Thoughts on Trump and Putin

Hard to plot how Donald Trump will act on the World stage. His campaign trail pronouncements were often vague, frequently contradictory and lacked substance, leaving many in the U.S. and abroad left to speculate about what exactly his defense and foreign policies will look like. There are divisions within his own national security team.

When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration engaged largely in hand-wringing over how to help rebel militias oust Bashar al-Assad. A shift in priority to battling the Islamic State terror group resulted in the reduction of support for rebel groups that weren’t prepared to prioritize the fight against the jihadists over their aim to topple Assad first and then deal with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

The Assad horse has now bolted, thanks to Russia’s decisive military intervention. With the retaking of eastern Aleppo, Assad’s survival is assured. The announcement today by Russian officials of the start of a military drawdown in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s confidence. Moscow has achieved its main goal — namely to save the Assad regime.

How the conflict will end finally is largely going to be decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran — something I have been arguing for months. Moscow and Ankara engineered the latest ceasefire, which despite violations by Assad forces in the Damascus suburbs and parts of Homs and Hama is largely holding. The rebels are now controlled by Turkey, which can strangle them by stopping arms supplies crossing the border. The U.S. has been sidelined and there are no signs that a President Trump will want to change that — he has been critical of the U.S. getting involved in regime change and for him too IS is the priority.

We could well see greater cooperation unfold quickly between the Trump administration and Moscow in the fight against the jihadists. Such cooperation would help further Trump’s stated aim of improving relations with Russia.

In terms of the battle against the Islamic State, the jihadists have mounted a creative and stubborn resistance. In Mosul Iraqi progress is very slow and the jihadists won’t be ejected likely for months from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, an offensive is yet to be launched on Raqqa, although bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition have increased greatly in the last week. On Thursday there were 23 coalition air strikes in Syria and just 6 in Iraq.

The question remains who will be the ground force used to retake Raqqa? Turkey is opposed to the Kurds being in the vanguard and the Arab militias that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task.

Like Mosul, the offensive on Raqqa will prove long and arduous. With the defeat of IS being one of his few clearly stated policy aims, Trump is likely to grow frustrated with the slow progress in Mosul and Raqqa. To speed things up, I think it likely he will decide to deploy more U.S. military advisers and to increase the rate and intensity of airstrikes, probably with less concern about civilian casualties.

And no doubt Russia will offer help with joint airstrikes. (Recently the IS-held town of al-Bab saw Russian warplanes joining Turkish ones in bombing IS positions in the town.)

Syria-based cooperation between a Trump-era Washington and Moscow will likely start the reset in U.S.-Russia relations. But that reset could easily be derailed — and not just from the political fallout from the Russian election hacking.

With an Assad victory, Russia has reasserted itself in the Middle East. It will become more influential, more important across the Middle East as a whole. It seems unlikely that Trump will want to challenge Russia’s growing clout in the region. But for how long? U.S. and Russian interests in the region don’t mirror each other.

Putin will no doubt push quickly for a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Trump may not be able to deliver on that — a push for an end to Ukraine-related sanctions will prompt a fierce push-back from influential GOP senators like John McCain and from some key NATO allies. That could lead to an unraveling of the Trump-Putin reset.

Another fly in the ointment comes with a resurgent Iran, currently a Russia ally. Assad’s survival strengthens Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah, alarming Gulf allies and Israel. Will Putin dump Tehran to maintain good relations with Trump?

Ghost of Chamberlin: Munich Revisited

A rift is growing between Washington and Berlin over how to handle Vladimir Putin and his stoking of pro-Moscow separatism in the Donbas region of east Ukraine. Despite the denials of Secretary of State John Kerry, the split is becoming more obvious with each passing conference — or gathering for peace talks.The Munich security conference has exposed the divergence.

While Obama officials are playing it all down, senior US lawmakers aren’t so reticent. “History shows us that dictators will always take more if you let them,” says Sen. John McCain, comparing Angela Merkel and François Hollande’s talks with Vladimir Putin to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.

A useful take on the conference can be found here at the Daily Telegraph.

The split dramatizes the recent remark by Germany’s President, Joachim Gauck: “Germans and Americans appear to live on different planets.”

G20: The Art of Understatement

Kyiv

Would have been great to have been a fly on the one for this encounter at the G20:
As the Globe and Mail tells it: “Stephen Harper told Russian President Vladimir Putin flatly that he needs ‘to get out of Ukraine,’ when the two met at a Group of 20 summit of major economies in Brisbane.
A spokesman for the Canadian Prime Minister relayed the details of the encounter and, according to director of communications Jason MacDonald, ‘Mr. Putin did not respond positively.'”

Pre-Election Violence Escalates in Eastern Ukraine

Kiev

From my latest for the Daily Beast three days before presidential elections:

“The interim government of Ukraine has called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council following a dawn attack today by separatists in east Ukraine that left at least 13 soldiers dead and up to 20 wounded. The country’s interim prime minister says he has evidence of Russian involvement in the attack, one of four to take place three days before Ukraine’s presidential elections.”

I have have heard of several families in Donetsk leaving, fearing there will be serious election violence in the east. There have been also worries expressed by foreign election advisers at the lack of preparedness by the Kiev government when it comes to security in the east for the polls. On that I write:

“Under Ukraine election law the police are tasked with providing election security but in the east many have sided with separatists or are not prepared to challenge them. Foreign election advisers were urging the government to amend the law to allow other security services, including the army, to have an election security role but ministers failed to do that. However, they have changed the law to allow soldiers to vote at local polling stations rather than their barracks arguing their presence in the voting queues may help to deter attacks.”

You can read the full story here.

Russian Banks Funding Agitation In Eastern Ukraine

Kiev

If yesterday’s Geneva deal aimed at “de-escalating” the Ukraine crisis fails, Russia’s top banks might be the target of the next round of Western sanctions.

This from my radio dispatch last night for VOA:

“As Western powers consider introducing further sanctions against Russia, Ukraine’s government says it has evidence that four Russian banks are involved in funding pro-Russian separatist agitation in eastern Ukraine and is urging Western politicians to sanction them.”

You can read the full Web piece here.

The Mob, Ukraine and Moscow

Donetsk

From my latest Daily Beast dispatch from Ukraine:

“We have already seen organized crime working hand-in-hand with the Russians in Crimea,” says the prosecutor. In that breakaway Black Sea peninsula, Moscow helped install former gangland lieutenant Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister, and his background is well known. Aksyonov and his Russian separatist associates share sordid pasts that mix politics, graft and extortion in equal measure and together they helped steer Crimea into the Russian Federation.

“Why should it surprise you,” the prosecutor in Donetsk asks, “if the same dynamic [as in Crimea] is playing out here? … Maybe there are Russian intelligence agents on the ground, but Moscow through crime networks has an army of hoodlums it can use, too.”

Mr Flip and Mr Flop

Aren’t they both playing a game of bait and switch? Yesterday, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, who would now seem to have a lock on the Republican nomination following his primary wins this week, accused President Barack Obama of running a “hide-and-seek campaign.

And the Republican has some justification for hurling the accusation in the light of Obama’s side remark at a meeting in South Korea on March 25 to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the issue of missile defense.  He urged Medvedev to tell incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin not to press him on the issue, saying that after the election he would have more room for maneuver.

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama was heard to remark by a Russian TV crew in an unguarded moment.

Obama added: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Romney picked up on the remark last week, claiming, “President Obama signaled that he’s going to cave to Russia on missile defense, but the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be ‘flexible’ in a second term.”

And speaking before newspaper editors conference in Washington DC yesterday he pushed the theme again, saying Obama will “state his true position only after the election is over.”

Romney’s attack would seem to be justified but arguably here we have a case of double standards, after all the former Massachusetts governor is no stranger to flip and flop or indulging in Etch a Sketch campaigning himself.