US-Russia relations in deep freeze?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Wednesday. The spike in Washington-Moscow tensions over Syria dominated the discussion and both sides looked for ways to try to de-escalate a situation which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week has put them “one step away from war” and “totally ruined” relations.

Tillerson also declared bilateral relations to be at a low and signs of rising tensions include Moscow’s suspension of an agreement with Washington to share communications about US and Russian aircraft conducting missions over Syria. Moreover, the Admiral Grigorovich frigate warship has been dispatched from Crimea to the Syrian port of Tartus.

The ratcheting up of tensions between Moscow and Washington, following Donald Trump’s first major foray into a foreign conflict, has widened differences between him and Putin over the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad after they had seemed to be getting closer to an agreement to potentially bring an end to Syria’s six-year civil war that has left half a million people dead and triggered floods of refugees, while letting Assad stay in power. Rhetorically, at least, Trump appears to be moving away from the latter and last week called for the Syrian president to be ousted, a point confirmed this week by Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN. 

Part of the reason why last week’s events, which saw US missile strikes targeted at the Shayrat air base following an earlier poison gas attack on citizens in a rebel-held town allegedly committed by the Damascus regime, were unexpected was Trump’s previous “America First” rhetoric which indicated he would not seek to deepen US involvement in Syria. Yet, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Friday that the Trump administration was ready to take further military steps in the country if needed.

While last week’s missile strikes have also received relatively broad bipartisan support in Washington, Democrats have pointed to the inconsistency between the previous rhetoric of Trump compared to now, and also called for a more comprehensive, joined-up strategy to Syria. For instance, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has asked Trump to reverse course on his proposed ban on refugees coming to the United States from Syria asserting “we cannot speak in one breath of protecting Syrian babies [from chemical attacks] and in the next close American doors to them”.


Outside of the immediate Syrian context, the bigger strategic question for Trump and Putin is where this leaves prospects for a warming of relations based, in part, upon what had appeared to be mutual self regard. Trump had, before last week, given multiple indications that he believes Russia is not a serious threat to the United States, hinting in January that he could even drop economic sanctions if the country “is helpful”. Specifically, he appeared to believe there were multiple common interests over issues such as preventing Iran secure nuclear weapons, combating terrorism and potentially even helping contain China in a new global balance of power.

This proposed repositioning of relations with Russia now looks, at the least, to have been put on ice, and potentially to have been completely shattered. Here it is not only the fact that bilateral relations have become frostier over Syria, but also that the Trump team is under significant political pressure over investigations from both Congress and the FBI over its ties with Moscow before assuming power, and this issue has already claimed the scalp of national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Should Trump now ultimately reverse course on Russia from previous positions, it would bring him closer into line with defence secretary James Mattis and Tillerson who have both been forceful in criticism of Moscow. For instance, Tillerson said Friday that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” in Syria referring to Moscow’s apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement, under which Russia was a guarantor, to remove these stockpiles from the country.

One other sign of the degree to which Trump may now be rapidly moving away from warmer relations with Russia came when he met for the first time on Wednesday with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Washington. The president is being keenly watched, internationally, for how any shift in ties with Moscow may impact NATO having previously described the military alliance as “obsolete”, sending chills down the spines of states in eastern Europe.

Yesterday, however, Trump did a remarkable reversal of course saying that NATO is “no longer obsolete”. A big part of the reason for this volte face is Trump’s assessment of relations with Russia which he said on Wednesday “may be at an all-time low in terms of the relationship” having previously having had such high hopes for a different outcome given his now-cooled bromance with Putin.

Taken overall, the escalation of tensions in Syria is a further blow to Trump’s previously stated desire to seek Russian rapprochement. Indeed, the stand-off could yet derail, completely, this controversial initiative even before he and Putin have even had their first official face-to-face meeting.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond works from Oxford/Istanbul. PhD researcher: Islamic history and thought Turkey, Egypt, Gulf. Mideast politics. @StAntsCollege, Oxford. Previous @PembrokeOxford, BBC Arabic, @ECFR, Reuters Andrew Hammond has over 6420 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end the global gag rule

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it

Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

COMMENT: Opposition candidates and party can increase their chances of success at the polls by putting aside minor differences and presenting a united front

Masterclasses in duck-and-dive

You didn’t need to be a genius or a prophet to predict that Bushiri would run or that Zuma would stall

Bye-bye, Don. But is this the end of Trumpism?

If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, Donald Trump might have won the presidential election. Almost 48% of voting Americans believe in his brand of democracy, equality and justice.

Khaya Sithole: The decline and fall of the South African auditing profession

Its reputation is not being helped at all by the crisis at its independent regulatory body

Will Biden and Harris help us breathe again?

The United States’ newly elected leaders, Joe Biden and Kamala Devi Harris, must help recalibrate a global politics of hope and empathy
Advertising

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Eusebius McKaiser: Mpofu, Gordhan caught in the crosshairs

The lawyer failed to make his Indian racist argument and the politician refused to admit he had no direct evidence

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…