Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Not much progress made as Sec State Tillerson meets with Putin and Lavrov

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. Reuters.

Not much progress has been made by the official state visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Russia. Reuters. As Tillerson met with both Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov but relations between the US and Russia remain tense. Comments by Presidents Trump and Putin did not help things. Donald Trump said that relations are as bad as they have ever been. Vladimir Putin said that the working relationship between the governments, especially the military links, are deterioration instead of improving. Though Trump wished for better relations during his presidential campaign, relations soured after Putin's ally Assad was accused of a chemical weapons attack in Syria and the US launched missiles at an airbase in response. Some progress was made though as the US-Russia safety agreement for Syria has been reinstated and a working group has been formed to examine the state of relations. 

My Comment:
I'm not so sure things are as gloomy as the Reuters article are making it out to be. Sure, the reception at this meeting was fairly frosty and Putin and Trump are spouting their mouths off. But the fact of the matter I was afraid that this meeting wasn't going to happen at all. It is encouraging both that the meeting happened and that Putin actually met with Tillerson. Neither of those things were guaranteed. The fact that they did is a good sign and an indication that things aren't so bad that they can't be fixed.

I am also extremely happy that the safety agreement for Syria has been reinstated. Obviously, the primary effect of this is that we can avoid any kind of stupid accident that could cause a war. That is extremely important, but it's not the only benefit. Without the agreement, our airstrikes against ISIS tapered off giving them far more breathing room then they should have. With the agreement back in place we should be able to attack ISIS again.

Still, things are not that good right now. The US-Russia relationship is as bad as I remember since the Cold War. There is a lot of blame to go around. Obviously Vladimir Putin needs to take quite a bit of it. He's been pushing the US for the past eight years and even before then he's been aggressively pushing his borders outward. Our relationship with Putin would have been much better if he hadn't pushed into Ukraine and Georgia. And he's backing Assad at all costs, even though he could solve a lot of problems by cutting a deal with him and making him step down.

Trump too deserves some of the blame. Though I understand why Donald Trump launched the missile strike against Syria and do think that it was justifiable, I still don't think it was the right move. Even if we were 100% certain that Assad used Sarin, I don't know if it was worth the cost in relations between Russia and America. Trump thought it was worth it though and that means he is responsible as well. 

I think a lot of the blame has to go to President Barack Obama. He's the one that supported the Arab Spring. He's the one that drew a red line in Syria and then didn't follow through. He's the one that put Donald Trump in an impossible situation between letting chemical weapons be used or taking hostile action. And he's the one that talked a tough game on Russia but failed to ever back it up. That doesn't mitigate Putin and Trump's role if things go south quickly, but in the end it would be criminal to ignore Obama's role in torpedoing US/Russia relations. 

Will things get better between Russia and the US? I am not sure. Putin needs Assad in power because he needs the naval base Tartus. If Assad were to be removed there is no guarantee that they would able to keep the base and that is unacceptable to Putin. Losing that base would cripple the Russian military and I can't see Putin accepting any deal that doesn't address that. 

Trump can no longer allow Assad to stay in power either. He, at the very least, has proven that he hasn't gotten rid of all the chemical weapons in his country. Even if he didn't launch the chemical attack, and I do think that it's likely he did, it is extremely likely that the weapons used were of Syrian origin. Either Assad is using chemical weapons or he is not fully in control of them. We can't trust Assad on chemical weapons because he's too weak to control them and lied about giving them all up. Either way Trump can't let ISIS get more control of Sarin or other chemical weapons. 

Is there a solution to these problems? I do think there is a chance for a grand bargain. First Russia would have to let other countries in to help ensure that the chemical weapons left are secured and destroyed. That shouldn't be too hard to pull off. Second, Assad will have to step down after ISIS and al-Nusra are defeated in Syria. At this point he's to toxic to remain, thought I don't think anyone that would replace him could be any better. He can fly off to Russia and be safe so he has something to gain out of the deal. Finally, the new leadership in Syria must allow Russia to keep it's base in Tartus. If all of those things can be worked out, I think we could actually get our relations with Russia back to normal. Everyone would gain from this deal, even Assad. But who knows if anyone involved would go for it? 

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