RAND - Perceptions of Russia as a military threat differ sharply across Europe and appear to be heavily influenced by geographical proximity to Russia. Some of Russia's neighbors see Russia as capable of and potentially willing to carry out a conventional attack against them but do not necessarily see such an attack as likely. Relations with Russia have changed irremediably. Tensions are unlikely to recede anytime soon. 2. ATLANTIC COUNCIL - Is the IMF good for Ukraine? Undisputedly yes. Thanks mainly to IMF loans of $8.8 billion in the last two years, Ukraine’s international currency reserves have risen from $5 billion to $16.7 billion, which has allowed the exchange rate to stabilize and inflation to be contained, offering Ukraine real possibilities to finally start growing soundly. 3. ATLANTIC COUNCIL - Russia’s Novorossiya project has plunged the world into a new Cold War and caused untold suffering to millions of Ukrainians, but it has also consolidated Ukraine’s sense of national identity and hastened the psychological split with Russia begun in 1991. Putin’s hybrid attack was supposed to end what many in Moscow continue to see as the aberration of Ukrainian independence. Instead, it has cemented Ukraine’s place on the European map after centuries in Russia’s shadow. 4. ECFR – The meeting of the G-7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy had a dynamic that no one could have anticipated. The United States and the United Kingdom led a charge for the G-7 to declare that there can be no solution to the Syria crisis with Assad in power. They further tried (and failed) to line up their allies behind targeted sanctions against Russian military leaders for supporting Assad’s criminal regime. 5. ECFR - It is impossible to predict which way the winds will blow after the referendum in Turkey next week. But one thing is clear: whatever the result of the vote, one man and one man alone will shape the course of Turkey’s future. 6. CARNEGIE EUROPE - There is little indication that the U.S. military strike on a Syrian government air base on April 6 constituted part of a broader, long-term strategy adopted by U.S. President Donald Trump with regard to the conflict. The statements emerging from the administration since signal divisions on what will be the priority in Syria moving forward—ousting President Bashar al-Assad or defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State. 7. BROOKINGS - The world is changing very fast, and decisionmakers need help to untangle the complex tradeoffs between hard and soft law, policy guidance and political rhetoric, and good corporate practice and unbridled market capitalism. The current political dynamic in the United States, and potentially in Europe, may push us away, however, from the longstanding principles and practices of international law and cooperation needed to do this vital work. 8. CHATHAM HOUSE - Never mind the Article 50 procedure. An annoyance and a waste of time, it is ultimately inconsequential. The UK will withdraw the request to leave the European Union. It can do this at any time until the end of the two-year period, whenever the government has come to its senses and found a better strategy to get what the British people want. 9. CARNEGIE MOSCOW CENTER - Mr Trump prides himself on being a dealmaker. He now has a chance to secure that reputation. And in Mr Tillerson, James Mattis, US defence secretary and HR McMaster, the national security adviser, all of them steeped in the rules of power play, the masters of realpolitik in Moscow might finally have met their match. That they are losing their illusions about Mr Trump and his team is a good thing. But the game is not over. It is just beginning. 10. NATIONAL INEREST - Analyzing the Russian reaction to the American missile strike, one can notice that this reaction was measured. Of course, no one could anticipate anything from Moscow other than condemnation of America’s actions. However, it seemed that officials, including President Putin, said only what was expected from them in this situation; no heated rhetoric followed. And, indeed, there was no need. Loud statements need to be followed by decisive actions; otherwise, a country’s international credibility and positions suffer.
Russia's illegal annexation and occupation of Crimea in March 2014 has challenged the integrity of Europe's territorial borders and confirmed after the Georgia war in 2008 that Russia could react violently to perceived challenges to what it regards as its sphere of influence. This report first examines how European states perceive Russia's behavior in eastern and northern Europe, and whether they regard Russian policy and behavior in these regions as an important security priority. We identify a number of fault lines within Europe with regard to threat perceptions and further analyze whether these divides extend to perceptions of NATO and the United States.
NATO members closer geographically to Russia appear to be most concerned by Russia's aggressive behavior, and are concerned that the Alliance is ill equipped to respond to the current crisis. Second, the report analyzes how European states have responded to Russian behavior. While European states generally agree that a firm response is required, they are also eager to maintain open channels of communication with Russia. Finally, the report examines how European states intend to shape their relationship with Russia in the future; what existing measures they intend to keep in place; what new measures they might implement; and prospects for NATO and EU expansion.
This future relationship is based on a general understanding that relations with Russia have changed irremediably; tensions are unlikely to recede anytime soon; and future actions toward Russia will depend on Russian behavior.
The Department of Defense should take a serious look at Russian capabilities to politically subvert a Baltic state, including the seizure of a border enclave and/or fomenting internal unrest. DoD could use political-military games to understand the potential Alliance difficulties in reaching consensus, the options open to NATO, and the time required. More-detailed assessment of the Baltic internal security forces and their ability to deal with potential subversion contingencies also would be valuable.
DoD should seek a better understanding of the Russian ability to prevent reinforcement to the Baltic States; DoD could subject some of the "unusual" scenarios, like the seizure of Gotland, to modeling and simulation. Similarly, for sustained air operations over the Baltic States, how important does access to Swedish (and possibly Finnish) airspace become?
DoD should seek a clear view of the role that Kaliningrad might play, with its strong antiair defenses; how would NATO neutralize them?
APRIL 11, 2017
When the International Monetary Fund’s board convened on April 3, it found that the Ukrainian government had fulfilled only five out of fourteen structural reform conditions it had outlined. Nevertheless, Ukraine received a $1 billion installment of its $17.5 billion financial support for the government’s reform program. Was it pure politics that Ukraine got a fourth tranche? And why did the IMF pose so many structural reform conditions when it is supposed to deal with macroeconomics?
Before answering these questions, it is important to know what the IMF does, and what it does not.
No international organization is faster or more effective than the IMF. It has far more funding than anybody else, and its funding has risen with the challenges. Its staff is far more qualified—and better paid—than the personnel of any other organization. It has a clear mission, and with its strict hierarchy it operates like an army.
The managing director or her first deputy issues an order, and an IMF mission departs within days. In desperate circumstances, it can conclude an agreement within two weeks, and two weeks later the IMF executive board can decide. The next day billions of dollars can be disbursed without the decision of any government or parliament.
The IMF can operate this way because it has a limited mandate. It is supposed to support macroeconomic stability—that is, to keep countries from default and contain inflation, which usually means to demand limited budget deficits, strict monetary policies, and realistic exchange rate policies. In return, the IMF can offer large and instant disbursements of credits to reinforce depleted central bank reserves.
On March 11, 2015, when the IMF board adopted its current stabilization program for Ukraine of $17.5 billion over four years, it decided to issue a credit of $5 billion immediately. The money was disbursed the next day, doubling Ukraine’s tiny international currency reserves.
Nobody but the IMF could have done that. If any government had tried, it would have encountered a long and tedious parliamentary process, while Ukraine would have sunk ever deeper in financial crisis.
The reason the IMF disbursed the fourth tranche to Ukraine, even though the government had fulfilled fewer than half of the IMF’s structural reform conditions, is that Ukraine had fulfilled the macroeconomic conditions—primarily the budget balance, which is most important. Ukraine was supposed to have a budget deficit of no more than 3.7 percent of GDP in 2016, but it stopped at only 2.3 percent of GDP, overperforming impressively. Inflation was slightly less than required, though the foreign deficit was somewhat larger, and the exchange rate had stabilized under tough external conditions.
The question of whether the IMF imposes too many structural conditions is justified. That was the main complaint about IMF programs in Indonesia and South Korea during the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98. Yet the IMF cannot ignore broad domestic and international opinion calling for severe measures against corruption and for social justice in Ukraine. The formal IMF justification is that these structural reforms are necessary to achieve macroeconomic goals.
During the last period, the two most important structural conditions were that the National Bank take over the heavily undercapitalized PrivatBank, and that Ukraine implement the strict filing of asset declarations of 100,000 officials. Both were done, and the conditions that were not met were far less important.
For the next tranche, Ukraine is facing no fewer than sixteen structural conditions, but the two really important ones are the parliamentary adoption of pension reform legislation by the end of April and a law on agricultural land sales by the end of May. If these two conditions are fulfilled, my guess is that the IMF will approve its fifth installment by June.
But is the IMF good for Ukraine? Undisputedly yes. Thanks mainly to IMF loans of $8.8 billion in the last two years, Ukraine’s international currency reserves have risen from $5 billion to $16.7 billion, which has allowed the exchange rate to stabilize and inflation to be contained, offering Ukraine real possibilities to finally start growing soundly.
April 10, 2017
Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine is now entering its fourth year, but there was a time when few expected it to last even four weeks. The virtually bloodless seizure of Crimea, which fell to Russian troops in early 2014 without a fight, led most observers to conclude that Ukraine was effectively defenseless and at Moscow’s mercy.
This was the consensus view in Moscow, where many of the bolder voices began speaking of celebrating the traditional May holidays in Kyiv itself. Such swagger seemed perfectly reasonable; Ukraine was still reeling from months of anti-government protests that had spread chaos across the country before culminating in the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the collapse of his entire administration. The interim Ukrainian government that hastily replaced Yanukovych’s administration lacked constitutional legitimacy and was in no position to risk a military confrontation with the mighty Russian Federation. A clear window of opportunity had opened for Moscow to reassert itself in mainland Ukraine. Encouraged by the stunning success of his initial gamble in Crimea, President Vladimir Putin decided to raise the stakes and take arguably the biggest risk of his entire career.
The subsequent operation that unfolded in March and April 2014 envisaged the conquest of half of Ukraine through a series of localized uprisings supported by hybrid Russian forces. These newly acquired territories were to become Novorossiya, or “New Russia.” Leaked telephone conversations and hacked emails of senior Kremlin advisers, including Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Glazyev, have since provided considerable detail on Russia’s efforts to seize control of regional administrations in key Ukrainian cities throughout the south and east of the country, including Dnipro, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Odesa. These leaks track closely with the events that took place on the ground in Ukraine during that turbulent spring.
For a few precarious weeks, Ukraine’s chances of survival as an independent state appeared to be rapidly receding. However, the much-feared Russian march to the Dnipro never materialized. Instead, Russian uprisings were stifled across southeast Ukraine, and the Kremlin found itself restricted to a small bridgehead within the boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine’s easternmost borderlands. Three years on, they are still there, stuck in a quagmire of their own making. Why did Putin’s ambitious plans for a new empire in mainland Ukraine fall so dramatically short of expectations?
Perhaps understandably, Russian planners underestimated Ukraine’s capacity to fight back. Ukraine had only 6,000 combat-ready troops available in spring 2014. This was a ridiculously threadbare force that was incapable of protecting the country’s borders, never mind defending its towns and cities. What Moscow failed to anticipate was the wave of patriotic emotion that surged across Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s hybrid assault. Thousands of Ukrainians took up arms in the spring of 2014, forming volunteer battalions that bolstered the country’s paper-thin defenses and stopped the Russian advance in its tracks. Behind them stood an army of civilian volunteers who provided improvised logistical support in the form of everything from food and uniforms to ammunition. This military miracle saved Ukraine and left the Kremlin in its current predicament.
It is hardly surprising that Russia failed to predict the backlash its attack would provoke. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy had been driven by a toxic and self-defeating blend of wishful thinking and colonial condescension. This approach became increasingly entrenched during Putin’s reign; he made no secret of his desire to reassert Russian hegemony throughout the former Soviet Empire. In this revanchist worldview, Ukraine’s separation from Russia was artificial, while the entire settlement of 1991 was a grave historical injustice. In 2008, the Russian leader reportedly told US President George W. Bush that Ukraine was “not even a country.” Over the years, Putin also repeatedly stated that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people.”
These beliefs were by no means limited to the upper echelons of the Kremlin. Many in Russia still struggle to accept the reality of Ukrainian independence, seeing the country as a core component of a greater “Russian world” that is centered on Moscow. Kyiv was the center of the Kyivan Rus civilization that today’s Russia and Ukraine both see as their predecessor, while the Russian Orthodox Church traces its origins to Kyiv and the tenth century conversion of the Eastern Slavs to Christianity. This makes many in Russia prone to blaming any manifestations of Ukrainian national identity on a radical nationalist minority. As a new generation emerged in Ukraine with no personal experience of the shared Soviet past, Russian policymakers consistently refused to acknowledge changing tides of opinion or recognize the growing importance of Ukrainian identity. Famously, they have attributed Ukraine’s two post-Soviet popular uprisings almost exclusively to insidious Western influences, despite the decisive role played by millions of ordinary Ukrainians in both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan.
These comforting fictions led Russia to the disastrous miscalculations of the Novorossiya campaign. Based on its own carefully curated vision of Ukraine, there was every reason to expect a warm welcome when Kremlin agents seized control of entire regions and began calling for Russian military support. When this welcome did not materialize, Russia placed the blame on a motley crew of phantom fascists, CIA agents, and other international villains. In reality, the Kremlin had failed to appreciate the strength of the Ukrainian national spirit—especially among the country’s millions of Russian-speakers and those with no ethnic Ukrainian heritage. This failure was the direct result of decades of Russian denial about Ukraine.
Russia’s Novorossiya project has plunged the world into a new Cold War and caused untold suffering to millions of Ukrainians, but it has also consolidated Ukraine’s sense of national identity and hastened the psychological split with Russia begun in 1991. Putin’s hybrid attack was supposed to end what many in Moscow continue to see as the aberration of Ukrainian independence. Instead, it has cemented Ukraine’s place on the European map after centuries in Russia’s shadow.
The group could not make a decision on sanctions against Russia.
Today’s meeting of the G-7 foreign ministers in Lucca, Italy had a dynamic that no one could have anticipated. The United States and the United Kingdom led a charge for the G-7 to declare that there can be no solution to the Syria crisis with Assad in power. They further tried (and failed) to line up their allies behind targeted sanctions against Russian military leaders for supporting Assad’s criminal regime.
Only days ago, the United States had announced that it no longer had any interest in overthrowing Assad. The Trump administration has signalled it was not interested in humanitarian intervention generally, and was edging toward the good relationship with Russia that President Trump had frequently promised during the campaign.
But after an alleged chemical attack by the Assad regime that killed 89 people in Syria’s Idlib province, all that appears to have changed. The Trump administration responded forcefully by attacking the offending Syrian airbase with 59 tomahawk cruise missiles. Trump officials backed up the attack by declaring an intention to protect innocents throughout the world and by launching repeated rhetorical salvos against Russian complicity in Syrian crimes or incompetence in preventing them.
The quick turnaround has induced the diplomatic equivalent of whiplash among America’s partners. Of course, there is general outrage against the Assad regime and great frustration with Russia for its action in Syria. But why, U.S. allies might wonder, did this specific attack turn around U.S. policy?
Assad has been committing war crimes in Syria for a fair amount of consistency for over five years. Chemical attacks have occurred sporadically, but more importantly thousands and thousands of innocents have died from other means. Trump himself decried the idea of intervening after a much more deadly chemical attack in Syria in 2013.
Yet suddenly, a few horrific pictures of “beautiful babies” have undone years of political positioning. This speaks to an American president who is either dangerously reactive to emotive photos or who is simply trying to distract domestic audiences from the early failures of his presidency. Either way, it will not inspire confidence from allies that investing in the Trump’s administration newfound missionary zeal against Assad and Russia will pay dividends. After all, what new horror will distract Trump next? Will he be Putin’s best friend again in ten more days?
Russia sanctions are expensive, politically and economically, for many G-7 allies particularly France and Italy. Britain, more bound to the United States by its Brexit decision, was quicker to fall in line. But the divides meant that the group could not make a decision on sanctions and instead called for an investigation into responsibility for the chemical attack. “Further study” is a time-honoured way of papering over differences and playing for time.
Regardless of how one feels about Syria or Russia, the roller-coaster of the last week has confirmed that the essence of Trump’s foreign policy is its capriciousness and unpredictability. Trump has no firm convictions on many foreign policy issues and no attachment to notions of consistency or coherence. He will go where his whims and the politics of the moment take him.
In the end, America ends up with a policy that reflects a weird amalgam of his mood, the latest headlines on cable news and the last advisor he talked to. Any effort to impose a coherent doctrine on, for example, Trump’s Syria policy is thus doomed to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It will be a wild ride—all the allies can do is hang on for dear life.
A “Yes” vote could pave the way for a one-man regime and accelerate Turkey’s drift from Europe.
Here is the easiest way to understand Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum: it is an overhaul of the country’s model of governance from a parliamentary system to a U.S.-style executive presidency—minus the Supreme Court and Congress.
This is an exaggeration, of course. The proposed amendment, to be voted on in a nation-wide referendum held on April 16 under a state of emergency rule, does stipulate for a parliament, an independent judiciary and a constitutional court. But by expanding the powers of the presidency over top judicial appointments, the parliament, and his party apparatchik, the new system effectively eliminates the “checks and balances” that are the hallmark of the U.S. system.
In the existing Turkish constitution, the presidency is, in theory, a symbolic and non-partisan post with no executive powers, which lie with the prime minister and the government. Under the proposed system the position of the prime minister is eliminated and executive power flows to the president, who will lead the government, run his political party, and determine top legislature without parliamentary confirmation. This “Turkish-style presidential system,” would create the possibility of an extended reign for Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan until 2029.
Erdoğan has long been a proponent of the presidential system, arguing that Turkey’s parliamentary system breeds internal dissent between the president and prime minister and prevents good governance. “Remove these shackles,” he told a cheering crowd of AKP supporters in the Black Sea town of Trabzon this week, arguing that the new system would facilitate the government’s ability to provide services and allow Turkey to fulfill its global leadership potential.
Erdoğan is right in one sense: the relationship between most Turkish presidents and prime ministers has traditionally been mired in conflicts. As a former prime minister and later as a president, Erdoğan has experienced his share of tensions at the top. Most recently he forced out his hand-picked prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, following disagreements on a number of policy issues last year.
But “shackles”—or checks and balances as we call them—are also important for democratic governance. Admittedly the current constitution, drafted after the military coup of 1980, has several problems: parliamentary elections are based on party lists drafted by party leaders; there is no real accountability for the president; and the 10% electoral threshold, once designed to keep the Kurds out of parliament, is too high. But the proposed amendment does not address any of these flaws.
Instead, the proposal would concentrate power in the hands of the presidency, leading critics to argue that a “Yes” vote would effectively transform Turkish democracy into one-man rule. The Venice Commission, the specialised legal body of the Council of Europe, warned in a March 13 opinion of “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey”, noting that the amendments could pave the way towards “an authoritarian and personal regime”.
But in the immediate future it is unclear whether such an amendment would make a difference in the day-to-day lives of Turkish citizens, with Erdoğan already an omnipresent figure. The Turkish president has long been exercising de facto control over the government, determining its foreign policy, taking all major economic decisions, and even drafting party lists for parliamentarians behind the scenes. His supporters argue that the new amendment just writes this reality into law.
Not everyone agrees. Even though the ruling AKP has disproportionate use of state and media resources, and has the support of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), it has not been able to build a comfortable lead for the “Yes” vote. Current polls show voters to be almost evenly divided between “Yes” and “No” votes, with a huge chunk of “undecideds”. As such, the referendum will likely be decided by a fraction of conservative voters, including religious Kurds, who typically favor AKP but remain concerned about Erdoğan’s style of governance or unconvinced about the need for such an overhaul of the system.
Inevitably, the whole vote is about Erdoğan himself, with the Turkish president on the campaign trail every day, his rallies broadcast live on all networks. With just one week to go, he is focusing on those sceptical conservatives who are concerned about Turkey’s authoritarian drift. In an effort to win them over he has noticeably softened his rhetoric, dropping previous suggestions that “No” voters are “terrorists” and de-escalating his tone towards Europe.
Which brings us to the question of what the referendum will mean for Turkey’s relationship with the EU. It was already highly transactional, with a moribund EU accession process and little hope of a marriage of values. But things took a marked downward turn with Erdoğan’s recent accusations of “Nazi practices” after Turkish ministers were blocked from campaigning for the referendum in Germany and the Netherlands. If the constitutional reform passes and Turkey moves further towards authoritarianism, even keeping the engagement ring might prove to be a challenge.
Given the interdependence of Turkish and European economies, Erdoğan cannot afford to escalate any further. His recent change of tone suggests that he understand this. The optimistic scenario now is that a “No” vote (or potentially even a narrow “Yes” vote) might lead the Turkish president to reconsider his combative attitude towards Europe and attempt to repair the relationship. That would require some progress in Turkey’s dire human rights situation, but Erdoğan has been known to show surprising amounts of pragmatism when least expected. He has long wanted a summit with European leaders and could take advantage of upcoming Cyprus talks to initiate a thaw in relations.
The pessimistic scenario, of course, is that a “Yes” vote will embolden both Erdoğan’s anti-Europe rhetoric as well as anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe, leading to further deterioration in the relationship. A formal suspension of the EU accession process is unlikely for the moment, even though this course of action was recommended by the European Parliament in a symbolic vote last year. Most member states within the European Council would rather quietly transition Turkey’s membership bid into an expanded customs unions with Europe. But if there is further escalation, suspension cannot be ruled out.
It is impossible to predict which way the winds will blow after the referendum next week. But one thing is clear: whatever the result of the vote, one man and one man alone will shape the course of Turkey’s future.
April 12, 2017
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, Research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute
There is little indication that the U.S. military strike on a Syrian government air base on April 6 constituted part of a broader, long-term strategy adopted by U.S. President Donald Trump with regard to the conflict. The statements emerging from the administration since signal divisions on what will be the priority in Syria moving forward—ousting President Bashar al-Assad or defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
U.S. officials also seem not to have fully predicted the implications that the targeted attack would have on relations with Russia. Not only did the U.S. decision to use military force against Syria dash hopes for better bilateral ties, but it also pushed Moscow closer to Tehran, in contrast with Trump’s goals.
It is thus inaccurate to speak about a newly established Trump doctrine. But developments in Syria indicate a likely trajectory for U.S. foreign policy: the comeback of American unilateralism. Whether this will translate into a move toward an interventionist policy all around remains to be seen—this would inevitably contradict the administration’s preference so far for putting America first and disengaging from foreign conflicts. What is clear, though, is that while Trump’s foreign policy might appear bolder than the multilateralism adopted by his predecessor Barack Obama, it also will be subject to much more unpredictability and unintended consequences.
Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group
U.S. President Donald Trump has discovered how to gain the support of the foreign policy establishment, both at home and abroad. That’s a little different from discovering foreign policy.
The decisionmaking process around the U.S. air strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base on April 6 was handled very well—the timing, the nature and comparative restraint of the attack, the prior warning to the Russians to avoid casualties, and the public announcement.
But there’s no Syria policy here, just as there wasn’t one for former U.S. president Barack Obama. It’s a morass without a win for the United States.
There are plenty of places Trump could go if he wanted to discover foreign policy. Syria wouldn’t be one of them.
Thomas Carothers, Senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
What U.S. President Donald Trump has discovered is that the position of the United States as the power that many people—both within and outside the country—look to for responses to atrocities has not changed, despite his previous efforts to shuck off such a role and focus on America First.
After the chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4, no one was calling for or expecting China, Russia, Germany, the European Union, the United Nations, or any other country or organization to forcefully respond. Despite former U.S. president Barack Obama’s quietism and Trump’s declared disinterest in doing good in the world, the expectation still focused on America.
Hastily taking up this mantle worked out for Trump this time (although his actions have not yet changed any of the fundamental dynamics or realities on the ground in Syria). But he will discover that having acted thus once, expectations will now be even stronger that he will fulfill this role in the future—and not only for atrocities but also for other wrongs and problems, such as military coups, stolen elections, or fast-breaking humanitarian disasters.
Marc Pierini, Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
It would be highly premature to deduce from the U.S. strike on the Shayrat air force base in Syria on April 6 that U.S. President Donald Trump has decided on a foreign policy.
Rather, the strike can be analyzed as a combination of two very different factors. One is an opportunistic move by the president to stand in contrast with his predecessor Barack Obama, who had defined a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime as a redline for the United States in 2012 but decided not to act when that line was crossed in 2013.
A second factor is the chance for the U.S. military to draw a line in the sand and call a spade a spade when the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia blatantly fabricate an unsustainable explanation about stored chemical weapons. By all technical accounts, the Assad regime and Russia have violated the 2013 agreement on the destruction of Syria’s stock of chemical weapons.
The April 6 strike does not amount to a new U.S. policy on Syria, but at least it greatly hampers Russia’s lead in the political talks on a settlement in Syria. The attack also fuels a more coherent European position on the subject, while Turkey has renewed its calls for Assad’s ouster—a stance that differs from Ankara’s recent alignment with Moscow.
Ulrich Speck, Nonresident senior research fellow at the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute
U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy remains opaque. His actions often contradict his tweets and campaign speeches. His national security team sends messages that don’t add up to a coherent approach.
The question is whether this is just the result of incompetence or whether the Trump White House deliberately presents itself as unpredictable with the intention of irritating friends and confusing competitors to gain more leverage. Only time will tell which of the two interpretations is correct.
In any case, what Trump has achieved is to put Washington at the center of global affairs again. A world that still largely depends on the United States to underwrite the global order with its immense power has been put into reactive mode by the White House: America First.
Stephen Szabo, Executive director of the Transatlantic Academy
To paraphrase Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Trump may not have discovered foreign policy, but foreign policy has discovered Trump. Like most new U.S. presidents, Donald Trump came to office with no real foreign policy experience or more than index card–length thoughts about the world. He is now learning that there is more than just transactional deal making to foreign policy and that his decisions can be literally deadly.
Given Trump’s lack of a worldview or a settled team to shape his foreign policy, it is anyone’s guess where he will go when the world comes to call. He is full of contradictions, which reflects this lack of a consistent worldview. As one headline put it, the Trump doctrine is that there is no doctrine. While this could prove an asset if it induces caution in adversaries, it also holds the potential for serious miscalculations and escalation.
The world and the United States are now dealing with an unpredictable and mercurial president. Although he seems to be turning to realists in his national security team, he remains the final decisionmaker, and the dangers outweigh the opportunities.
Pierre Vimont, Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Undoubtedly, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria’s Shayrat air base on April 6 has all the ingredients of a smart diplomatic move. It has brought the United States back into the Syrian diplomatic game with new leverage. It will also force the members of the coalition that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—Iran, Iraq, and Russia—and Assad himself to look at the Trump administration as a more challenging partner than they were expecting.
Yet this one-off shot does not in itself make a comprehensive foreign policy, as the limits of this sudden momentum show. The new U.S. leverage has to translate into a genuine diplomatic strategy for the overall Syrian conflict. That means defining a firm position regarding the future of the Assad regime and taking the upper hand in the current peace talks in Geneva. Beyond Syria, it implies a capacity to coerce Russia into an uneasy relationship to deliver solutions for other conflicts in the Middle East andUkraine. It also means bringing around Iran and Saudi Arabia to end their confrontation and convincing China to seriously tackle the North Korean nuclear program.
The U.S. domestic front, which Trump follows closely, could cool the president’s new enthusiasm. For hardcore Trump voters, this rebirth of neocon diplomacy smacks of betrayal as they observe the cheers of the Washington establishment. In the end, this may well be the most difficult fence to jump over.
Xenia Wickett, Head of the U.S. and the Americas Program and dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy at Chatham House
Those who believe that the U.S. missile strike on April 6 against a Syrian air base is a sign that U.S. President Donald Trump is going to revert to a more moralistic and humanitarian foreign policy—one that moves away from his strict focus on America’s vital and direct national interests—are mistaken. Trump’s attention on America First will remain paramount.
But the strike does signal several things.
First, it reinforces the fact that unpredictability will be a central characteristic of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. He will not telegraph his views. He will not be constrained by earlier positions. And he is quite happy to change his mind (and back again).
Second, he was sending a message not only to the Syrians and the Russians but also to the Chinese, the North Koreans, and any others who are reticent to support America’s interests. They should know that Trump will not hesitate to use force.
More broadly, over two months in, Trump and his team are beginning to discover foreign policy. They are learning about the ripples of foreign policy—that every action has consequences that go far beyond the intended target. That can be useful, but it can also confound. This will be a steep learning curve.
April 12, 2017
What does the law of nations mean in this new era of resurgent nationalism as narrowly defined by leaders like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Vladimir Putin? To answer that question, it helps to return to some basic definitions and principles that remind us why nation-states have long found it in their interests to cooperate on matters of common concern. Laws based on norms of reciprocity, mutual respect, justice, and peace have regulated international relations since the times of ancient Greece. As trade across boundaries increased, it became increasingly in each state’s self-interest to define, and bind others, to common rules and customs, which extended to the oceans and seas as well.
Now, with over 560 major multilateral instruments deposited with the United Nations alone, citizens around the world benefit every day from rules their governments have adopted conjointly with each other. These agreements, as the American Society of International Law has documented, enable worldwide telecommunications and postal networks; universal recognition of time standards; improved weather forecasting; stronger safety standards for automobiles, airplanes, and ships; sharing of information about the origin of our food and other products; protection of software, literary, and artistic works; and preservation of cultural heritage sites and endangered species, to name a few. With the adoption of international human rights treaties after World War II, these rules expanded to protect people from torture and other forms of inhumane treatment; promote equal protection for women and children, including for adopted children and those caught in custody disputes; and facilitate pursuit of war criminals, terrorists, human smugglers, and drug traffickers. Agreements to protect the public and the environment from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other harmful pollutants are among some of the more effective binding instruments of modern international law.
Despite these and many other obvious benefits from international law, the political culture of the United States has turned markedly sour when it comes to ratifying treaties that demonstrably serve its national interests. Two recent examples immediately come to mind: The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and would protect disabled Americans when traveling overseas, was denied Senate ratification in 2012 based on spurious charges it would impinge on home schooling. Similarly, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, endorsed by senior U.S. military, defense, business, and environmental leaders as a key instrument for protecting U.S. interests in safe passage for its vessels and in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, was blocked by 34 Republican senators in 2012 on grounds it would, inter alia, bind the United States to third party arbitration. Meanwhile, China and others are shaping the rules and practices of the treaty body that regulates exploitation of seabed resources without Washington having a seat at the table.
Such pro-sovereignty sentiments are now the dominant view in the White House and most of the Republican-controlled Congress. That is likely to spell further trouble for preserving U.S. leadership of an international order which has overwhelmingly served U.S. interests in a coherent system of rules and customs that has given us 70 years free of direct major power conflict and impressive economic prosperity.
The Justice Stephen Breyer Lecture series on international law, formally established in 2014 in partnership with the Netherlands Foreign Ministry, the mayor of The Hague, and The Hague Institute for Global Justice, was created to help policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic think about new challenges to international law and order. It would be fair to say that when our cooperation on this initiative began in 2013, we did not imagine that the pendulum swing against the underpinnings of the international order would advance as far and as fast as it has in the last year. Core beliefs and lessons learned from the 20th century are up for grabs around the world, including on both sides of the Atlantic, at least judging from current political discourse favoring nationalism over “globalism.” A trans-Atlantic approach, therefore, is particularly timely and relevant.
A trans-Atlantic perspective is also valuable as an intellectual endeavor because Europeans and Americans come from different historical perspectives, a point James Madison made in 1792: “The [U.S.] Constitution is a charter of power granted by liberty,” not, as in Europe, “a charter of liberty…granted by power.” The Declaration of Independence’s reference to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” was an early indication, however, that America’s founding fathers felt an obligation to consider the views of others, even its former colonial masters, in matters of law and justice. Justice Breyer, “the great transnationalist judge of our age,” has taken up that charge in the modern era, following in the tradition of Chief Justices John Marshall and John Jay.
Since then, trans-Atlantic jurisprudence has largely converged around some fundamental principles based on national constitutions, the United Nations Charter, and institutions founded after World War II—“shared public norms with similar meanings in every national system of the world,” as Professor Harold Koh puts it. But meaningful differences remain and often revolve around the limits to which citizens and their representatives are prepared to cede traditional sovereignty to an international body. The European Union, for example, is wrestling mightily with both the benefits and costs of “pooled sovereignty.” While the United States may be a laggard when it comes to adopting certain treaties, it is not immune from the judicial and legislative decisions of other countries, as Justice Breyer himself explained so well in his inaugural lecture at Brookings. In a quickly changing world, he said, “we better learn what is going on elsewhere because that affects directly what we do at the Supreme Court. In a word, understanding and referring to what is happening abroad is often the best way to preserve our American values,” particularly our faith in the rule of law for ourselves and in our relations with others.
Justice Breyer’s analysis of five areas in which the development of law in other parts of the world has a direct effect on U.S. judicial decisionmaking includes matters highly relevant to public debates today, from protecting civil liberties from executive overreach to determining the application of World Trade Organization rules and decisions to U.S. domestic law. Under a Trump White House and Republican-controlled Congress clamoring to put America first, these issues are bound to be fiercely contested in the months ahead.
One area of international law that is not contested, at least not by the United States, is the strict prohibition against the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors, as set forth in the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Ratified in 1997 by the U.S. Senate after intense debate, the CWC and its implementation arm, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), headquartered in The Hague, is the only legally binding instrument to ban comprehensively an entire class of weapons of mass destruction under international verification. More importantly, it has established a process in which the vast majority of states have declared their chemical weapons stockpiles for the purpose of their destruction under international monitoring. The United States and Russia, which hold the largest amount of such weapons, have committed to destroy their holdings completely by December 2020 and September 2023, respectively. The task of ridding the world of these reprehensible weapons will not be complete, however, until states outside the convention, like North Korea, are brought to heel. Even more challenging, as OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü warned in his remarks at Brookings in April 2015, is stopping terrorists and other rogue actors from using chemical weapons to attack U.S. troops and innocent civilians, as seen in Iraq and Syria in 2016.
In addition to the overwhelming international consensus to stop the use of chemical weapons, recent events in Syria have demonstrated the operational value of such binding commitments. After reports of chemical weapons attacks against Syrians were tragically confirmed in August 2013 when an estimated 1,500 people died from a sarin nerve gas attack in Ghouta, the treaty was quickly put to work. In short order, a U.N. investigation confirmed the use of chemical weapons, Syria submitted its instrument of accession to the CWC, and Russia and the United States agreed on a framework for the elimination of the Bashar Assad regime’s chemical weapons program. The OPCW then fast-tracked approval of a plan to eliminate the weapons, which the Security Council endorsed the same day. Three days later, OPCW experts were on the ground in Damascus to help verify Syria’s stockpile of approximately 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons and oversee their destruction. As further elaborated by Director General Üzümcüin his speech at Brookings, a remarkable multilateral response involving contributions from 35 OPCW member states led ultimately to the removal and destruction of all of Syria’s declared chemical weapons by January 2016.
Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Reports of new attacks in Syria, this time with chlorine agents, emerged in 2015 and led to further U.N. investigations, spurring additional U.N. Security Council proposals by the United States and others to hold perpetrators accountable. This time, however, U.S.-Russia cooperation had evaporated, leading to a joint Russia-China veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution in February 2017 that would have imposed sanctions under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter on Syrian government officials and entities linked to chemical weapons attacks; placed an embargo on arms sales and chemicals intended to be used as weapons; and established a mechanism to monitor implementation.
The lessons learned from the Syria case about the realities of international law and politics are manifold: (1) establish clear rules of the road and mechanisms for implementation before a crisis hits; (2) move quickly on windows of opportunity when they arise; and (3) fortify the political will among major powers to ensure concrete action. The CWC worked well when all three factors were present, and fell short when the third element dried up. Consensus broke down in part because of the demand for punishment of specific government officials and agencies, a step apparently too far for Syria’s chief defenders on the Security Council. On balance, the CWC and its quick implementation in the Syria case certainly advanced U.S. national security interests in containing the spread of chemical weapons in a volatile part of the world. But the current lack of accountability for blatant violations raises serious questions about the deterrent value of the instrument.
While chemical weapons were prevalent over a century ago, new forms of warfare are emerging that test the boundaries of national and international laws rooted in core principles of necessity, proportionality, reciprocity, and human rights. The absence of specific rules that govern the use of new technologies like armed drones and offensive cyber weapons requires policymakers and lawyers, in Harold Koh’s view, to “translate what Montesquieu called ‘the spirit of the laws’ to present day situations,” at least until paralyzed legislatures are able to write new laws. Under the administration of President Obama, decisionmakers looked both to international and U.S. law for proper authority and guidance on how to engage in non-traditional armed conflict between a state and a transnational terrorist network like al-Qaida. These rules included humane treatment of combatants and noncombatants, as well as the strict prohibition of torture in all places and at all times with no exceptions. Targeted killings were considered permissible if in accordance with international humanitarian law (e.g., in situations of imminent threat, an act of self-defense, or an armed conflict where a combatant has no immunity), if the action was authorized under domestic and international law, and if the target’s rights have been considered and sovereignty of the relevant nation respected.
The rules of engagement get murkier the further one moves away from traditional armed conflict. States, however, are slowly adopting voluntary guidelines as a step toward more binding norms. For example, the Montreux Document outlines a code of conduct for private security providers. The Tallinn Manual helps set standards for cyber conflict. But, as Harold Koh explained at his lecture at Brookings in 2016, much more work needs to be done to translate current laws to scenarios like humanitarian intervention in the absence of Security Council authorization, as in the case of Kosovo. The crime of aggression, which recently came into force as part of the Rome Statute, adds further complexity to situations where the international community must decide whether or not to address gross abuses, as in the case of Syria. The need to clarify rules, and make them more formal, transparent, and subject to external oversight has never been greater, even if the political will to deploy military force for such situations remains scant.
New forms of technology like robots, malware, and hacking raise difficult questions that remain pending on the international law agenda. The open and global nature of the internet has sparked an international revolution in the sharing of information, knowledge, and commerce for the benefit of humankind. It also raises, however, a number of thorny legal and ethical questions concerning malign uses of the web ranging from the theft of private data and pervasive cyberattacks to the dissemination of extremist views, lies, and propaganda.
The collection of vast amounts of metadata for public and private purposes also poses a number of difficult issues regarding internationally recognized rights to privacy, information, expression, and association. Here, common ground between Europeans and Americans on the boundaries of privacy and control continues to be elusive. Confusion regarding the boundaries between “good” and “bad” uses of the worldwide web is growing as different national authorities intervene to regulate and mediate areas of digital-enabled conflict and competition with little to no normative consensus at the international level. Meanwhile, businesses are adopting their own measures to fill the yawning gaps in laws and regulations governing digital activities by setting limits on what to share with security agencies and establishing other self-policing mechanisms. Regardless, security loopholes are widening, ripe for exploitation by criminal forces.
The fourth annual Justice Stephen Breyer lecture on international law seeks to tackle these questions by convening top experts in the fields of technology, security, human rights, and law for a public discussion on how new technologies both advance and complicate international law and justice. The discussion will focus on two interrelated questions of technology and accountability: (1) what principles and protocols are needed for cross-border sharing of data for investigation and prosecution of crimes; and 2) what are the key technological tools and appropriate evidentiary standards for documentation and prosecution of violations of international humanitarian, human rights, and criminal law?
The world is changing very fast, and decisionmakers need help to untangle the complex tradeoffs between hard and soft law, policy guidance and political rhetoric, and good corporate practice and unbridled market capitalism. The current political dynamic in the United States, and potentially in Europe, may push us away, however, from the longstanding principles and practices of international law and cooperation needed to do this vital work. Justice Breyer, in his concluding remarks, powerfully warned of the dangers of a path away from the rule of law when he cited a passage from The Plague by Albert Camus, a metaphorical tale about the Nazis coming to France. Camus’s hero, Dr. Rieux, states that “the germ of the plague [that evil part of all mankind] never dies nor does it ever disappear.” Judges, says Justice Breyer, and the rule of law they and others fairly administer, cannot stop all the rats from spreading the plague, but they can be at least one weapon “in the war against that evil part of mankind.”
Never mind the Article 50 procedure. An annoyance and a waste of time, it is ultimately inconsequential. The UK will withdraw the request to leave the European Union. It can do this at any time until the end of the two-year period, whenever the government has come to its senses and found a better strategy to get what the British people want.
This is what they appear to want: the Union of the Crowns maintained, as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar remain in the EU. England, while remaining under the Crown, leaves, with Wales in tow.
This summary of the will of the people will raise eyebrows and tempers in London. An intricate set of taboos and a centrally imposed Brexit narrative in Westminster would not allow it to be said by anyone with hopes for public office.
At the heart of the self-inflicted pain of ‘Britain leaving the EU’ is a conflict of interest: The government that pretends to represent the UK really speaks only for England, and the City of London seeking to avoid regulation by the EU. England is a country without a legislature and a democracy only by being part of the UK. It has no independent democratic voice, but usurped the UK government and imposed its will on the other nations of Britain.
The dominant narrative says that the British decided in the EU referendum that the UK should leave the EU at whatever price, that the result is binding and that those who voted against have the right to be heard but not to overturn the outcome of the referendum, and that Brexit is a one-way street, from the day the Article 50 procedure for leaving the EU in exactly two years has started. The UK will then be outside the EU, master of its own destiny and prosperity, united and at peace.
By now most Brits should know this prospectus is false. In fact, Article 50 is not a one-way street. According to Jean-Claude Piris, former diretor-general of the Council of the EU’s Legal Service, triggering Article 50 is merely stating the intention to leave. The intention can be reversed at any time over two years.
Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten: ‘Don’t stop a traveller on his way’. This German proverb reminds us to be tolerant of other people’s choices even if we don’t want to go with them. But what if the traveller is not alone but drags the relatives along against their will, in chains made of unwritten constitution? What if the departure causes pain to all others in the EU and destabilizes the whole neighbourhood? Then there is an obligation to speak up and recall that it is only England and Wales, that wants to leave the EU.
Some 63 per cent of the registered electorate did not vote for Brexit in the EU referendum on June 23, 2016; only 37 per cent did. The figure for those who did not vote for Brexit rises to almost two-thirds, or 66.1 per cent, if you take into account the whole voting age population. That was after the rules for UK general elections were applied instead of those for EU elections, and the rules were tweaked to produce a pool of eligible voters biased heavily against the EU. It was a non-binding referendum, where anyone with an axe to grind could register a symbolic protest vote against the government, and balanced people felt safe to stay away from the poll.
Asymmetrical mobilization and demobilization appear to have further tipped the balance to produce the outcome, declared binding after the result was known. The 37 per cent overall was below the threshold of 40 per cent for the vote to be valid in the first referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979. The EU referendum was held in violation of the prior UK standard.
Only one region, England and Wales, had a simple majority of votes cast against staying in the EU (53.3 per cent for Leave on a turnout of 73 per cent; 38.9 per cent of eligible voters and still below the 40 per cent threshold). The three other regions voted to remain: Gibraltar (96 per cent for the EU on 83.7 per cent), Northern Ireland (55.8 per cent on 62.7 per cent), and Scotland (62 per cent on 67.2 per cent). David Cameron, by resigning and thus validating the result, turned a score of 3-1 among the regions for the EU into a victory of England and Wales for Brexit, a feat to raise eyebrows even in FIFA.
The UK is a federation by any definition. It may be politically centralized, but the nations that share the British Isles have retained their clearly demarcated territories, identities, flags and their separate laws, institutions and customs. They have everything that marks sovereign states and they even field separate national football teams. The Swiss know that legitimacy of a referendum requires super-majorities of the people and the constituent parts of the federation. This lesson is applied in the voting rules in the EU Council of Ministers, but wilfully ignored by David Cameron when he set up the EU referendum.
The UK government should let England (and Wales) become a self-governing nation, an independent country in the British realm, preserving the Union of the Crowns. England should be allowed to leave the EU, as Algeria did in 1962 when it gained independence from France, and Greenland did in 1985 when it gained autonomy but remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark. From the EU’s perspective, this is an internal change in one of its member states. It cannot but accept the outcome, and make some semi-automatic adjustments to seat numbers in the European Parliament, and voting weights in the Council of Ministers.
Scotland and Northern Ireland would continue the UK’s membership in the EU without interruption; there is no need to apply again for membership. The status of Gibraltar as a member of the EU also remains unchanged. That may annoy some hardliners in Spain, but at the same time, the precedent for an independent Catalonia in the EU is avoided.
The most obvious advantage would be in Northern Ireland. The open border with the Republic of Ireland (310 miles) will remain internal to the EU. That protects the Good Friday Agreement and avoids a return of the Troubles. Securing the ports and airports linking Northern Ireland and policing the traffic with England and Wales will be easier and cheaper than hardening the land border. The price is the establishment of an EU-external land border with the necessary controls along the 96 miles of border between England and Scotland. That is more a psychological than an organizational challenge, and in any case easier and cheaper than securing the much longer Irish border. UK citizens need to be given new passports that state if they live in the EU or in England or Wales.
England will then have the chance to become an independent democracy with its own elected legislature as the other nations in the UK already have.
Everyone gets what the referendum results say they want, and neither the EU nor any of the other member states need to agree. The solution can be obtained by agreement among the nations in the UK and coordination by its various legislatures. It does not depend on any outsiders.
The only force that stands in the way is Theresa May with her folly in taking the whole UK for a hard and complete Brexit.
April 10, 2017
Last Friday’s US air strikes against Syria have dispelled any remaining illusions in Moscow about Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
The Russian reaction to the use of force by the US president was strong but measured. Moscow condemned it as an “act of aggression”, but gave no order to Russian air defence units in Syria to intercept American missiles. Nor did the Kremlin cancel the forthcoming visit by secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Russian interpretations of Mr Trump’s volte face on Syria mostly focus on the domestic travails of the American president, who faces steadily ratcheting pressure over his associates’ dealings with Moscow. This is seen, in turn, as evidence of the influence of America’s “deep state”, which is inherently hostile to Russia. By reasserting US power on the global stage, the argument goes, Mr Trump has won a reprieve from his political opponents — but at the price of submitting to their foreign policy agenda.
Ironically, by ordering direct action in Syria, Mr Trump has effectively done to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, what Mr Putin himself did to Barack Obama in September 2015 when he launched Russia’s military intervention in the Middle East. Now, both countries are actively engaged in Syria, pursuing only partially overlapping objectives.
The risk of a confrontation has increased since Friday, but, paradoxically, greater American involvement in Syria may also bring about closer US-Russian co-operation there, leading eventually to a political settlement and an end to the bloody six-year civil war.
Mr Trump’s intervention could strengthen Moscow’s hand with respect to the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and to Iran and its client Hizbollah, both of whom have used the regime’s takeover of Aleppo to press for a complete victory, undermining Russian negotiation efforts. Russia needs a political solution in Syria — that is its only acceptable exit strategy — but its allies are prepared to fight until the bitter end.
Before Mr Trump put his finger on the scales, it had looked as if Mr Putin was facing a diplomatic stalemate, and that he was becoming a hostage to Mr Assad. This may now change.
It is not at all clear, of course, what Mr Trump will do next. More strikes on Syria may follow; the presence of US ground troops in the country may expand; and regime change in Damascus may displace the destruction of Isis as the US’s primary military and political objective.
There are doubtless people in Washington counselling the president to move in that direction. Should they prevail, Russia will face the choice of humiliating defeat or conflict with America. This would be the most dangerous moment the world has known since the US’s nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union over Cuba in 1962.
However, if Washington were now to decide to enter the diplomatic game over Syria, chances for a deal would improve significantly. Moscow has always known that without some sort of political settlement in Syria — impossible without US participation — its achievements there would not be secured.
The Obama administration, despite former secretary of state John Kerry’s best efforts, showed no interest in a serious partnership with Moscow. Mr Trump, in sharp contrast, may be indeed interested in a deal. The Russians will be right to explore this when Mr Tillerson goes to Moscow.
Mr Trump prides himself on being a dealmaker. He now has a chance to secure that reputation. And in Mr Tillerson, James Mattis, US defence secretary and HR McMaster, the national security adviser, all of them steeped in the rules of power play, the masters of realpolitik in Moscow might finally have met their match. That they are losing their illusions about Mr Trump and his team is a good thing. But the game is not over. It is just beginning.
April 13, 2017
The recent U.S. missile strike did not significantly change the state of affairs on Syria’s battlefields. Nevertheless, it has significantly altered the global political context of the Syrian Civil War and forced all players to modify their strategic calculations. Russia is no exception. America’s actions might help Moscow a great deal in calibrating its goals and the methods to achieve them. Donald Trump made a serious move; now it is Vladimir Putin’s turn.
According to several assessments, and as confirmed by the United States, the strike on Syria was planned and executed to be limited, measured and very specific. Despite that, it could not help but create broader strategic implications in Syria and globally. There is no doubt that, with this strike, the Trump administration sent a message for international and domestic audiences. Russia was among the many intended recipients. What conclusions should experts and decisionmakers in Moscow now be making?
First, considering how quickly the decision on the bombardment seems to have been made, it is now confirmed that President Trump makes foreign-policy decisions personally, with limited involvement from experts and the agencies in charge, to say nothing of Congress.
Second, Trump’s decisions could easily become far more dangerous to Russia than those made by President Obama; the strike on Syria is a clear example. During last year’s electoral campaign, Moscow saw Donald Trump as a fresh face clashing with the American foreign-policy establishment. This led to Russian expectations of a fresh start in U.S.-Russia relations in the case of a Trump presidency. Later, when Trump won and began his engagement with the establishment, his perception among decisionmakers in Russia changed; Trump’s reputation as a successful negotiator became more important.
Now, the situation has changed again, and the Kremlin needs to reconsider whether Trump will continue the United States’ post–Cold War foreign policy, which Russia sees as expansionist and, on many occasions, harmful to Russian national interests. When and where will the American president decide to strike next? This question, and many others, needs to be answered. For Russia, the strike on Syria serves as a warning that under the new administration, the geopolitical showdown with the United States may intensify.
The third strategic implication of the American strike for Russia can be an improvement in Moscow’s communication with Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian president has just received a clear reminder of his vulnerability. One can argue whether the Syrian government is behind the chemical attack in Idlib. Even if Syrian officials are behind the tragedy, there is simply no reason to suppose that Russia supported this action. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clearly stated that the American officials “do not have any information that suggests that Russia was a part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons.”) Together with the United States, Russia initiated the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, and these kinds of incidents are a serious blow to Russia’s international stance. Now, Moscow has the strong example of the U.S. strike to remind Assad that unless he follows the Kremlin’s lead, he can lose everything. In the current situation, the Syrian president had better go along with Russia’s plans, the biggest guarantor of his survival. Among other things, this makes Assad more amenable to plans for a political settlement in Syria, supported by Russia.
Besides the immediate strategic implications of the U.S. strike on Syria, there are several broader consequences for Russia. The most noticeable is the continuing influence of the unstable Middle East on global oil prices. Several dozen Tomahawk missiles were enough to provoke a rise in the price of oil. One can only imagine what a few hundred more missiles can do to oil markets over time.
In the long view, this means not only that oil markets will continue to be linked with global political and security events, but also that the Middle East remains the major region where this connection takes place. For Russia, the latter proves that the expansion of its presence in the region is the right policy course. As a major energy exporter, Moscow is better off staying involved in the region that defines global energy markets.
The next question that the United States’ military action against Syria raised is: what will be China’s reaction to a newly assertive American foreign policy? Considering that the timing of the strike was a matter of choice for Washington, it is difficult to see mere coincidence in the fact the Chinese leader Xi Jinping was informed about President Trump’s decision during dinner after their first day of talks. The long-standing Chinese policy against unilateral military action without UN approval is no secret. In times of rising international tensions with North Korea and in the South China Sea, Beijing received an additional reminder of American global military capabilities.
The near future will show how this will translate in Chinese political actions. In this regard, one should remember how India became increasingly interested in Russia’s offers of political and security cooperation in 1999–2000, after the American military campaign against Yugoslavia. Will the last week’s strike against Syria lead to a more assertive, interventionist foreign policy for the Trump administration? And, if so, will that result in deepening of Chinese-Russian political and security cooperation?
Analyzing the Russian reaction to the American missile strike, one can notice that this reaction was measured. Of course, no one could anticipate anything from Moscow other than condemnation of America’s actions. However, it seemed that officials, including President Putin, said only what was expected from them in this situation; no heated rhetoric followed. And, indeed, there was no need. Loud statements need to be followed by decisive actions; otherwise, a country’s international credibility and positions suffer. The question stands: what options does Russia have in the situation, now redefined by the American strike on Syria?
There is no doubt that stabilization in Syria is in Russia’s interests, but that can hardly come through a military victory for Assad. First of all, such a win remains only a long-term prospect. Besides, the prolonged fighting, even if ultimately beneficial to the Syrian authorities, will further damage the country in many ways, and Moscow is not interested in having a basket case for an ally.
This is why Russia is interested in a political solution. It is worth emphasizing, once again, that Assad can become more amenable to this solution in the wake of the United States’ military action. Still, even under Russian pressure, the Syrian president and the forces he represents cannot reach an agreement by themselves. The opposite side of the negotiating table also needs to get organized, and be representative, ready and capable of implementing a possible agreement. Washington can help in the search for such partners for a political settlement—provided, of course, that there is a real interest in Washington to drastically change course in Syria and stop the bloodshed.