Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

The cracking of the ice on the frozen Russian-American lake can only mean a temperature change. The telephone conversation between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on Tuesday can be compared to ice cracking after an unusually cold and long winter. The readouts from the White House and the Kremlin both give a positive spin to the phone call.

The White House said the conversation was a “very good one” and the Kremlin was satisfied that it was “businesslike and constructive”. It was left to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to add texture to it. He said: “Well, it was a very constructive call that the two presidents had. It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.”

Syria was a principal topic of the conversation. In sum, US-Russia engagement on Syria is resuming. The two presidents focused on “future coordination of Russian and US actions” in Syria. The two countries will jointly seek ways “to stabilize the ceasefire and make it durable and manageable”, the Kremlin readout said. There is a hint here of the two militaries cooperating.

The Kremlin readout added: “The aim is to create preconditions for launching a real settlement process in Syria.”

The US formally joined talks in Astana this week on the Syrian ceasefire. Its participation was substantive, at the ambassadorial level, with the talks attended by Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state heading the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He is a career diplomat and “Arabist” whose  previous assignments have been in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey as well as a stint in the State Department’s Eurasian Bureau (dealing with Russia.)

What lends enchantment to this scenario is that in Astana, Jones was  sitting across the negotiating table from Iranian diplomats. Evidently, Trump is wading into the Syrian whirlpool. This is one thing.

Second, Trump intends to take a hands-on role. He and Putin tasked their foreign ministers to brief them “promptly” on “any progress achieved” on Syria. Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet as early as next week on the sidelines of the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 10 and 11.

Most important, Trump and Putin are hopeful of a “personal meeting” during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7-8.

Clearly, all this marks a defining moment. Trump is revisiting his campaign pledge to forge a special relationship with Russia – and Putin in particular – to defeat the terrorist groups in the Middle East and bring peace to Syria.

A high degree of mutual understanding and personal trust between Trump and Putin is needed to stabilize and consolidate the ceasefire in Syria and to navigate an uninterrupted and uninterruptible peace process. Washington and Moscow will be hard-pressed to carry their allies along, too.

Turkey and Iran, in particular, have specific interests in the Syrian situation. The US and Russia also do not see eye to eye on some key issues. At the same time, Turkey feels agitated that the Pentagon has co-opted the Kurdish militia as its principal Syrian ally and threatens to be the lone ranger. The US and Russia need to coordinate to restrain Turkey.

Moscow had hoped that any cooperation with Trump, however tentative, might incrementally morph into a full-bodied engagement between the two big powers that held the potential to stabilize their overall relationship. However, that initial optimism has dissipated. An air of uncertainty prevails today.

There isn’t much hope left in Moscow of reaching a grand bargain with Trump, given the pervasive Russophobia in the US as well as the signs that the Trump administration is going “mainstream”. Within Trump’s team, the military brass is visibly in the driver’s seat on foreign-policy issues and the Pentagon harbors an enduring hostility toward Russia and is quite comfortable with an adversarial relationship with Moscow.

On the other hand, the abrupt eclipse of Steve Bannon from Trump’s inner circle means that the most revolutionary anti-establishment element in the White House has been excluded from foreign-policy decision-making.

Having said that, Moscow still believes that a new cold war is far from inevitable and appreciates that the US is not returning to an ideology-driven foreign policy. A Moscow pundit pointed out recently: “Unlike its predecessors, the Trump administration never stated the goal of promoting democracy in Russia, or that the problems with its foreign policy have to do with Russia’s political regime or its president.…

“Consequently, there is still a chance, slim as it may be, that Russia and the US overcome their endemic confrontation and stop viewing each other as enemies.… Not only does the Trump administration not seek regime change, it does not ratchet up pressure in Ukraine.… In fact, in his remarks following talks [in March in Moscow] … Tillerson did not mention Crimea even once.”

Meanwhile, there are growing signs of Trump normalizing his own administration. He is once again talking passionately about infrastructure spending and is citing “Shining China” as his role model. “We build a bridge and it’s like a miracle in this country,” he lamented recently, drawing comparison with China’s record in infrastructure development.

He mocked the US$6 trillion spent 0n foreign-policy enterprises to fix up Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East … it’s 20 times worse than when we started.” Trump concluded, “Isn’t it sad that we can [spend] $6 trillion” in the Middle East, “and in this country we can’t find $1 trillion.”

As well, vintage Trump is reappearing also in his famous remark last week that it would be an “honor” for him to meet the North Korean leader. Equally, Trump is returning to his pristine stance that regime change is not the priority in Syria.

To be sure, Tillerson’s emergence lately at the center stage of foreign policymaking will significantly raise Moscow’s comfort level. The sound of ice cracking in the Russian-American relationship is more like a grinding than a thunder-like boom, and the cracks may not mean that the ice is necessarily weakening. But the ice has become dynamic. Traversing the lake has become exciting.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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