The early reports on the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s talks in Moscow on Wednesday have a positive ring but how far it is real, time only can tell. Indeed, almost in real time as soon as Tillerson’s all-important meeting in the Kremlin with President Vladimir Putin (which lasted for over two hours) got over, President Donald Trump remarked that from the feedback he got, “things went pretty well, better than expected.”
Trump noted that Tillerson had a “very successful meeting in Russia” as the “end result” will show – “which will be in a long period of time, perhaps.” Interestingly, Trump said this in the presence of the visiting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the joint press conference in the White House, adding,
- It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago (with Stoltenberg), if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia. This has built for a long period of time. But we’re going to see what happens. Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We’re a very, very strong country. We’re going to see how that all works out.
Make no mistake, Trump knows his job. He knows Stoltenberg’s mission was to amplify the cacophony over “Russian aggression”. So, perhaps, he deliberately went into a stream of consciousness:
- And I’ll also see about Putin over a period of time. It would be a fantastic thing if we got along with Putin and if we got along with Russia. And that could happen, and it may not happen, it may be just the opposite. I can only tell you what I would like to do. I would love to be able to get along with everybody. Right now, the world is a mess. But I think by the time we finish, I think it’s going to be a lot better place to live. And I can tell you that, speaking for myself, by the time I’m finished, it’s going to be a lot better place to live in — because right now it’s nasty.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described his negotiations with Tillerson as “substantial and very frank.” Obviously, there were sharp differences — future of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, for instance. He said Moscow is “realistic” that much effort is needed to overcome the obstacles in the Russia-US ties but “we seek to do that… (and Putin) reaffirmed our will to do that.”
Tillerson himself described the meeting with Putin as “productive” where they discussed “approaches to improving our channels of communication and there was a “lengthy exchange of views” regarding Syrian situation and “shared perspectives on possible ways forward.” Tillerson underscored that mutual trust is very low and the two countries have differences over a broad range of issues. He said,
- The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship… We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us.
Unsurprisingly, Syria topped the agenda of talks. (Ukraine took a back seat, though.) The Russian side seems to have shown willingness to revive the “de-confliction” procedure in the military operations in Syria. The two sides agreed on an investigation by the OPCW at The Hague over the chemical attack in Idlib on April 4. Equally, US-Russia consultations will resume with a view to find a solution to the Syrian conflict.
Yet, reading the transcript of the Lavrov-Tillerson press conference in Moscow yesterday, the overpowering sense is one of deja vu. We’ve been there before, haven’t we? The issues and problems in the Russian-American relationship are so deep-rooted and are not only bilateral but also regional – and some even have global character. This is the main difference between what Trump is attempting with Russia and China respectively. Paradoxically, China-US issues are rather straightforward in comparison – identifiable, quantifiable, and possible to be prioritised – if only the rivalry could be overcome in “win-win” spirit.
Unlike with US-China relations, however, the diplomatic channels between Washington and Moscow are clogged, historically as well as thanks to the deliberate policy moves by the Barack Obama administration. The good part is that both Lavrov and Tillerson acknowledged the need to improve the state of affairs. Moscow is manifestly keen to have sustained dialogue, explore possibilities for cooperation, and even seeks “joint activities” (as Lavrov put it.) But it takes two to tango.
The Trump administration is far from stable and Russophobia is pervasive within the American establishment. Any significant improvement in the relations will take time. Tillerson himself somehow gives the impression of being too decent a fellow to elbow aside roughnecks like Senator John McCain. His influence within Trump’s foreign-policy team also remains unclear. To be sure, Russophobes will now begin sniping at the nascent beginning made by Tillerson in Moscow.
The Russian diplomacy needs to slow down on the American front a bit and work its way back and re-engage Europeans. The G7 meet in Luca on Tuesday showed that Germany and Italy understand the imperative need to work with Russia to find a solution to the Syrian conflict under UN auspices. Federico Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, is due to visit Moscow on April 24.
Moscow and Washington have reached an understanding that further US strikes similar to the one carried out against Syria’s Shayrat Air Base “should not occur again,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said.
Lavrov emphasized that this issue was raised during his discussions with the US Secretary of State on Wednesday when Rex Tillerson was visiting Moscow.
“We have discussed this issue with the US Secretary of State in details yesterday and agreed upon the fact that a similar [strike] should not occur again,” he told journalists ahead of his meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, in Moscow.
Lavrov further underlined that the US missile strike against the Shayrat Air Base played “a highly provocative role.”
He went on to say that the US confirmed its commitment to the idea that there is no other option of resolving the Syrian conflict other than political dialog, adding that this offers hope for the future of the peace process.
“It is encouraging to some extent that Rex Tillerson confirmed yesterday that [the US still holds] the opinion that there is no alternative to the political process [of the resolution of the Syrian crisis] despite all the recent negative developments,” he said.
A “right and responsible step” is how Lavrov described the Syrian government’s decision to invite experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to conduct an investigation of the chemical weapon incident in Idlib province.
He said the “hysteria” around the alleged Idlib chemical weapons attack should not impede efforts made in Astana and Geneva, which are aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict.
The Russian Foreign Minister warned that there are forces still trying to “bust up the ceasefire regime brokered in Astana and welcomed by the UN Security Council.”
Earlier, Lavrov said that failing to institute an international inquiry into the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib would mean that the international community is not interested in establishing the truth about the matter.
He reiterated that Moscow considers the US claims concerning the chemical weapons being used by the Syrian government “unfounded” and “lacking evidence,” speaking at the joint news conference with Tillerson on Wednesday following talks in Moscow.
Lavrov also denounced attempts to hamper cooperation between Russia and the US as “shortsighted.” The two diplomats also announced the creation of a joint expert group tasked with analyzing bilateral relations and addressing sources of mutual concern as they revealed plans to improve ties between Moscow and Washington.
On Thursday, a North Korean peace institute affiliated with country’s Foreign Ministry blamed the US for escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, saying that any strike from Washington would prompt a “merciless retaliatory strike.”
In the statement, a spokesman from the institute said that US deployment of nuclear assets could very well spark a nuclear conflict. A US carrier strike group led by the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson was recently redirected to the peninsula, as Pyongyang continues its nuclear weapons development program and its regime of threats.
This US show of force takes place only shortly after US President Donald Trump ordered a controversial strike of 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syria’s Sha’irat air base, in a move that North Korea said justified their nuclear activities.
Coming behind the Vinson group is the USS Dewey and the USS Sterett, a couple of Navy destroyers that just arrived in Hawaii and will soon be headed to the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, recent satellite images analyzed by North Korean watchdog 38 North indicate that a sixth North Korean nuclear test is on the horizon.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, the North Korean statement said, “By relentlessly bringing in a number of strategic nuclear assets to the Korean Peninsula, the US is gravely threatening the peace and safety, and driving the situation to the brink of a nuclear war.” Regarding the strike in Syria, they said “the US. is carrying out military strikes and menacing acts against a sovereign state while calling for peace through strength.”
The institute also said that it would be “silly” to entertain any “dream” of defeating them through working with other countries, in what appears to be a reference to Washington pressuring China to take a more aggressive stance against the North’s provocations.
Trump recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the “Southern White House,” his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. In an interview with the Financial Times not long before his meeting with Xi, Trump said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”
His tone changed after Xi explained Beijing’s relationship with the North, leading Trump to realize, “it’s not so easy.”
Trump also conducted a complete about-face from frequent comments he had made about Beijing being the “grand champion” of manipulating currency, saying after the meeting, “They’re not currency manipulators.”
On Thursday, amid speculation that North Korea’s next nuclear test will take place any day now, Trump remarked that Pyongyang is a “problem” that “will be taken care of.”
Despite Washington’s saber-rattling, China has suggested that diplomatic tactics could still be used to solve the North Korean issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing on Thursday, “Military force cannot resolve the issue … Amid challenge there is opportunity. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.”
“… I was very cautious in saying any opinion regarding him before he became President and after. I always say let’s see what he’s going to do, we wouldn’t comment on statements. So, actually, this is the first proof that it’s not about the President in the United State; it’s about the regime and the deep state or the deep regime in the United States is still the same, it doesn’t change. The President is only one of the performers on their theatre, if he wants to be a leader, he cannot, because as some say he wanted to be a leader, Trump wanted to be a leader, but every President there, if he wants to be a real leader, later he’s going to eat his words, swallow his pride if he has pride at all, and make a 180 degree U-turn, otherwise he would pay the price politically. …”
The Russian media offered no complete account of what may have been accomplished during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s two-day visit to Russia, but there were hints of what the Russian negotiating position would have been behind closed doors and what may have justified Vladimir Putin making two hours available for Tillerson in what was otherwise a very busy day for the Russian President relating to domestic concerns.
Before Tillerson’s arrival Russian media reported widely on his failure the day before at the G7 meeting to win support for imposing more sanctions on Russia for backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in light of the chemical weapons event in Idlib on April 4. That proposal was raised by U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and affirmed by Tillerson but rejected by all other G7 members. With that resounding defeat, Tillerson had no sticks from “the international community” to wield as an ultimatum against the Russians, telling them to get behind a U.S.-imposed “regime change” in Syria or suffer the consequences of further economic isolation from the West.
Tillerson also carried little in the way of carrots, given President Trump’s retreat on his campaign pledges to improve relations with Russia. Tillerson’s empty diplomatic bag was a topic discussed on Russian prime-time television the evening before his arrival. Senior Duma member and United Russia Party leader Vyacheslav Nikonov rhetorically demanded of Tillerson on the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov talk show: “So, make us an offer of what it means to go with America, what it brings us, and then we will consider it.”
In effect, Nikonov was calling the Trump administration’s bluff. He and the Russian elites understand perfectly that Donald Trump has no political capital to spend to get Congressional approval of normalized relations with Russia.
Just as the Tillerson-Putin meeting was taking place on Wednesday, another widely watched Russian talk show First Studio on the Pervy Kanal state channel opened with host Artyom Sheinin posing a baiting question to the American journalist Michael Bohm, a frequent visitor to the program who is often used as a punching bag. Referring to Tillerson’s initial meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the doubt that Putin would grant Tillerson a meeting, Sheinin said, “I believe there is the practice in big corporations for a new visitor who has come to see the boss to first undergo a ‘screening interview.’ It looks as if Tillerson passed this screening process and so he was allowed in to speak to the boss. Do you think this was a positive thing?”
In other words, the Russians knew that Tillerson came with empty hands and that he was the suitor, not the one being wooed. Tillerson came to discuss reinstatement of the Memorandum of Understanding on Deconfliction in Syria because on the U.S. side there was great concern over Russia’s refusal now to speak at the regional level to U.S. military counterparts and avert clashes on the ground and in the air that could lead to escalation of confrontation and possibly to all-out-war. The Russian withdrawal from the deconfliction arrangement following the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airfield on April 6 put the continuation of U.S.-led military operations against Islamic State militants inside Syria in danger.
On April 8, senior Pentagon officials were denying that the Russians had severed all military-to-military hot lines, but there was a cold sweat in Washington. The uncertainty over whether Syrian and Russian air defenses might take aim at NATO aircraft had already led the Belgians to publicly announce cessation of all their flights within the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition. Presumably other NATO members had come to the same conclusion.
Meanwhile, my information backchannels indicate that the Russians set down their preconditions for reinstatement of the deconfliction arrangements: no further U.S. air attacks on Syrian government positions. We may be sure that this was the major subject for discussion and possible agreement during Tillerson’s talks with Putin.
The result may be something similar to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when the U.S. claimed victory publicly as the Soviets pulled their missiles out of Cuba, but privately the U.S. had granted what Moscow had wanted, the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey. But Putin is no Nikita Khrushchev, who lost prestige among his Kremlin peers for striking the agreement with the Americans; Putin is likely to gain stature from such an arrangement.
The U.S. Media’s Take
Meanwhile, the mainstream U.S. media presented the Putin-Tillerson meeting in relatively neutral terms given the American press corps general hostility to all things Russian. The Washington Post did better than other media outlets, with Moscow Bureau Chief David Filipov and his colleague covering the State Department in Washington highlighting the undeniable fact that the parties were “sharply at odds” and noting:
“Russia made it clear it was unwilling to roll back its strategic alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The talks appeared unlikely to bring any significant breakthroughs after last week’s missile strike plunged U.S. relations to one of the lowest points since the Cold War. But despite the growing rifts, some general compromises were discussed.”
The areas of potential compromise were possible reinstatement of the information-sharing “deconfliction” Memorandum of Understanding with the United States that the Russians suspended immediately after the April 6 missile attack and creation of a U.S.-Russian working group to find ways to ease tensions between the two nuclear superpowers.
After that, the authors moved on to more trivial pursuits such as Donald Trump’s latest remarks about Assad being “an animal.” However, even amidst this swill there were a few points worthy of note because they gave expression to Russian policy positions at the talks: Russia’s refusal to accept ultimatums, such as Tillerson brought with him over choosing ties with the U.S. or Syria; Russia’s rejection of the allegations that Assad was behind the chemical attack in Idlib; Russia’s call for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the use of chemical weapons there; and Putin’s likening the present situation to the one immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq. All of these important points are presented in the article at face value, alongside U.S., U.K. and other Western accusations directed against Russia
The New York Times coverage gave more attention to American action than to Russian reaction, as the opening of its cover headline for its several related articles indicates: “U.S. Pressures Russia …” The sub-article dealing with the Tillerson visit devotes more attention to what came before and after Putin’s meeting with Tillerson than to what they may have agreed on. The Times bureau chief David Sanger noted how Tillerson was held in suspense as his anticipated meeting with Putin was left in doubt until the last minute, what was described as a typical maneuver by the Russian president to keep his interlocutors off balance, a characterization which ignores the widely reported urgings of Russia’s talking heads before Tillerson’s arrival that their President not receive him because of the objectionable message on Syria that he had laid out on Monday at the meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Italy.
Indeed, the Times article said almost nothing about what may have justified the Putin meeting and what was agreed other than the working group to ease tensions, which Sanger correctly identifies as devoted to small and not the big divisive issues.
Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.
Marcello Ferrada de Noli, one of the leaders of the Swedish Doctors for Human Rights non-governmental organization (SWEDHR), said Wednesday he and his colleagues has been receiving threats following the release of their article exposing a purportedly staged video by White Helmets group, a volunteer rescue service operating in Syria.
In the beginning of March, the SWEDHR released an article claiming that the White Helmets’ video of a child reportedly treated after a chemical attack showed fake treatment, including an intracardiac injection done with an empty syringe, which would have killed a child if the baby had not already been dead.
“The threats I receive are anonymous, somewhat non-specific. I see them on Twitter, on social networks, my colleagues also receive them. I feel a lot of discomfort because of this. But I hope that my article, despite all this, will be seen by many people,” de Noli told Rossiya 24 broadcaster.
The professor said that he was simply making public his conclusions that he could prove openly and honestly.
De Noli added that the SWEDHR would continue its work.
The UN, not the unilateral bombing of Syria should have been the first stop for US diplomacy, says whistleblowing former CIA analyst John Kiriakou. As for evidence the American politicians claim they have; he says “they are making this stuff up.”
On Wednesday Russia vetoed a UN resolution backed by the US and other Western powers, condemning the Khan Shaykhun incident on April 4 as a chemical attack and demanding Syria open up its military bases to inspections.
After the vote, Russia’s representative said the action taken by the US before an investigation had been held, was a violation of international law.
RT asked John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst, and whistleblower, whether supporters of Washington’s resolution will try to push for it again.
“I think they will. They usually do. The problem here though is that the UN should have been the first stop for US diplomacy. Rather than acting unilaterally and firing 59 cruise missiles, the State Department should have engaged the UN Security Council from the very beginning,” he said.
As to why the UN voted on the resolution without any clear evidence of Assad’s culpability for the Idlib incident and the logic behind it, Kiriakou opined “they were afraid of the conclusion.”
“There are professional intelligence officers on every side of this issue who are saying that everybody needs to slow down and look at the source of these chemicals. There are people on the ground, who are telling many of us that these chemicals were in a storage facility that is controlled by ISIS, that the Syrian military launched a conventional attack, and hit the storage facility – this was not a chemical attack by the Syrian government. We frankly don’t know what the facts are. We don’t know because it just simply hasn’t been investigated. I think the US and its allies on the Security Council need to slow down, need to send in UN inspectors to take a look, get the facts on the ground, and then report back to the Security Council. This bombing should never have taken place,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Rex Tillerson was meeting with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin while on his first official visit to Russia as US Secretary of State.
He reiterated that the US are “quite confident” that the “chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned, and directed, and executed by Syrian regime forces.” Earlier, the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said “We saw the evidence. The President saw the evidence. All of that is naturally classified.”
Kiriakou doesn’t rule out though that American politicians “are making this stuff up.”
“If they’ve already heard from their intelligence assets inside Syria – wow, they must have incredible assets inside Syria, because this [incident in Idlib] just happened. This whole story hasn’t even played out yet. So, how they’ve already got all the intelligence and analyzed it and then were able to use the analysis to formulate a policy that then enabled the President to bomb Syria?” he said. “If that’s true, I congratulate the CIA for its intelligence network inside Syria. The problem is – I don’t believe a word of it.”
In Kiriakou’s opinion, the US bombing of a Syrian airbase that followed the chemical incident was a political decision made by the White House who didn’t speak in advance with its allies.
“I don’t believe there was any intelligence. And I think this was done primarily for domestic consumption,” he said.
‘Designed to be vetoed’
The reason why the US-supported resolution was “rushed to the floor” is because “they wanted to be able to make their points,” said Daniel McAdams, executive director at the Ron Paul Institute.
“They wanted to be able to bash Syria, Russia, and Iran,” he told RT.
The analyst drew a parallel between the resolution and the Rambouillet Agreement – a US/NATO peace plan for Kosovo proposed to the then-Yugoslavia.
“Ironically we’re around the anniversary of the 1999 US bombings of Yugoslavia. But if you remember in Rambouillet [Slobodan] Milosevic and the government of Yugoslavia was presented with an agreement that there is no way they could sign, they would have opened the entire country to NATO forces. It was designed that way. It was designed to be vetoed to show recalcitrance to open the way for bombs. This is very reminiscent of this kind of approach. It is not a very serious approach. Although the consequences could be very serious,” he told RT.
McAdams also said that there’s already “a problem with a chain of evidence” regarding what happened in Khan Shaykhun.
“What is amazing – there has been no investigation whatsoever. The White House released a report [the day before] yesterday – this was a slam dunk as to what the US believes, that it was Assad who did it. But if you look at that report, it was unbelievably thin. It reminds one of the reports that they released proving the Russians hacked the elections. The intelligence community didn’t even sign off on this report. It didn’t have high confidence in the report,” he said.
While in Moscow, Tillerson reaffirmed the US administration’s view that the Assad era is coming to an end.
According to Joshua Landis from Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, the US has “certainly changed its rhetoric on Assad recently.”
“What it seems to be doing is finding the Obama doctrine in a sense falling in line with what President Obama did on Syria – a red line saying that Assad needed to step aside, but not actually doing anything to force him to step from office. That’s what we heard from the National Security advisor yesterday, who said: ‘Assad has to go, but it is not going to be America that makes him go,’” he told RT.
MOSCOW – Lavrov told reporters he “sufficiently convincingly” explained to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday the reasons why a special independent UN and OPCW-based study should investigate the purported attack.
“But, considering the enormous very confrontational resonance surrounding what happened in Syria, we offered to complement these structures with professional inspectors in this field who would be invited from both Western countries, Russia, and regional countries,” Lavrov said.
He said “it seemed to me that Tillerson quite positively reacted to this idea.” Western countries’ reluctance to send experts to the site of a reported April 4 chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib province rely on “excuses” of purported dangers, he said.
Lavrov told a briefing that US, French and UK colleagues “do not pay attention to the fact that they need to visit not only the airfield they suspect was the place where chemical weapons were loaded onto planes, but also the place where these shells were struck.”
“They said ‘we do not know who controls this area, it is not safe to send inspectors there.’ These are all excuses,” he stressed.
Syrian opposition claimed on April 4 forces loyal to President Bashar Assad had used a chemical gas on people in the northwestern province, killing nearly 80 and injuring 200. Assad argued his government has no chemical weapons after agreeing to have them destroyed in 2013. He also ruled out having used chemicals against own people.
The Russian Defense Ministry said next day that the airstrike near Khan Shaykhun was carried out by Syrian aircraft, which struck a terrorist warehouse that stored chemical weapons slated for delivery to Iraq.
The US attack against a Syrian military airfield launched by President Donald Trump late last Thursday triggered criticism among such French presidential hopefuls as National Front (FN) party leader Marine Le Pen, leader of left-wing political movement Unsubmissive France Jean-Luc Melenchon and the president of Gaullist Arise France party Dupont-Aignan. Socialist Hamon and independent candidate Macron, on the other hand, have expressed their support for the US president’s action.
“Having criticized Trump before and after the election, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Francois] Hollande have approved of this attack, which is [Trump’s] most serious and most dangerous decision on the global scale. They have shown themselves to be completely irresponsible. The same applies to certain candidates at French presidential elections, like Hamon and Macron, the two former ministers of the socialist president. Their reaction is enough to disqualify them from assuming the office they seek, I believe,” Eric Anceau said.
Following the missile strikes, which killed seven people, according to the governor of Syria’s Homs province, Hollande in a joint statement with Merkel placed the blame for the latest developments in Syria on its President Bashar Assad, albeit without providing any evidence of his involvement in the attack.
According to Anceau, Trump’s hasty reaction to the chemical weapons incident is undoubtedly the most dangerous decision he has made since assuming office.
“When one is the head of the most powerful state in the world, one does not make decisions based on emotions, as he admitted to have done after having seen on TV all these dead bodies of children,” he said, adding that the Trump administration should have consulted the US Congress first.
“In his haste, he circumvented the US Congress, which, incidentally, says a lot about the state of the US democracy in particular and our democracies in general,” the spokesman added.
He underlined that unless the strike had an ulterior motive, such as “a desire to affirm one’s power” in regions where other world powers like Russia or Iran are present, Trump’s decision to strike Syria lacks logic.
Following the strikes, Dupont-Aignan, who according to recent polls enjoys support of some 3 percent of French voters, told the French daily Le Monde that the international community had no proof Assad ordered the chemical attack, and because of this, Trump had no reason to order the strike. At the same time, he pointed out that he would back a UN-led intervention in Syria if it is proved that the Syrian government was indeed responsible for the Idlib tragedy.
The Syrian government denied having chemical weapons, as it agreed for its entire stockpile to be destroyed under a 2013 US-Russian deal. The Organization for the Protection of Chemical Weapons confirmed in January 2016 that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal was destroyed.
Last month, Fiona Hill, a preeminent Kremlinologist and Harvard alumna, joined the National Security Council staff as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs. This is one of the most important positions within government shaping the US relationship with Russia. A dual US-UK citizen, Hill is also a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the board of trustees of The Eurasia Foundation.
The new adviser holds a master’s degree in Soviet studies and a doctorate in history from Harvard University. British-born, she started at Brookings in 2000, taking a three-year break to serve on the National Intelligence Council under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Prior to joining Brookings, Hill was director of strategic planning at The Eurasia Foundation in Washington, D.C. From 1991 to 1999, she held a number of positions directing technical assistance and research projects at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She pursued studies at Moscow’s State Linguistic University (former Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages).
A frequent commentator on Russian and Eurasian affairs, Fiona Hill boasts an extensive research experience on the Caucasus and Central Asia, among other issues. She is co-author of the second edition of «Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin» (2015). Lashing out at the Russian leader, Hill emphasizes it would be a mistake to underestimate Vladimir Putin.
She is also known for her book «The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold» (2003). Hill proposed to actually evacuate Siberia and start developing its resources working in shifts. The book was praised by Jeffrey Sachs who had advised Russia to adopt «shock therapy» methods to implement economic reforms, Richard Pipes, a former member of the National Security Council known for his belligerent stance on Russia, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former assistant to the president of the United States for national security affairs, widely believed to be behind the Obama’s hostile policy toward Moscow.
Being highly critical of Russian authorities in her books, Hill gives them their due pointing out that Russia had to go through the difficult times after the Soviet Union’s break up. She even compared Russian President Vladimir Putin with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle who pulled their respective countries out of severe crises.
While some of Hill’s statements indicate that she is prone to taking a hard line on Moscow, others sound positive, calling for a pragmatic approach. Fiona Hill is immune to the influence of ideological stereotypes and knows how to smooth things over. Her harsh statements about incompatibility of Russia’s foreign policy agenda with long-term US interests will calm down the most suspicious persons who believe Russia to be behind everything that goes wrong». The US and Russia just have a very hard time… being on the same page», she wrote in in the Atlantic. «We’re going to have an awful lot of friction», Hill said. «And Trump isn’t exactly the most diplomatic of people. So I imagine he’ll fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly», she predicted. Last October, Fiona Hill advocated keeping anti-Russian sanctions in place and rejected the idea of a «grand bargain» with Putin in which the US would «trade concessions» in Ukraine for Russian help in the Middle East.
While President Trump has yet to lay down his Russia policy, most signs suggest no swift changes in the relationship. The president’s decision shows that a major reset is not in the cards. Hill’s appointment came as a relief to Republicans. But as a seasoned scholar, she knows Russia will not become pliant under pressure. She can make cold-blooded calculations and come up with ideas on how to reach deals on issues of common interest. Nobody expects friendship under the circumstances but it could be partnership. Hill is far-sighted enough to realize that.
Fiona Hill can do her job in a professional way without temper tantrums that take place now and then in Washington. A renowned scholar on Russia and an experienced former government official, she was chosen to implement Realpolitik. Her vast knowledge of the country and perfect Russian will come in handy for the job.
Trump may have acted with insufficient evidence as to whether the chemical weapons attack was actually the responsibility of Assad and the Syrian government. Would Syrian president Assad be foolish enough to launch a chemical attack against civilians, when a military response from the US would be possible, even likely? Peter Ford, a former UK ambassador to Syria, speaking on BBC Radio, said, “It doesn’t make sense that Assad would do it. Let’s not leave our brains outside the door when we examine evidence. It would be totally self-defeating as shown by the results… Assad is not mad.”
Critics of the US military response have suggested as a possible scenario for the chemical release in Idlib province that the Syrian government attack may have been a conventional bombing that exploded stored weapons in the possession of the Syrian rebels, which may have included chemical weapons.
Trump did not seek and obtain Congressional authorization for his act of war in attacking a Syrian Air Force base. Thus, the attack was illegal under US law. It is not the president’s prerogative to initiate attacks against sovereign nations without Congressional authorization. By acting without such Congressional authorization, Trump has placed himself and the presidency above the rule of law.
Trump did not seek and obtain authorization for his attack against Syria from the United Nations Security Council, as is required under international law. By failing to do so the US has put itself outside the boundaries of the UN Charter, which is also a part of US law, as well as other international law to which the US is bound.
Trump has further undermined US relations with Russia, and has harmed the chances of the US and Russia working cooperatively in resolving the Syrian conflict. Increased tensions between the US and Russia in Syria make conflict between these two nuclear powers more likely.
Trump has demonstrated to the world that in matters of war, as with tweeting, he is impulsive, shoots from the hip and is not constrained by US or international law. These characteristics are not generally accepted by other world leaders as being preferred qualities in a US president.
Trump’s impulsivity in ordering the attack sets a dangerous standard for someone in charge of the US nuclear arsenal. It demonstrates the extreme dangers of allowing a single individual to exercise control over a country’s nuclear arsenal.
Despite the illegality and inherent dangers of his military response, Trump seems to be getting a favorable response from the US media. Nearly all US mainstream media seems to have accepted the assumption that Assad was foolish enough to have launched a chemical attack, and have not questioned Assad’s responsibility for the chemical attack. It appears that neither the US government nor media have conducted a thorough investigation of responsibility for the chemical attack, which should have been done prior to a military response.
Referring to Trump’s ordering the missile strikes against Syria the evening before, a fawning Fareed Zakaria stated, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night. I think this was actually a big moment.” Given Trump’s narcissism, this is the kind of positive response that is likely to keep him returning to impulsive and illegal uses of military force.
For his violations of US and international law in attacking Syria with 59 cruise missiles, it is highly likely that Trump will also be rewarded by the American people with an upward bump in his current ground-level job-approval rating. Too many Americans tend to like their presidents to be fast on the draw and follow the pattern of Ready, Fire, Aim.
MOSCOW – The White House is forced to make unfounded accusations against Russia because of pressure from US President Donald Trump’s opponents, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.
Wednesday’s talks with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson helped Washington better understand Russia’s stance and formulate approaches toward fruitful cooperation, Lavrov noted.
“The negotiations with Tillerson were not useless. They, in my opinion, helped the US administration better understand our position. This, in turn, is important for them to formulate their approaches to the issues on which Russia and the US can cooperate productively,” Lavrov told reporters.
“There is not a single fact, although under pressure from Trump’s opponents, the White House is forced to periodically make certain statements with unfounded accusations against us,” Lavrov said at a briefing with his counterpart from Bangladesh, Abul Hassan Mahmood.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emerged from a closed-door summit in the Kremlin to discuss their two-hour meeting with President Vladimir Putin. While the two sides agreed that they “understand each other better,” Moscow and Washington have distinctly different perspectives on what should take place in Syria, specifically as it pertains to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s claims to power.
Russia and the United States will embark on the practical formation of generally agreed dialogue mechanisms, he said.
“These agreements have been reached in principle, we will now probably start the practical formation of these dialogue mechanisms,” Lavrov told a briefing.
Addressing two-hour talks between Putin and Tillerson, Lavrov said “the results will probably not be soon.”
“But at least in operational terms, we agreed to establish dialogue on a number of issues,” Lavrov said.
These include, he said, “an inventory of the problems created by the previous administration in bilateral relations,” mechanisms for the implementation of existing military and political agreements, as well as mechanisms to narrow differences on regional crises, including in Syria.