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Mainstream, VOL LV No 39 New Delhi September 16, 2017

US-Russia ties are heading south

Tuesday 19 September 2017, by M K Bhadrakumar

The US-Russia diplomatic tit-for-tat escalated with the announcement in Washington on August 31 ordering the Russians to shut down their consulate in San Francisco as well as two trade annexes. Moscow has regretted “the escalation of tensions” and promised a reaction after careful review of the “new measures”. The State Department press release is titled “Achieving Parity in Diplomatic Missions”, implying that the US has merely followed up the “Russian desire for parity in the diplomatic relationship”, which was how Moscow had rationalised its order to cut down the total strength of the US diplomats and staff in Russia by September 1.

A senior State Department official explained in a special media briefing that “it is our hope that the Russians will recognise that since they were the ones who started the discussion on parity and we’re responding and complying with what they required of us... Regarding previous actions, the actions that this govern-ment took in December—I think you all know the reasons why we took those steps. It had to do with harassment of our diplomats and interference in our domestic affairs, in our elections. So I think those actions spoke for themselves.” (Transcript) Interestingly, the White House has since added that President Donald Trump took the August 31 decision. (President Vladimir Putin had said in July that he personally took the decision to achieve “parity” in the diplomatic relations.)

The State Department has warned that Washington is “prepared to take further action as necessary and as warranted”. In sum, if Russia makes further moves, US threatens to retaliate. Lavrov reacted cautiously on September 1: “The President (Putin) has said it many times—we do not wish to quarrel with this country. We have always maintained a friendly attitude towards the American people, and now we are open for meaningful cooperation in the areas of our interests. Our sincere wish is for the political atmosphere between the two countries to return to normal. But, as you know, it takes two to tango. It seems to me, our US counterparts have been performing solo break-dance moves recently.”

It appears that the Trump Administration lulled the Russians to complacency through recent weeks. On August 30, in fact, Russia’s Ambassador-designate to the US, Anatoly Antonov, gave an interview to Kommersant newspaper highlighting the “great potential for the mutually beneficial cooperation in various spheres” between Russia and the US. Indeed, ambassadors are obliged to present a hopeful landscape even when the skyline is thick with dark clouds, but the interview sounded hopeful that the Trump Administration would adopt a constructive approach.

Quite obviously, the US-Russia diplomatic feud seems only widening and it is a reflection of the state of play in the overall relations. There is growing talk of the US supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. In Syria, the race for the Dier Ezzor city and for control of Syrian-Iraqi border is still open. On Afghanistan, Trump announced a new strategy in a 30-minute speech ten days ago without mentioning Russia even once. Over the North Korean situation, Putin said in an interview with the Chinese media on August 31: “Russia believes that the (US) policy of putting pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear missile programme is mis-guided and futile... Provocations, pressure and militarist and insulting rhetoric are a dead-end road.”

Meanwhile, provocative US deployments to Russia’s western borders continue. On the pretext of reinforcing the NATO allies in the Baltics against the backdrop of “Zapad 2017” (forthcoming Russian military exercise), the US deployed to Lithuania another seven US F-15 fighter jets.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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