New Cold War tensions are easing
After a 3-year interlude, NATO and Russia resumed contact at the military level today. Back in April 2014, in the immediate aftermath of the ‘regime change’ in Ukraine, the NATO Council had made a decision to freeze relations with Russia. The Russian Defence Ministry announced today that Chief of Russia’s General Staff General Valery Gerasimov had a phone conversation with the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee General Petr Pavel. The announcement in Moscow said, inter alia,
- The Chief of Russia’s General Staff drew his interlocutor’s attention to the existing concerns related to the considerable build-up of the North Atlantic alliance’s military activity near Russian borders and the deployment of the system of the NATO united forces’ forward stationing… The sides confirmed the need of mutual steps aimed at reducing tension and stabilizing the situation in Europe. Army General Gerasimov and General Pavel agreed on continuing such contacts.
Such a major NATO decision – resumption of ties with the Russian military top brass – could only have been possible with a green light or prior clearance from Washington. Simply put, the Donald Trump administration is chipping away at the Barack Obama administration’s policy to “isolate” Russia. Trump’s speech at the US Congress on Tuesday eschewed any reference to Russia. This was also a break from Obama’s diatribes against Russia in his final address to the Congress last year. (See my piece Trump Can Be Good for World Peace — If Only He’s His Way.)
Interestingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel will visit Moscow on March 9 and that the agenda will have “a focus on multilateral efforts to resolve the Ukraine and Syria crises and normalise the situation in Libya.”
Three days back, on February 28, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hinted at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and President Trump. In Ryabkov’s words,
- There is no understanding yet on the date and the place of holding such a meeting but practical preparations for it have been launched and there is mutual understanding with the U.S. side on this score. Naturally, at this initial stage of a dialog with the new administration, it is difficult to make a conclusion about how work will proceed further on specific issues. The forecasts for a perspective will become possible when we see Washington’s practical actions.
Meanwhile, in an unbelievable twist of fate, Russia and the US find themselves on the same side in northern Syria in an effort to restrain Turkey from precipitating a “war within the war” in Syria. (See my blog Turkish army to march deeper into Syria – alone and defiant.) The Syrian Kurdish militia (which is the US’ ally in northern Syria) has struck a deal with the Syrian government forces to block the Turkish troops from advancing toward Manjib. (To jog memory, Manjib was captured from the ISIS in a joint operation between the US Special Forces and the Kurdish militia last August.) And, curiously, Russia mediated the deal today between the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army. (TASS ) .
So, what do we have here? Turkey is planning to go for the jugular veins of the Kurdish militia who are in control of Manjib, knowing full well that the latter is backed to the hilt by the US Central Command and that US forces are on the ground with the militia. As a Reuters analysis put it, Turkey and the US are apparently on a “collision course”. And at this point, Russia steps in and gets the Syrian government to take charge from the Kurdish militia over the western approaches to Manjib to block the advancing Turkish forces.
Suffice it to say, it is difficult to believe that there have been no contacts between the US and Russian militaries at the operational level as regards the dangerous situation developing around Manjib. When the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked earlier today about contacts between Russia and US on the Syrian crisis, he said, “There have been no substantial contacts.”
On February 28, Pentagon submitted to the White House its report on the strategy to fight the ISIS. A Moscow analyst on security issues Andrei Akulov has given a positive evaluation, visualizing the possibility of Russian-American cooperation and coordination in the fight against terrorism. The picture that emerges from a briefing given by the top US commander in Iraq Lt. General Stephen Townsend on Wednesday via a teleconference from Baghdad is also that
- US is unlikely to deploy a large number of troops in Syria;
- US will continue to regard the Kurdish militia as an indispensable ally in Syria;
- US military will not recommend any fundamental shift in strategy in Syria – namely, fighting “by, with and through our (US’) local partners”;
- Kurdish militia will have a significant role in the forthcoming operation to liberate Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital in eastern Syria; and,
- US does not agree with Turkey’s perception that the Syrian Kurds pose a threat to its national security.
The transcript of Lt. Gen. Townsend’s teleconference is here. The big question is whether there could be prospects of US-Russia military cooperation in Syria. In a remark in mid-February, Defence Secretary James Mattis had ruled out such a possibility. But things can change. The resumption of high-level military contact today between the NATO and Russia signals that an overall easing of tensions in the West’s ties with Russia can be expected. Today’s phone call could be the harbinger of changes in the air. Let us call it the “Trump effect”.
Against this backdrop. German FM Gabriel’s talks in Moscow coming on Thursday assume importance. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Gabriel was a protégé of late Egon Bahr, the famous German SPD politician who is regarded as the creator of the so-called Ostpolitik – the foreign policy of détente with the former USSR and other Warsaw Pact member countries in general, beginning in 1969, which was promoted by the then Chancellor Willy Brandt.
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