Can Putin, Trump reboot ties over Syria?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Moscow with a message of reconciliation from President Donald Trump that the Kremlin happily embraced, yet the old disagreements are all still there.

al-monitor Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, May 14, 2019. Photo by Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS.
Maxim A. Suchkov

Maxim A. Suchkov


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Syria Conflict

May 17, 2019

MOSCOW — US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo came to Sochi Tuesday for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, and President Vladimir Putin also hosted Pompeo for a short discussion of the most acute issues over which Moscow and Washington are currently sparring. A week prior, on May 6, Lavrov and Pompeo met in Helsinki on the sidelines of the Arctic Council.

“We understand that much suspicion and prejudice has piled up on both sides, but neither you nor we are benefitting from it. On the contrary, mutual bitterness increases the risks to your security and ours, and is of concern to the entire international community,” Lavrov stated in his opening remarks.

“I believe it's time to start building a new, more responsible and constructive matrix of how we see each other. We are ready to do so, of course, if our US partners are interested in doing so as well. … The fact that we are meeting for the second time in the past two weeks inspires certain optimism. Let's give it a try and see what happens,” he concluded.

On May 3, US President Donald Trump called Putin. Following the conversation, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US State Department were tasked to “intensify the dialogue” over a number of pressing bilateral and international issues.

“I got the impression that the president is in favor of restoring Russia-US ties and contacts and resolving issues of mutual interest,” Putin told Pompeo while hosting the latter at the presidential Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi.

“For our part, we have said many times that we would also like to restore relations on a full scale. I hope that the necessary conditions for this are being created now, since, despite the exotic character of Mr. [Robert] Mueller’s work, he should be given credit for conducting what is generally an objective inquiry. He reaffirmed the lack of any trace of collusion between Russia and the current administration, which we described as sheer nonsense from the very start. There was no, nor could there be any interference on our part in the US election at the government level. Nevertheless, regrettably, these allegations have served as a reason for the deterioration of our interstate ties,” Putin stressed.

When Trump was elected in 2016, many in Moscow hoped US-Russian relations could see a natural reset. The expectation was generally based on candidate Trump's uncritical, if not positive, remarks vis-à-vis Russia and Putin himself, as well as Moscow’s view that Hillary Clinton would have been a worse option as president on every account. Syria and counter-terrorism too were deemed areas for genuine cooperation between Moscow and Washington given the Trump’s campaign remarks about the need to fight Islamist radicalism.

Very soon, however, investigations into what came to be seen as Russian interference in the US presidential election and concerns over possible collusion complicated the Trump administration's position toward Russia. The administration, as seen from Moscow, had to go on both the defensive — in that it had to deny the idea as a “hoax” — and the offensive, in that it had to “compete” with Congress in passing anti-Russian sanctions to both look strong for the domestic constituency and objectively limit Russia’s potential internationally.

While the deconfliction channel between the US Al-Udeyd base in Qatar and Russia’s Hmeymim base in Syria continues to operate and the regular meetings between Russian and American chiefs of staff are the only viable communication venue, Moscow and Washington have never really come to cooperate on major security challenges in the Middle East.

To make matters worse, Trump’s prioritization of the “Iranian threat” has come to further the divide in the respective Mideast agendas of Russia and the United States. This disconnect gets projected on Syria, where the parties split on major issues of Syria settlement — be it the content (formation of a constitutional committee, presence of troops, future of President Bashar al-Assad) or the form (“Astana talks” vs “Small group” and the participation of Iran).

“We noticed that the rhetoric [of Western states on Syria] has changed. … The problem is whether there’s some hidden, disguised agenda that seeks to create conditions for an ultimate regime change,” Russia’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentyev recently told TASS.

At the same time, Putin’s remarks suggest that the Kremlin sees the major obstacle to any US-Russia engagement under Trump — the allegations of collusion during the election — as lifted by the Mueller report. Both Putin and Trump appear to be on the same page when it comes to seeing the “Russia theme” as serving the domestic political agenda of the “Washington establishment,” which may torpedo any constructive ideas Russian and American diplomats and military may brainstorm. Yet the message Pompeo came to communicate to Moscow on behalf of Trump echoes Russia’s desire for a fresh start.

“There are places we disagree; there are places I think are truly overlapping interests that we can build on. And most importantly, President Trump very much wants to do that. We’ll protect our nations’ interests, but there are places that our two countries can find where we can be cooperative, we can be productive, we can be accumulative, we can work together to make each of our two peoples more successful, and frankly, the world more successful, too,” Pompeo told Putin.

The sentiment for cooperation may indeed project onto strategic stability, non-proliferation and arms control as well as for crises where the two can work together without hurting each other’s interests — North Korea and Afghanistan, in particular. However, such collaboration in places where Moscow and Washington have higher national security stakes — Ukraine and Venezuela — has narrower odds since the conflicts are largely perceived as a zero-sum game.

In this context, Middle Eastern crises represent a third category: Russia and the United States can objectively cooperate on settling most of them without giving in on too much of their own interests. Yet a combination of great power inertia, the contest over rule-setting in world affairs, promotion of certain rigid domestic agendas at the cost of regional stability and a fear to look weak in the face of potential concessions — not to mention local spoilers that get animated at any US-Russian reconciliation attempt — all minimize the opportunities for the Syrian, Libyan and perhaps now also the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts to be venues for cooperation.

It is also unfortunate that in Syria, there’s barely any new idea that both parties can offer each other. Eight years of conflict have seen dozens of proposals tested and both Moscow and Washington remain committed to promoting their initial agendas and arguing them with the same talking points.

“In the Syrian context, we discussed the importance of jointly fighting against international terrorism and noted that it is very important to finally launch the Syrian constitutional committee," Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov said following Putin’s meeting with Pompeo. "The discussion was businesslike and constructive, and it revealed many aspects on which we have similar positions. … The president stressed that it is important to respect Syria's sovereignty and strive for preserving its territorial integrity," Ushakov added.

If Syria is pretty much stalled and is likely to be determined not by a US-Russian deal but rather by the success of the parties in dealing with the actors on the ground, the ongoing escalations over Iran cast the shadow of a new regional complication.

“As far as Iran and the [nuclear deal] are concerned, I hope that wisdom will ultimately prevail. … When I say we hope to find a political solution to the situation around Iran, we'll work to ensure the situation doesn't slip into a military scenario. I sensed the US party, too, has a mood to be seeking a political solution. But it’s very complicated. Until now we’ve only been further engulfed into this swirl,” Lavrov said at the press conference with Pompeo.

The next day, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, denied that Pompeo had assured Moscow that the United States did not seek war with Iran.

While — quite remarkably — Peskov said Moscow was “saddened to see the decisions taken by the Iranian side," he told reporters, "There were no assurances from Pompeo," adding, "And one can hardly talk about some sort of assurances. There is an obvious situation which unfortunately tends to escalate further."

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