U
.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in the Russian capital Moscow on Wednesday, April 12 for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On the top of their agenda will be bilateral relations as well as the situation in Ukraine, Syria and the Middle East as well as North Korea. The two permanent UN Security Council members may, as counter-intuitive as it may seem for those who limit their analysis to propaganda, both benefit from a well-managed policy of tensions.

The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump had hoped Tillerson could arrive in Moscow with ammunition in the form of sanctions over Russia’s alleged knowledge about the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Army. However, an attempt by Tillerson, to reach consensus on sanctions,at the G7 meeting, failed. The G7 ministers’ decision in Italy means that Tillerson will be shooting blanks if he threatens with any other than unilateral sanctions against Moscow.

Moreover, even UN experts stressed that there is a need to fully investigate the alleged chemical weapons use in Syria and warned against jumping to conclusions – which was precisely what the U.S. did when it launched 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian airport. Moscow has, on the other hand, and to the surprise of many, stressed that the U.S. – Russian security hotline for Syria is suspended, but that Russia on the other hand does not have a mandate to intercept U.S. cruise missiles should the U.S. decide to launch another attack.

The first eye to eye meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov will afford the possibility to “get a better feeling” for how bilateral relations can develop and could define the course of bilateral relations between the two permanent UN Security Council members during a time marked by fundamental reorganizations in the Middle East and other host-spots like eastern Europe and East Asia.

Tillerson and Lavrov have already met earlier on the sidelines of the foreign ministerial meeting of G20 in Germany’s Bonn on February 16. They have also had two phone conversations devoted to the death of Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin and the US missile strike on Syria’s airbase in the Homs Governorate. The discussions usually last for several hours. So far it is uncertain how long the meeting will last and whether it will be followed by a joint press conference. It is also currently uncertain whether Tillerson also will be meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

A New Yalta under the Trump and Putin Administrations?

An objective assessment of the situation in the Middle East shows that Syria cannot be understood as an isolated theater of war. The U.S. is actively supporting the founding of an independent Kurdish State in northern Iraq. It is a policy that also aims at weakening Iran and Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Moreover, an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), would serve as a stronger springboard for the Kurdistan Democratic Party – Iran (KDP-I) and strengthen its insurgents in northwestern Iraq.

It is unlikely that Moscow would or could oppose this development, but Moscow’s counter-strategy is its support of “other Kurds” including the Goran (Change) movement in northern Iraq, its unofficial but very real support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey as well as its support of the Syrian PKK ally, the PYD and its military wings the YPG and YPJ.

Moscow’s primary objective in Syria is not necessarily to “maintain Syria’s territorial integrity at all cost” but to guarantee a stable government that enables Moscow to maintain a strategic presence near NATO member Turkey, and to maintain Russia’s Mediterranean naval base in Tartus. The Dardanelles and the Bosporus are a vital component of Russian power projection. A Kurdish construct, eventually within the framework of a federalized Syria could probably be acceptable for Moscow.

The United States, for its part, could be content with a weakened Syria that no longer poses a direct threat to its primary regional ally, Israel; A Syria that no longer could challenge Israel’s planned permanent annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights. It is noteworthy that there are considerable U.S. economic interests in the energy resources in the Golan.

Another geopolitical hotspot to be discussed is Ukraine and most importantly the rebelling Donbas Republics and Crimea. Russia claims Crimea legally declared independence from Ukraine and legally acceded into the Russian Federation. The U.S. maintains that Russia illegally annexed Crimea and violated Ukraine’s right to territorial integrity. All posturing, positioning and propaganda set aside, the problem is that both are right and wrong.

In its 1973 Declaration of Principles that UN recognized that the right to self-determination and the right to territorial integrity have equal legal standing as long as the one isn’t implemented to the exclusion of the other. That is, the U.S. and Russia, as permanent U.N. Security Council members, should have fulfilled their mandate and helped solve the issue politically, within the framework of international law.

The problem is that legal principles and Realpolitik are not always compatible – especially not when the geopolitical interests of superpowers and the five permanent UN Security Council (P5) members are involved.

In terms of Realpolitik Russia “had to” counter moves by a NATO-friendly Ukrainian government that could have threatened Russia’s access to the Black Sea and by extension to the Mediterranean. Its hands were, so to speak, forced by the developments in Ukraine; Developments that had been prepared with the help of the United States. The USA, for its part, benefits from a “crisis in Ukraine” because such a crisis counteracts those forces in France, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Austria, and other European countries, that would advocate for closer Eurasian relations.

Likewise, Moscow perceives the rebelling Donbas Republics in eastern Ukraine not merely as culturally Russian, but as a buffer zone while the U.S. would benefit from protracted tensions in that region for the above mentioned reasons. There is, in other words, plenty of common ground as long as the two sides agree to “carve out new spheres of interest” while maintaining an “at least official” posture as adversaries.

There is, despite all posturing and propaganda, also the potential for common ground with regard to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) a.k.a. North Korea. Donald Trump has, among others, been able to win the presidential elections because his position that the U.S. should have a military second to non; Posturing with regard to veterans secured that many military leaders, veterans, and most importantly, members of the military industrial complex would endorse his presidency.

A policy of increased tensions with North Korea guarantees the sustained support of the military industrial complex and the military. A policy of tensions will also contribute to silencing the voices of those in South Korea and Japan who would like to see a rapprochement instead of confrontation. Russia, for its part, may posture and position itself in opposition to such “imperialism”, but it also reaps very real benefits from this U.S. Policy.

Japan will be more likely to agree to Russia’s de-facto annexation of Japan’s northern territories (designated as South Kuril Islands by Russia) in exchange for Moscow “letting Tokyo in on lucrative development projects”. With Japan not being particularly interested in a full-scale war at its doorstep, it is more likely to try to appease both the U.S. and Russia.

Moreover, Moscow perceives a more isolated North Korea as a means to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. Beijing, being likely to use the United States as scapegoat, appears to be more than willing to go along with sanctions. Moscow will, halfheartedly go along as long as it eyes an opportunity to assert Moscow’s influence over Pyongyang while weakening China’s dominant role in the Pacific.

Moscow would also benefit from increased U.S. – Chinese tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea – everything that challenges Beijing’s dominant role in the Pacific goes as long as it does not pose a direct threat to Russia’s national security and helps cement its new sphere of interest at the cost of Beijing.

With regard to U.S. – Russian relations in the coming decade there is, in other words, as much ground for bellicose posturing and positioning as there is common ground; That is, as long as this policy of tensions benefits both Washington and Moscow.

CH/L – nsnbc 12.04.2017

Christof Lehmann

Dr. Christof Lehmann is the founder and editor of nsnbc. He is a psychologist and former independent political consultant on conflict, conflict resolution and a wide range of other political issues. In March 2013 he established nsnbc as a daily, independent, international on-line newspaper. He can be contacted at nsnbc international at nsnbc.wordpress[at]gmail.com

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