Syrian Ceasefire and the Future of US-Russia Relations

Early signs of cooperation between Russia and the United States regarding Syria mean little for the confrontational nature of their relations in general.

The ceasefire between the Assad government and the Syrian opposition, which was initiated by Russia and the United States and began on February 27, was the most outstanding achievement of Russian-American cooperation and marks a clear success for Russian foreign policy with regard to the United States, not seen since the time they last worked together to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal. As a symbol of the ability of Moscow and Washington to achieve success by working together and, in general, to cooperate, the ceasefire is even more significant than last summer’s agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme.

The ceasefire between the Assad government and the Syrian opposition, which was initiated by Russia and the United States and began on February 27, was the most outstanding achievement of Russian-American cooperation and marks a clear success for Russian foreign policy with regard to the United States, not seen since the time they last worked together to destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal. As a symbol of the ability of Moscow and Washington to achieve success by working together and, in general, to cooperate, the ceasefire is even more significant than last summer’s agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme.

Indeed, back in October−November 2015, Washington wouldn’t hear anything of cooperating with Russia on Syria, either militarily or politically, and Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict was Washington’s biggest pet peeve, second only to Ukraine. The best the Obama administration could do was sign a memorandum on preventing air incidents. Today, the United States, at least in the person of Secretary Kerry has, in fact, agreed with the original Russian approach to the Syrian settlement, which stipulates a ceasefire between government forces and those rebels who are not part of terrorist organizations, and talks between the Assad government and the opposition without preliminary requirements for al-Assad to leave office and in accordance with the December 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which provides a blueprint for a political settlement in Syria.

Of course, success is not guaranteed. The ceasefire can be foiled at any moment and political talks are likely to fail again and be postponed indefinitely. Secretary Kerry is one of the few top US leaders who support and promote cooperation with Russia and Syria, whereas others, such as the Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and CIA Director John Brennan, advocate a tougher policy, one similar to that which Washington conducted in October and November. Also, the United States, at every step of cooperation with Russia, is talking about Plan B and a possible ground operation, saying that cooperation with Moscow is by far not the only way to go. Still, what we have already achieved is a great improvement compared to the situation in autumn.

What does this mean for the US-Russia relations? Are they leaving the 2014−2015 confrontation behind, or it is just a one-time display of cooperation, which will not affect the existing pattern of relations? What is the outlook for Russia-US relations in 2016 and beyond when a new administration takes office in the United States?

Unfortunately, the early signs of cooperation between Russia and the United States regarding Syria mean little for the confrontational nature of their relations in general. This systemic confrontation is based on Russia’s fundamental disagreement with the United States regarding basic rules of the game and the underlying principles of the world order, the promotion by both of them of incompatible world views, as well as the rejection by the American leadership and the political elite of the existing political regime in Russia (the latter is largely a consequence of the former). Unless these root causes are taken care of, partnership between Moscow and Washington will be impossible. Chances of eliminating them are extremely slim within the remaining 10 months of Barack Obama’s presidency, or during the next administration.

Perhaps, the fact that the US foreign policy mainstream sees the nature of Russia's political regime as the root of the problem is the most telling indicator that the current confrontation is of systemic rather than fleeting nature. Arguably, the specifics of the “Putin regime” allegedly make Moscow pursue “aggressive” and “imperial” policies with regard to Ukraine and Syria. This kind of thinking leads to the conclusion that unless the current political regime in Russia changes and while Vladimir Putin remains president, there will be no normalization of relations with Russia. This approach has been shared since the spring of 2014 by both Democratic and Republican foreign policymakers, and it is still there, as the recent (late January) corruption charges against President Putin made by a representative of the US Treasury and officially confirmed by the press secretary of the White House as the “position of the Obama administration” prove.

The United States’ policy of military and political containment of Russia in Europe continues unabated. The US generals and NATO senior executives continue to make bellicose statements about the “Russian threat” and how NATO must continue to development plans to repel and contain Russia. The United States and NATO continue to expand their infrastructure in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. The US policy in other regions of the world (particularly Central Asia and the Asia Pacific region) are still aimed at limiting Russia's influence and cooperation with the countries, whose respective policies one way or another gravitate toward Washington. Unfreezing the vast majority of the Russia-US negotiation tracks, including the Bilateral Presidential Commission, is not discussed at all. The only topic of discussion involves lifting some economic sanctions on Russia in the event of full compliance with the Minsk Agreements, rather than resuming a regular and comprehensive dialogue.

Most importantly, the United States refuses outright to maintain with Russia a dialogue on systemic problems, including the most fundamental disagreements on the rules and norms of the world order, which are the main cause of a new confrontation, along with the inability of Washington and Moscow to build a sustainable partnership over the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. Instead, dogmatic statements are made that Russia has issued a “systemic challenge” to the order, which has allegedly existed in Europe and the world since the end of the Cold War, and that the only item to discuss is Russia’s falling in line with this order, which implies a radical transformation of its foreign policy and domestic political regime.

The reason Washington refuses to talk with Russia about the rules of the game is simple: it believes that Russia is a failing state with inefficient, a one-trick-pony and crisis-ridden economy, which conducts counterproductive, from its point of view, and thus financially burdensome foreign policy, and, in this regard, will simply be unable to withstand a prolonged period of confrontation with the United States. Why discuss the world order with Russia? Especially one that is incompatible with American views about their “global leadership” and “liberal international order,” which has supposedly taken root following their “victory” in the Cold War. All they need to do is wait, and Russia will break its back, and then everything will get back to normal. (Of course, it won’t. The systemic issues that triggered the US-Russia confrontation are present in US relations with all non-Western centers of power. But Washington still prefers not to see it). Of course, this approach rules out any serious dialogue with Russia.

Based on this, the Obama administration has been conducting for the third consecutive year a policy of systemic, but limited confrontation with regard to Russia, holding back the resumption of a full-fledged dialogue, let alone partnership, unless Moscow makes systemic changes to its foreign and domestic policy. This policy is edging toward the escalation of a confrontation, one that could bring it to a direct Russia-US or Russia-NATO military clash, or a full-throttle arms race. This is why the Obama administration, while harshly criticizing Moscow for its Syrian operation, immediately signed a memorandum on military-to-military deconfliction and decided not to supply (and is now unlikely to ever do so) lethal weapons to Kiev and supported the Minsk Agreements of February 2015.

Cooperation between Russia and the United States with regard to a ceasefire in Syria completely fits into this policy. The nature and the scope of the Russian campaign in Syria and the Syrian troops’ subsequent offensive convinced the US leaders that their initial bet on Russia bogging down and then dishonorably withdrawing from Syria was unsubstantiated. It became clear that if the so-called “moderate opposition” and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar (with the United States’ backing) will continue to avoid meaningful talks with Damascus without any preconditions, then it may clearly suffer a military defeat. At the same time, Ankara's decision to shoot down the Russian bomber in late November clearly showed how close Russia and NATO came to a direct military conflict, and how quickly the control over escalation can be lost.

It is likely that the continued successful offensive of the Syrian government troops against the “moderate opposition” positions would have increased the likelihood of Ankara and Riyadh launching ground operations in Syria as it would be their last chance to save their clients from a military defeat. In fact, they’d be forced to do as Russia did when it joined the war on the side of Damascus, thus preventing its fall and defeat. This, in turn, would have created the preconditions for not just scattered incidents, but rather a full-scale war between Russia and the US Middle East allies, one of which is a member of NATO.

Thus, by mid-February, continued US refusal to establish meaningful cooperation with Russia threatened to put both countries in front of a choice between bad and worse: one option was to watch the Syrian opposition, which they support, bleed to death and be confronted with a tough choice between the Assad regime or ISIS and al-Nusra extremists; the other option was to authorize a military invasion by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and to balance on the brink of a major armed conflict with Moscow. Clearly, none of these scenarios is remotely acceptable as it is clear that Washington is not willing to lose face and will avoid an uncontrolled military escalation with Russia. Against this backdrop, the ceasefire and political negotiations are a much lesser evil.

Even though Russia will strive to portray cooperation with the US on Syria as a precedent laying down new rules of interaction between the “great powers” on issues of sovereignty, legitimacy and the use of military force, as well as putting an end to violent regime changes with the support of the West, the United States will strongly resist this position and will present the situation as an isolated instance, insisting that al-Assad goes in the end.

In any case, the issue is about the Obama administration’s push to head off unchecked escalation with Russia, especially the possibility of military confrontation, and this interaction is unlikely to be the beginning of the end of Russian-American confrontation based on these new rules. The United States will still think of Russia as a state that is doomed to fail.

It is extremely unlikely that this approach will change in any way during the remaining months of Barack Obama’s presidency. The ongoing election campaign and foreign policy discourse among Democrats and Republicans make such assumptions unrealistic. In contrast, the predominant view is that Barack Obama and John Kerry are conducting an insufficiently tough policy, and more drastic steps are needed to curb the “Russian threat” in Europe and the Middle East. Not only the presidential candidates, who, by definition, are supposed to look superhuman expressing such opinions, but also the many experts and professionals who have worked in Washington and expect to go back to work there under the new administration, and who will form a pool of advisers for the candidate who will take over the Oval Office in January 2017.

This being the case, hoping to start a meaningful dialogue on fundamental issues with the new White House administration, or to overcome the confrontation, is an exercise in futility. The Republican foreign policy-makers are still dominated by the neocons who advocate tougher US policy with regard to Russia, and with everyone else for that matter. These same views are shared by key neocon Republican candidates who really represent, unlike Donald Trump, the Republican Party, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. For them, the world remains unipolar, and the United States is a hegemon, which is not using its capabilities because of Obama’s “defeatism,” and Russia is a weakening “regional power”, which claims a status it doesn’t deserve.

The main representative of the Democratic camp, Hillary Clinton, is part of the ideological camp of liberal interventionists, who are also in favor of a more decisive (but not so one-sided) foreign policy as compared with the Obama administration and for whom the 1990s represent the norm of international relations and the international status of the United States. Importantly, in her capacity as the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton represented the most hawkish and ideology-driven wing of the Obama administration. It was she (together with like-minded Samantha Power and Susan Rice) who insisted on the US participating in the war to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya and advocated a more strong-handed approach to the Syrian crisis and more active participation of the United States in toppling al-Assad. She was the first person in the US administration to claim, a year before the Euromaidan in Ukraine that Russia plans to “re-Sovietize” the post-Soviet space, which the United States, she said, should strongly oppose. For her and the people who think like her, Russia is a simple case of system failure and a challenge for the world order that took shape in the 1990s, and the illusion of which the United States is actively trying to recreate.

In this connection, there’s a great risk that the new administration, regardless of who takes the White House (Donald Trump winning in November is unlikely), will begin, at least in the first months of his/her presidency, to take steps that could abruptly aggravate the confrontation, such as supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine, or building up military aid to Syrian rebels, let alone direct military intervention by the United States or its allies in Syria. This risk will increase immeasurably if prior to the arrival of the new administration, Moscow and Washington do not resolve at least the most urgent issues that lie on the surface, which, if not resolved, could trigger more negative moves against Russia. The issue is about implementing the Minsk Agreements and suspending the civil war in Syria.

Such a prospect, although it doesn’t bode well in terms of overcoming Russia-US confrontation, however, creates an urgent need for cooperation between Russia and the United States here and now, before the Obama administration leaves the White House. In this regard, the agreement on a ceasefire in Syria is definitely a good starting point. This partnership should be built with the understanding that it is designed to prevent further escalation of confrontation between the two countries beginning in 2017, and at least prevent an even greater tragedy for the peoples of Ukraine and Syria, not to mention the threat of a big war in Europe or the Middle East, rather than to “appease” Russia.

The agenda for this urgent cooperation should include the following components.

First, implementing the Minsk Agreements before 2017 or at least drafting the criteria, which would make it possible to report about the success and progress in their implementation. These criteria relate both to the constitutional reform in Ukraine and amnesty for the leaders of Donbass, as well as Ukraine’s reestablishing control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. The alternative would be a new round of escalation beyond 2017.

Second, preserving the ceasefire regime in Syria and launching talks about a political settlement based on UN Resolution 2254. The alternative means the risk of a direct military conflict between Russia and US Middle Eastern allies, or a prospective military defeat of the “moderate” Syrian opposition.

Third, resuming an ongoing dialogue on a military level, not only on Syria or START-3, where it is still maintained to a certain extent, but across all military and political aspects of Russia-US relations. This is a necessity when we have a confrontation on our hands, as the Cold War clearly demonstrated. Otherwise, control over the escalation can be lost at any moment. It is particularly important to resume the dialogue in the areas of arms control, the absence of which is most likely to cause military escalation in Russia-US or Russia-NATO relations, such as the treaty on intermediate- and shorter-range missiles and cyber security.

Fourth, preserving cooperation between Russia and the United States in areas where it is still available, such as the Arctic and the outer space, and preventing the confrontational thinking spreading to these areas.

Fifth, preventing the emergence of a new geopolitical face-off between Russia and USA in the post-Soviet space, such as Central Asia in the near future.

To do so, it is imperative, among other things, to restore cooperation on Afghanistan and to harmonize the strategies pursued by Moscow and Washington with regard to that country.

Strategically, it should be understood that the only alternative to Russia-US partnership is a weaker partnership. Making a new confrontation last for years or decades would only make the world, which is already reeling from past shocks and which has become fragmented, compartmentalized and globally interdependent, less safe and less manageable. Given the nature of current and future threats and challenges, as well as the relations between the great powers, this new partnership should be based not only on the new rules, but also on a new format, which includes flexible multilateral cooperation between several centers of power with an eye toward overcoming common challenges and threats. In this new format, Russia and the United States would be part of the group of nations shaping the agenda, but not the only decision-makers. However, this issue will take the next decade to resolve.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.