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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

Trump on Surge, Redeems Pledge on Russia Ties

Sunday 16 July 2017, by M K Bhadrakumar

Partisan tribalism is so intense among the US elites that a consensus is impossible to reach as regards the main topic of discussion at the meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg on Friday (July 7). As the meeting extended beyond the expected 30 minutes, there was consternation on the face of the CNN panelists and when it continued for another 30, 60 minutes—and eventually ended after 135 minutes—the look of despair mixed with anger could hardly be concealed.

The top US media groups highlighted that the presidential meeting in Hamburg was principally about Russian ‘medddling’ in the US elections last November. In reality, Putin put the meeting in perspective, saying that his lengthy conversation with Trump covered “loads of questions (that) have accumulated, including both Ukraine and Syria, along with other issues, some bilateral issues... fight against terrorism and cyberse-curity”.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who was present at the meeting said separately that in the “very lengthy, very specific” conversation, the two leaders “agreed on a number of concrete things”. He listed the following:

The two Foreign Ministers (Lavrov and Rex Tillerson) have been instructed to “continue and expand cooperation... on the entire spectrum of the international agenda, including the Korean Peninsula” both bilaterally and at the UN Security Council.

The agreement for the new envoys to Moscow and Washington will be expeditiously processed.

Detailed discussions were held on Syria, Ukraine, Korean Peninsula, problems of cyber security, and “a range of other issues”.

A bilateral working group has been set up to flesh out cooperation in cyber security, “including anti-terrorism efforts, fight against organised crime and hacker activities”.

Trump has appointed a new envoy for Ukraine who will visit Moscow “in the near future” to discuss a solution within the ambit of the Minsk Agreement (where Russia feels that the US now “feels the necessity of extra impetus”.) The bilateral Russia-US channel on Ukraine will be “taking into account and relying on the potential of the Contact Group and the ‘Normandy format’”.

The return of the Russian compounds in New York and Maryland (confiscated by the Obama Administration in December) was “raised” and Moscow will be “seeking justice”.

Of course, the highlight was the announce-ment of a ceasefire in the de-escalation zone in Syria’s south—Daraa and Quneitra—bordering Jordan and the Golan Heights w.e.f midnight on July 9. The US has made a commitment that “all the (opposition) groups present there will observe the ceasefire”. The security in the de-escalation zone will be ensured by the Russian military police in coordination with the US and Jordan. (Lavrov)

No doubt, the de-escalation zone in Syria’s south has been mired in controversy due to Israel’s demand that the US should directly take responsibility for the safe zone, since Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad might otherwise allow the Iran-supported militia and Hezbollah to move forces close to Golan Heights occupied by Israel. However, the understanding now is that the US will rely on cooperation from Russia.

This will disappoint Israel. The Haaretz news-paper reported Friday (July 7) that Israeli officials had demanded that the Trump team spike a proposal that the Russian military oversee the ceasefire. The report said that “Israel vehemently opposes this idea and has made that clear to the Americans”, before the Trump-Putin meeting. “Israel would prefer to have American troops enforce the ceasefire in southern Syria. The Trump Administration is considering this idea, but hasn’t yet decided.”

On the other hand, Lavrov said: “The US and Russia have agreed to maintain this ceasefire and the ceasefire will be maintained by all parties. They will also maintain access by humanitarian aid agencies and their will be a monitoring center that will be created in the capital of Jordan.”

So, what is the ‘big picture’ from the talks in Hamburg? For a start, my prognosis proved right. (Please see ‘Trump offers carrot to Russia, brandishes stick to beat China’.) From the Russian point of view, the meeting has gone exceedingly well—far beyond expectations, perhaps. Trump was intensely conscious of the importance of seizing the moment to unroll his agenda to improve relations with Russia. To be sure, this was vintage Trump on surge.

Evidently, he’s relying on Tillerson to navigate the dialogue with Russia. Tillerson knows Russia and has met Putin a few times as ExxonMobil chief. Interestingly, Trump excluded the ‘hawks’ in the White House from his meeting with Putin and had only Tillerson to assist him. Evidently, he is not risking internal sabotage.

All this says something about Trump’s statecraft. His team is packed with ‘hardliners’ on Russia—NSA H.R. McMaster, Senior Director for Russia in NSC Fiona Hill, Defence Secretary James Mattis and so on. There is some truth to the hearsay that the man genuinely allows contrarian views, probably even encourages anarchical conditions to develop—so that in the final analysis, he can refine his own thinking and do precisely what he intends to do.

Although there was no Modi-style hugging and all that, the body language was excellent. Putin’s decision to patiently wait for the tide to turn in Washington and to leave it to Trump to set the pace of their face-to-face engagement paid dividends. In the 135-minute meeting, Trump has kicked open so many doors leading to pathways in such different directions that it will be extremely difficult for the ‘Deep State’ to slam them all shut.

If there is constructive follow-up on Syria alone, new momentum will be generated at the ‘mil-to-mil’ level which could even have interesting fallouts—such as on the Afghan situation, for example. From the visuals of the G-20, it appears that German Chancellor Angela Merkel played her part too in creating a positive ambience for the Russian-American engagement. Putin had several animated asides with Merkel prior to the meeting with Trump. Indeed, Ukraine holds the key to a big transformation in Russia’s relations with the West and here Merkel’s role can be decisive.

There is going to be much criticism when Trump gets back home. The night of the long knives may have begun. Read the vicious commentary by Politico magazine—‘Trump Handed Putin a Stunning Victory’.

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).

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62