The receding specters of a war involving North Korea and a US-Russia confrontation in Syria. The sound of cracking ice in the frozen conflict in Ukraine. Russia and the United States bidding farewell to “tits-for-tat.” Is this the dawn of a brave new world?
You might be skeptical, but it’s possible to draw positive conclusions from the two meetings, on successive days, between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. These meetings, in fact, bode well for another meeting ahead, between presidents Valdimir Putin and Donald Trump, this time in Danang, Vietnam, on the sidelines of the November 11-12 APEC summit.
There are straws in the wind that cannot be ignored. Lavrov told the media after listening to Trump’s UN speech that he viewed it positively. Lavrov was in a forgiving mood towards the threats held out by Trump to “evil regimes” in North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. Indeed, he felt that it was a “remarkable speech,” with Trump voicing respect for sovereignty and equality in international affairs and promising that the US will not impose itself on other countries. “I think it’s a very welcome statement, which we haven’t heard from the American leaders for a very long time,” Lavrov noted with satisfaction.
Thus, the foreplay has already begun that frames November’s Putin-Trump talks as a new page in Russian-American relations. Moscow judges that things can only improve in those relations and that Trump is wedded to his conviction that good relations with Russia are in the US’ best interests and – as Lavrov put it – “the interests of solving quite a number of important and most acute world problems.” Lavrov told the Associated Press:
“And what I feel talking to Rex Tillerson is that… they are not happy with the relations (with Russia)… And I believe that the understanding is that we have to accept the reality, which was created… by the Obama administration… And, being responsible people, the Russian government and the US administration should exercise this responsibility in addressing the bilateral links as well as international issues. We are not at a point where this would become a sustained trend but understanding of the need to move in this direction is present, in my opinion.”
The US and Russia have resumed dialogue over the global strategic balance, but to a great extent the shape of things to come over North Korea, Syria and Ukraine will set the tempo of their relations in the short term. US-Russia cooperation can make all the difference in addressing these problems, while any exacerbation of these conflict situations will inevitably impact their relationship.
“I believe that the understanding is that we have to accept the reality, which was created… by the Obama administration”
North Korea: The Trump administration can turn the Russia-China entente to its advantage to defuse the North Korean crisis. While China’s capacity to leverage North Korea is not in doubt, what remains unexplored is that Moscow also wields influence with the leadership in Pyongyang. Kim Il Sung served as an officer in the Soviet Red Army after crossing into the USSR during World War II, before returning home to found North Korea in 1948.
Russia is uniquely placed to offer an “integration package” that might interest Pyongyang. It is a failure of leadership in Washington that the “Russian option” (in tandem with China) hasn’t been explored.
Syria: While the situation in Syria gives grounds for cautious optimism and the formation of new de-escalation zones may create conditions for internal dialogue in the country, it is time to work for a regional settlement as well.
A recent regional tour of the Persian Gulf by Lavrov and the upcoming visit by Saudi King Salman to Russia (October 4-7) should be viewed in this context. Russia also enjoys good relations with Turkey and Israel, while Iran is its ally in Syria. All this makes Russia a key interlocutor. Arguably, the Iran nuclear issue has morphed into a template for a settlement in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon triangle.
Ukraine: The proposal mooted by Russia at the UN Security Council regarding the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in the separatist Donbas region of Ukraine is gaining traction. Interestingly, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenburg hailed the idea after a meeting with Lavrov in New York on September 21.
Germany is supportive of the Russian move and hopes to elaborate the concept in coordination with France, its western European partner in the Normandy format. With Angela Merkel remaining as Chancellor following Sunday’s Bundestag elections a definite prospect, it’s time to breathe new life into the Minsk accord, which is of course the base line for the EU to consider any rollback of sanctions against Russia.
While there is talk of Europe’s “strategic autonomy” in the Trump era, it is unrealistic to expect “an anti-American Europe that will break with Washington in favor of warmer relations with Moscow,” as noted Russian pundit Fyodor Lukyanov wrote recently. On the other hand, the Trump administration will have a tough time shepherding the EU into a united front against Russia (which President Obama brilliantly succeeded in doing, in 2014.) Clearly, a new framework for US-Russia relations has become necessary. And it must begin by breaking the stalemate in Ukraine.