Russia has performed magnificently in Syria. Now Moscow is debating how to best leverage its political and military gains
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Editor's Note: With hysteria about Trump's "ties" to Russia as a backdrop, Doctorow explores two interesting questions: Has Russia "given up" on Trump? (Or perhaps to rephrase it: Does Russia even "need" Trump?) Which necessitates the second question: How does Moscow intend to use its "winning hand" in the Middle East?
It would be no exaggeration to say that presently many backers of Trump’s planned New Foreign Policy and détente with Russia are wringing their hands in despair over what has come to look like that policy’s utter defeat in the face of the wave of media and Democratic Party attacks, abetted by maverick Republican Senators, in which “Russian contacts” and “Russian meddling” are the code words.
The signs of retreat, even rout are undeniable. Several weeks ago we heard the first of several speeches from the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley repeating the same tired anti-Russian rhetoric of her predecessor, Samantha Power. Then we heard Defense Secretary Mattis in Bonn, Secretary of State Tillerson in Brussels and Vice President Pence in Munich speaking of unwavering support for NATO and US allies that Donald Trump had questioned during the campaign, even called obsolete. And most recently there was the clarification that Russia has not been invited to attend the conference of the US-led coalition of 68 countries against ISIS being held in Washington, D.C. on March 22-23. Their exclusion would appear to contradict Trump’s campaign promise to forge an alliance with Russia to combat and vanquish ISIS.
Against this background, one might expect the Russians to be in despair. Assuming they really had meddled, so much effort has resulted only in pain. Assuming they were guilty of nothing, their innocent hopes for a stroke of good luck with the arrival of a new President committed to détente would be dashed. To paraphrase Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s own Yogi Berra of the famous quotations book, they hoped for the best but it turned out as usual.
However, Russian state television has just provided very interesting evidence that we may have underestimated the President’s firmness of convictions and cleverness in finding a way forward for his policy. It was largely ignored by the American media which was busy watching other doors. Even where the facts were published, there was little or no political interpretation such as we will attempt to provide here.
By state television I mean the flagship news and commentary programs of Sunday evening, March 12, on channel Rossiya 1 .First, there was the weekly news wrap-up delivered by Dmitry Kiselyov, who also happens to head the news services on all Russian state radio and television channels. Then there was the Vladimir Solovyev political talk show, which in this edition brought together some of the country’s top legislators and leaders of key policy think tanks. I have in mind in particular, four Russian panelists, and then one very sharp-eyed former Russian, now carrying an Israeli passport, who challenged the legislators and thus was, along with the moderator, midwife to some important clarifications.
Arguably the most senior politician panelist was Aleksey Pushkov, chairman of the Federation Council’s Information Committee and, until the last Duma election last September, chairman of the Duma’s Foreign Relations Committee. Pushkov was kicked upstairs and made a Senator when his Committee was entrusted to Leonid Slutsky, a Duma member from the nationalist LDPR party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky which did well in the elections and merited a reward. It seems that now that Pushkov has reached his highest and likely last government position he has become a good deal freer in expressing his opinions on current affairs. And as someone widely traveled with many highly placed interlocutors abroad, Pushkov has some very wise and informed statements to make.
The second major contributor of wise observations is also a frequent guest on the Solovyov show, Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Duma Committee on Education, but best known as the chairman of Russian World, the NGO which promotes the cultural interests of the Russian diaspora abroad. In that capacity, Nikonov, who happens to be Kremlin aristocracy as the grandson of Molotov, also has a wide information base within and outside Russia. He is a Putin stalwart, while also believing in Trump and in eventual accommodation with the USA.
The third and last legislator was the irrepressible Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Known as something of a scandal-making clown in the West for outrageous statements, he is in fact a very shrewd observer of the international scene and as a Turkish-speaker and close follower of Middle East developments, his contributions were highly relevant to the discussion on how to get greatest advantage for Russia in the present Middle Eastern situation. It also bears mention that Zhirinovsky was and remains one of Trump’s biggest promoters in Russian political circles.
The think tank director and regular panelist on this and other high quality Russian television and radio programs of analysis was Yevgeny Satanovsky, director of the Near Eastern Institute.
The Israeli was Yakov Kedmi, who left the Soviet Union still under Brezhnev as one of the first Jewish activists who wanted out. Settled in Israel, he eventually became the director of one of their intelligence agencies. Persona non grata in Russia until several years ago, Kedmi has been invited back to Moscow many times to participate in Solovyov’s and other leading talk shows. Occasionally he participates via satellite link from Israel.
The Russians cited above participate in the power structure and do not only observe. Their intellect, methodical preparation for these shows and transparency of their language can amaze the uninitiated viewer.
The charm, indeed the special value of these programs is that, unlike Russia Today, which is the voice of Russia to global audiences, the shows on Rossiya 1 are directed at the domestic audience. And on the Solovyov show, we have Russians debating with Russians about key issues facing the country, its capabilities and options.
Both the Kiselyov and Solovyov shows are posted on youtube.com even before they are broadcast to the Moscow time zone. But there is no translation into English, whether subtitles or otherwise. I propose to draw out here some of the points presented on air, first as they bear on the question in the title, and then going beyond that to what Russia’s ambitions and self-awareness look like today.
From the Sunday interview of Dmitry Peskov on CNN, we got some idea of what the Kremlin makes of the anti-Trump feeding frenzy now going on in the US media, and especially the attempt to explain Trump’s electoral victory by Russian meddling. The very latest manifestation is the speculation about meetings of members of Trump’s entourage with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Peskov spoke of this as the “demonizing of Russia” and it is something about which the Russians cannot be indifferent.
The Kiselyov news wrap-up on Sunday, devoted one segment to precisely this hysteria in the USA, labeling it “McCarthyism,” as many of us in the States do, and showing the Russian audience just who was Joe McCarthy and how what was done in his name in the early 1950s resembled the worst of the denunciations and destruction of careers that Russians of the older generations all know from family members sent to the Gulag and from their workplace experience in the Soviet past up to the time of Gorbachev’s Glasnost. The segment concluded with the reminder of why Charlie Chaplin, whom all Russians know and love from childhood, spent the last 25 years of his life in Switzerland – after being hounded out of the United States in the zealotry of McCarthyism. The presentation, though propagandistic in layout, was not “holier than thou” with respect to the United States. It was self-confident, just as Dmitry Peskov’s remarks had been: Russia has been through its own version of this and regrets that so great a nation as the USA is now swept by it.
Both the Kiselyov news program and the Solovyov talk show of Sunday also drew the attention of their audiences to a development of the past week which was covered in the U.S. and Western press, but with little or no interpretation, so that it was easily missed: the meeting in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya of the most senior military officers of Turkey, the United States and Russia to discuss coordination of their military actions in northern Syria, where they are operating in close proximity and often at cross purposes. These were Turkish Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
From the Russian standpoint as revealed by Solovyov’s guests, the meeting went very well and the only glum participant leaving the meeting was the Turkish general. To dot the ‘i’, the Americans and Russians seem to have been in agreement over how to keep the U.S.-sponsored Kurdish fighters so resented by the Turks in the forefront of the assault on the ISIS “capital” at Raqqa, and, as a corollary, how to sideline Turkish ambitions of capturing a sphere of influence in the North using their own troops and local Turkmen proxies.
Elsewhere in the Solovyov program, panelists hinted that there are ongoing talks between Trump’s people and various Russian institutions. But the military contact at the very top, the first since the deep slide in relations in 2014 over the Crimea, over Donbass, bears special interpretation.
Let us say the President has concluded that the way forward in relations is out of sight of mediatized gatherings. Whereas bringing Russia into the Anti-Daesh Coalition meeting in Washington would only invite brickbats from the media, a summit of generals in a provincial coastal town of Turkey could be far more productive. It is not for nothing that the press is now complaining about Rex Tillerson’s inaccessibility. Surely he has his marching orders from the Oval Office. This “just get it done” approach without fanfare is all the more remarkable and worthy of mention given the way Trump has been hammered for “narcissism” by his bitter opponents in the Clinton camp from the days of the election campaign.
It is precisely in the military domain that Trump can count on greatest loyalty in the hierarchy from top to bottom, and an absence of leaks that have otherwise kept his Administration in fire-fighting mode since the inauguration. Should Trump continue to keep the military in line, that would be one enormous step forward versus where we were in the closing months of the Obama Administration when the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter got away with unheard-of insubordination. It is widely believed that by ordering an attack on Syrian positions at Deir Ezzor Carter sabotaged the cease-fire agreement arranged in September 2016 by Secretary of State Kerry with the approval of President Obama. A military under tight control from the Oval Office is the best protection against provocations or just bad luck accidents in the field which could escalate quickly under conditions of lack of trust and hair-trigger arsenals.
Returning to the Solovyov show of Sunday evening, the general mood of the panelists was very confident. Not because their man is in the White House, as American media would have us believe. But as a result of what they construe as Russia’s winning hand in the Middle East, demonstrated by the events that the panelists were each asked to comment upon: the visits to Moscow in the past week by two of the key players in the region’s geopolitics – President Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.
To be sure, the visit by Erdogan had been planned long in advance around an agenda heavy with economic issues. It was to mark the culmination of the normalization process that began late last year when the Turks officially apologized for shooting down the Russian jet over Syria following very tough economic measures. Russia had indicated its anger over what President Putin called “a stab in the back.” Indeed, as we saw from Russian press coverage of the Erdogan visit on Friday, progress continues to be made on the two biggest projects around which Russian-Turkish economic relations now are built: the Turk Stream gas pipelines and a major nuclear generating plant.
Still, from the Russian perspective, as the panelists made clear, the Russians have the whip hand on the economic relationship with Turkey. Turk Stream has importance for Moscow not so much for itself but because of the leverage it gives them with Europe in forcing approval of Nord Stream II: Europe will not want to deal with Turkey as a major supplier of Russian gas. Moreover, the Russians are in no rush to lift the agricultural embargo they imposed on Turkey during the worst moments in their relations, nor are they reinstituting the non-visa travel that existed before the shoot-down.
However, Erdogan’s real hopes for the visit lay elsewhere. Due to quick progress of Kurdish and Syrian state forces on the ground, the Turkish President had pressing questions to discuss with Vladimir Putin.
The Israeli visit was on very short notice, at the insistence of Netanyahu, and was also motivated by concern over how the end game in Syria is shaping up, with Iranian forces allied to Russia among the apparent victors.
There was unanimity among the Russian panelists on this one point. The visits prove that Moscow is now the inescapable center to be courted by all those seeking solutions not only in Syria but in the broader Middle East. The Russians’ winning hand in Syria has come while it has cooperated with all sides to the conflict, including such adversaries as the Turks, Iranians and Kurds. It is a co-guarantor of the cease fire and a leading actor in the talks between the Syrian government and the armed opposition being held in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana. Meanwhile, the panelists expressed deep satisfaction over the encouraging warming of relations with Egypt, and over their having chosen the side in the Libyan civil war which looks to be coming out on top.
The question of the day among the panelists was how to turn military and geopolitical victory into something more tangible, meaning hard cash.
The challenge was set out in the opening moments by the show’s provocateur, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who insisted that Russia must practice a policy of deception: tell everyone around what they want to hear, be friends to all, but serve only Russian national interests, starting with economic interests.
Here is the point about American policy on which all the key panelists concurred: the tight relationship between geopolitical and commercial success by America is something Russia must emulate. Wars always end in great financial benefits for the victors we were told and Russia should not hesitate to exploit its position as favored military partner in the Middle East at present to promote the interests not only of its oil and gas companies, but also its industrial companies for infrastructure projects in the region.
Another point made by panelists which seemed to go unchallenged is that Russia should provide a defense umbrella with its S-300 and S-400 ground to air systems that locks in its strategic relationships from the Syrian conflict: for Turkey, Iran and…Israel.
Whereas there are those in the Trump administration, possibly including the President himself, who reckon on wooing Russia away from Iran, it was clear from the well-networked panelists that Russian elites are dead set against any possibility of disowning their recent comrades in arms, notably Iran. Iran occupies a key position in the Chinese led One Belt One Road, which Russia strongly supports. It is a key part of the North-South energy route which Russia also supports.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky has talked for many years about how and why Russia should stop looking West, should stop looking East, and should look to the South. But in the past, this recommendation had little content other than the offhand remark harking back to the 19th century, when Russia and Britain were fierce rivals, that Russian soldiers deserved to take R&R on the shores of the Indian Ocean. In light of the Sunday evening panel discussion of commercial and diplomatic opportunities for Russia today as a big player in the Greater Middle East, this point of view is getting a new respectability in Moscow.
The question is what the Trump Administration will make of all this once it can get past the rearguard skirmishes with domestic opposition and focus its mind on how to interact with Russia.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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