The United States and Russia are now at daggers drawn over Syria. Following the collapse of the ceasefire negotiated last month by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the United States has abandoned talks with the Russians on Syria. Meanwhile, in a supposedly unrelated part of the relationship, Russia has suspended the 2000 agreement between the two countries on ridding themselves of excess stocks of weapons-grade plutonium.
Not since Russia seized Crimea in February 2014 and began incursions, directly and through “little green men,” into other parts of Ukraine have relations between Moscow and Washington been so poor.
In terms of trying at long last to stop the carnage in Syria, now entering its sixth year with hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of displaced persons, the failure of the United States and Russia to agree on a way forward is a tragedy for all those involved. Because of the flood of refugees to Europe, it is also a central factor in the worst crisis ever to face the European Union.
The American-Russian standoff on Syria marks a decisive point in the effort, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, to see whether Russia can live at peace with its neighbors and others, neither threatening them nor feeling—rightly or wrongly—threatened by one or more of them, notably the United States.
This aspect of the Syrian civil war—US-Russian relations—has to be seen in the context of this larger picture, as the Russians surely do. To begin with, the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the most profound strategic retreat by any nation or empire, without war, in all of history. The West’s victory in the Cold War, over both Soviet geopolitical power and European communism, was virtually total. But it would have been unrealistic to expect that the largest part of the USSR, the Russian Federation, would remain the third-rate power it had suddenly become. In one Western jibe, it was “Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons.” Yet inherent facts of geography, natural resources, and power potential always meant that Russia would again become a major competitor for the West.
Reaching out to Russia
The most relevant question was whether Russia’s natural and ineluctable ambitions could be accommodated by embedding the country in a system of security, political, and economic relationships, especially with other European countries, the United States, and Canada. President George H.W. Bush tried, by advancing a vision of a “Europe whole and free and at peace.” Part of this vision was based on a desire not to repeat with Russia what happened with Germany after the punishing provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: German revanchism and a spur to the rise of Adolph Hitler.
Russia embraced much of what the West proposed to implement this vision of a Europe whole and free, though reluctantly. It acquiesced to a unified Germany in NATO. It joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. It sent soldiers—its very best—to take part in the Bosnian Implementation Force after the 1995 Dayton Accords, notably placing these soldiers under US command. Russia agreed to a NATO-Russia Founding Act (which included 19 areas for potential cooperation). And it even tolerated, though with asperity, NATO’s enlargement to include two countries on Germany’s eastern frontier, Poland and the Czech Republic—i.e. to “surround” Germany with NATO—plus Hungary, whose NATO membership was for the Russians neither here nor there.
Maybe this work could have been built upon. Maybe Russia would have accepted that it would be part of some larger European security construct, in whose design it would be involved, rather than having to dominate countries in its “near abroad.” By contrast, the aftereffects of a humiliating loss in the Cold War might inevitably have impelled Russia to be assertive abroad, even had not Vladimir Putin, a leader with his own personal and national ambitions, come to power in Moscow. History, of course, can never be revisited.
Unfortunately, the West and the United States in particular stopped caring whether Russia could be included in Europe as a respected and serious, if not exactly an equal, member. The West ignored Moscow’s opposition to NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo. Washington more-or-less scrapped the Russian dimension of Bush’s vision for Europe. The United States pressed for more countries to join NATO, butting up against Russia’s frontiers, without engaging with Russia on the subject.
On taking office, the George W. Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. After the collapse of the US-Soviet nuclear balance of terror, the treaty did not much matter. But it was a symbol for the Russians that they could continue to claim a seat at the head table with the only country that mattered, the United States. Something similar happened when the US decided to deploy missile defenses in Central Europe against potential threats from North Korea and Iran. Russia objected, claiming that these defenses could blunt its own capacity for deterrence, however obsolete that notion was. The US argued that the Russians must know that the size of these missile defenses could never pose a challenge to Russia. They did know it, but that was not the point: it was another example of a unilateral American move in Russia’s backyard on a strategic issue. (To prove the point about the importance for Moscow of being at the head table with the United States, Russia did negotiate and agree to the New START strategic arms agreement.)
Worst of all, in 2008, again at America’s behest, NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO,” a statement that could only mean that the alliance was prepared to include both countries under the protection of the Western alliance’s security umbrella. The pledge of membership for Ukraine violated the tacit understanding that the country’s future in European security would remain indeterminate while the West tried to work something out with Russia. Shortly after the NATO summit came the brief Russian conflict with Georgia, in which, tellingly, not a single NATO ally leapt to Tbilisi’s defense.
Then Ukraine moved front and center. In February 2014, a popular uprising sent a pro-Russian government in Kiev packing. Then the United States sought to bring Ukraine solidly into the Western (i.e., NATO) orbit. Both sides had crossed a red line. But Russia was the side that chose to act in response, by what it did in Crimea and continues to do elsewhere in Ukraine, while also intimidating the Baltic states that are now NATO members. This led to Western sanctions on Russia, a buildup of both NATO and Russian military power in Europe, diplomatic and political stalemate, and a virtual end to efforts, on both sides, to see whether Russia could be part of a “Europe whole and free.” Ominously, there has been talk in both the United States and Russia about a “new cold war,” with senior US military leaders saying that Russia poses an “existential threat” to the United States, a judgment that is both nonsense and potentially dangerous.
Russia Shifts the Focus to the Middle East
For the United States, Ukraine and Syria might seem worlds apart. Not so for Putin’s Russia. It has naturally sought a way both to counter the West’s economic sanctions over Ukraine and to reassert its global power, whether that is based on substance or for now mostly on bluff. Syria has proved to be a perfect place for Russia to show the West that, despite economic sanctions, it has cards to play in an area that the United States for decades had made its own sphere of influence.
By what it has done in Syria and elsewhere in the region, and especially by what it has not done, the United States gave Russia the opportunity to meddle. Arguably, if the United States and its partners had found some way to end the Syrian civil war and to begin dealing more effectively than now with some of the region’s broader problems, Russia would have found few opportunities to exploit, beyond retaining the small naval base it has long had on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
But the Obama administration has still not crafted a set of policies that can lead toward effective resolution of conflict in Syria. Here, the United States has found itself at a structural disadvantage to Russia. In Moscow, only a few leaders make decisions, with one—Putin—casting the decisive vote. In the United States, by contrast, not only is the president subject to the Constitution’s checks and balances, he also faces pressures from a host of foreign partners and allies, along with their supporters in US domestic politics. (Russia has no allies to whom Putin has to listen.)
If Washington’s key objective in Syria and surrounding territory were primarily to limit opportunities for Putin’s Russia, it would have done a number of things differently. It would have sought many years earlier than it did to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, the final deal was very close to terms that Teheran advanced at the time of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when Iran feared that it could be next. Even now, the US should be implementing the nuclear deal scrupulously, including on relief of sanctions against Iran, in order to give it an incentive to be more accommodating to US interests in the region. Instead, the US has ceded the opportunity to Russia to try engaging Iran, despite centuries of their mutual animosity.
Nor, in this scenario, would the administration call for the departure of Syria’s Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad, without first spelling out in detail how the Alawites and every other confessional group in Syria could survive regime change. However, the US finds itself under intense pressure from its friends and partners in the region not to pursue that obvious course. Sunni states, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, want Assad gone and a government in Syria dominated by the Sunni majority, the Alawites be damned (along with Shiites elsewhere in the region). It should thus not be surprising that Russia is supporting the Assad regime and the Alawites, who fear for their survival, and in the process showing the United States that Moscow has to be reckoned with.
Because of its partners in the region, the United States in effect has become a dog with multiple tails, each one wagging vigorously. At least one of these “tails,” Saudi Arabia, has made matters even worse for the United States, the West in general, and just about everyone in the Middle East who does not support the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The major fuel for IS, in both inspiration and money for arms, has come from Saudi Arabia, despite what it and its supporters in the United States would have us believe otherwise. Instead, the US continues to turn a blind eye to the export of Wahhabi extremism, accepts Saudi protestations on this point, and also buys into the argument that Iran seeks to become the region’s superpower. Yet, Iran’s only serious challenge to regional states, beyond a narrow Shia belt partially responsive to Teheran, lies in the fact that it is modernizing faster than any of its neighbors, most of whom are still stuck in the 20th century and some, socially and politically, even earlier.
Everyone of good will who wants to see greater stability in the Middle East should be thankful to President Barack Obama for taking on the opposition to a deal with Iran that effectively constrains any ambitions it could have to become a nuclear-armed power. The negotiating with Teheran was tough enough; negotiating with major elements in the Congress and not caving in to pressures from the Arab oil and Israeli lobbies was even tougher. These forces are now working intensely to prevent Obama from committing what they believe to be a double sin of exploring a broader accommodation with Iran, assuming, of course, that it would reciprocate.
Connecting the Dots
U.S. leaders and senior officials don’t seem to understand how, for Russia, the European and Middle East theaters relate to one another. They don’t understand that the Middle East cannot be seen in bits and pieces but must be viewed as an interconnected whole. And they don’t seem to understand that other countries have interests, will pursue them, and will take America’s interests into account only to the degree that that course makes sense to them and that we also require them to do so as a price of their relationship with us. They are sovereign states and partner with the United States only when it is to their advantage.
It is not too late for Washington to start sorting all of this out, even in the short period in office remaining to President Obama. It can limit Russian opportunities by fully implementing the nuclear deal with Iran and start exploring mutual accommodation with Teheran on other matters. It can finally craft an approach to peace in Syria that recognizes the needs of all its people and not just the Sunnis and their regional kin. That could both create a real chance for peace and counter Russia’s meddling in Syria.
In the broader context, Washington needs to recognize that, inevitably, Russia will have to be reckoned with in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Of course, we need to make clear that one price of its full readmission to the international community is its playing by rules to which all can agree. But we will have to accept that it will have a seat at the table in setting these rules.
It’s not an easy balancing act. But the alternative—no prospect of ending the Syrian civil war and the risk of deepening tensions in Central Europe, perhaps hardening into a new cold war—should elicit this administration’s imagination and activity in its waning months and then should focus the best minds of the new foreign policy team that will take over next year.
By Robert E. Hunter