figured in his discussions with Trump and Tillerson. The White House readout said Trump stated the US’ “commitment to remain engaged in resolving the conflict” in Ukraine and “stressed Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements.” Interestingly, there were no barbs aimed at Moscow.
On what could have been an indirect reference to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Afghanistan, the White House readout said Trump “raised the possibility of broader cooperation (with Russia) on resolving conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere.” Trump is due to visit Israel later in the month. Russia, of course, is a member of the so-called Middle East Quartet.
The big question is whether Trump would seek Russian cooperation in reaching a settlement in Afghanistan. The reports say Trump may sanction only some 3000 additional troops for deployment in Afghanistan, which suggests he is not aspiring to win the war. Any Russian-American cooperation to end the war in Afghanistan will be consistent with Trump’s calculus.
Lavrov’s remarks and the Russian coverage of the talks in Washington suggest a high degree of satisfaction in Moscow that the foreplay is over and the long-awaited Russia-US engagement in the Trump presidency has seriously commenced. The body language seemed exceptional, from the pictures of Trump bantering with Lavrov and Kislyak.
The engagement with Russia and the unprecedented level of cooperation with China over North Korea problem underscore that Trump is coming on his own in the foreign policy arena, finally. He is no doubt asserting a radically new trajectory in the US foreign policies.
There are bound to be detractors. But from what one can make out, far from being a maverick, Trump actually happens to have a coherent, radical foreign policy doctrine. He has a broad strategic vision and a clear road map, riveted on the core argument that the US is overextended.
Basically, Trump sees the US and Russian interests as coinciding. This is perfectly understandable with regard to Syria. But how this works on Ukraine will be keenly watched. In all likelihood, we may be tiptoeing toward a “neutralization” of Ukraine whereby it won’t be part of any alliance system as such.
It is inconceivable that Trump sees any overriding US interest in Ukraine. On the other hand, Putin would see in Trump someone who is willing to recognise Russia’s legitimate interests in Ukraine.
If such a scenario unfolds over Ukraine, Trump’s redefinition of the US’ post-World War II foreign policies, based on contemporary realities, holds the potential to redraw the global security architecture. This non-career politician’s emergence as a conservative challenger to status quo may in the ultimate analysis even accomplish much good for America and world peace.