Trump takes sabbatical on Russia ties
The NATO Foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday assumed special significance since it happened to be the first appearance by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the alliance’s ‘diplomatic podium’. The alliance, in fact, refixed the date of the ministerial to suit Tillerson’s scheduling convenience. And he, for sure, did not disappoint his audience.
Tillerson’s interventions on Friday were the first structured statements of the Donald Trump administration on two important vectors of the US foreign policies – NATO’s raison d’etre as a military alliance and, secondly, Ukraine – which together inevitably reflect on the overall approach that can be expected from Washington in relations with Russia – at least in the near term. Tillerson is slated to visit Moscow on April 12.
Tillerson unequivocally stressed the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO. He described the alliance as the “bedrock of transatlantic security”. Thereupon, he went on to identify ISIS and Russia as the two “common threats” that the alliance faces. He said NATO as an alliance is “fundamental to countering both non-violent, but at times violent, Russian agitation and Russian aggression.” Tillerson called on NATO to “remain vigilant in strengthening NATO’s eastern defences… from Baltic to the Black Sea.”
No doubt, it was exceptionally strong language for the US’ top diplomat to use. Tillerson cited against this backdrop this weekend deployment to Poland of the US’ “enhanced, forward presence battalion”. He hinted that the Trump administration envisages a lead role for NATO in fighting the ISIS and, importantly, in the stabilization of Iraq.
This effectively rules out any significant level of military cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against ISIS. (Notably, though, Tillerson made no mention of Syria.) Indeed, it remains to be seen how an enhanced NATO presence in Iraq will be perceived in Tehran.
Tillerson also addressed a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in Brussels on Friday and his remarks there have been the most detailed statement so far on the Trump administration’s policies towards the Ukraine crisis. Tillerson literally tore into Russia. The following excerpts bring out the flavour of this unequivocal condemnation of Russian policies in Syria through the past 3-year period:
- Three years ago, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine shook the very foundations of security and stability in Europe. Today, Russia’s ongoing hostility and occupation is compromising our shared vision of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. American and NATO support for Ukraine remains steadfast. As we have repeated at every Ministerial and Summit since Russia launched its campaign of aggression against Ukraine, NATO Allies stand firm in our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We do not, and will not, accept Russian efforts to change the borders of territory of Ukraine… NATO solidarity is crucial to finding a political solution to this conflict.
Tillerson made it clear that the US squarely holds Russia accountable for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. He warned Moscow:
- The United States sanctions will remain until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions. We note with alarm the escalating violence along the line of contact and the repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure by Russia-led separatist forces, which poses an elevated risk of humanitarian disaster. We call on Russia to exercise its influence over the separatists to put a stop to the violence, end the campaign of attacks and intimidation against OSCE monitors, and facilitate the access they need to do their job. The OSCE must be able to fulfill its mandate which included monitoring throughout the conflict zone and to the international border. And Russia must understand there is no basis to move forward on the political aspects of the Minsk agreements until there is visible, verifiable, and irreversible improvement in the security situation.
Simply put, Tillerson has put Russia on notice that the Trump administration policies will be hard as nails when it comes to the Ukraine situation. (Meanwhile, there are growing demands that the US should supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.)
On Crimea, Tillerson was pretty much blunt: “Crimea-related sanctions must remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”
Most important, Tillerson just stopped short of saying that the US is supportive of Ukraine’s induction as a NATO member country. He urged Kiev to bring the Ukrainian armed forces to continue to reform and modernise so as to come up to the NATO standards by 2020. In a subtle reference to what lies ahead, Tillerson recalled Trump’s assertion that “every country has the right to chart its own future.” To be sure,Ukraine is looming ahead as the inflection point in Russia’s relations with the US.
The overall tenor of Tillerson’s remarks suggests that not only is the Trump administration unable or unwilling to do anything to improve relations with Russia in immediate terms, it might simply continue with the Barack Obama administration’s Russia policies for as long as the civil war conditions prevail in Washington between him on the one hand and the Russophobes in the Congress and the American foreign and security policy community on the other. Read the triumphalist opinion piece by Time magazine – These Five Facts Explain Why Trump’s Russia Reset May Be Over.