Progress on Syria Is Useful but Is Not Sufficient to Drive the Larger US-Russia Relationship – Richard Weitz

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Rethinking Russia spoke with Dr Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and the Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute about how US-Russia relations have changed as a result of the Ukraine crisis and what effect Syria may have on them.

Rethinking Russia: How would you assess US-Russia relations today? How have they changed over the past year?

Richard Weitz: US-Russia relations today are just as bad as they were a year ago, though they were much better two years ago. Since the Ukraine crisis there has been a stagnation of the relationship. I think if you ask me this question next year, it will be the same answer.

RR: Do you think that at this point the bilateral relationship is at its worst?

RW: It is at its worst since the 90s. Even during the difficulties we had with Bosnia or Georgia, it wasn’t as bad. We are in a situation now when, because of the Ukraine conflict, a lot of official contacts are frozen. Then rhetoric is very strong on both sides, the interest in engagement is limited, so I say yes, probably at its worst since the Russian Federation came into existence.

RR: Did the Obama-Putin meeting at the UNGA result in some progress? Did it change anything?

RW: We thought it was possible but then the Russian intervention is Syria caught the US off guard because it appears that President Putin did not tell President Obama he would do that; maybe he had not decided by then. Ukraine has gotten better, it has stabilized, but I do not see wide-reaching engagements. I am not sure if those talks had much of an impact.

RR: It was surprising for many analysts how the conflict in Eastern Ukraine died out all of a sudden. What was your reaction to this?

Richard_weitz (1)RW: The way things evolved with the collapse of the Ukrainian government, then Russia’s annexation of Crimea and then the uprising in the East, I think Russia’s policy was fluid. Maybe the government wasn’t certain how to deal with eastern Ukraine. It appears they may have overestimated the extent to which the uprising would take root. The separatist forces were not doing that well militarily and Russia had to intervene more directly than Moscow might have originally wanted. But I think the Russian leadership has decided that where they are now is okay for them, the East has an autonomy and Russia can re-open the frozen conflict if needed, but there are no discussions about the Novorossiya project anymore. I think we are at a stalemate.

But a resolution of this frozen conflict is going to be difficult to reach without Russia’s approval and I can see why Russia might stand firm on its demand of no entry into NATO, no foreign base, in return for that.

RR: Now that Ukraine is relatively calm, at least more peaceful than a year ago, is there a chance that US-Russia relations will start to improve?

RW: I don’t think so, at least for the remainder of the Obama Administration. Their team has effectively given up on Russia and they are focusing on other issues, Iran, China, Middle East. There is not much interest in the US and I don’t think we will see much change until a new Administration comes in.

You have Kerry and Lavrov talk through the issue of Syria but in terms of making actual progress it is hard for me to see anything beyond a limited deal over Syria and the enforcement of the Minsk agreement. But the kind of cooperation that we saw a few years ago on, for example, Afghanistan or even Iran, would now be criticized in the US.

RR: Many put Russia’s operation in Syria in the context of the situation in Ukraine and claim that Russia intervened in Syria to try and distract attention from the Ukraine crisis and possibly restore that trust that and existed between Russia and the West prior to the crisis. Would you agree with this?

RW: Temporarily, the conflict in Ukraine died out when that in Syria heated up from the point of view of the Russian military. It may be partly because of Ukraine but I think there are other factors as well: Perhaps the deterioration of the Syrian government’s the military situation, a sense that the US was not going to intervene. That provided an opportunity and the necessity for Russia to intervene.

Russia’s Syrian strategy may be more successful in Europe. There are some Europeans who say that they have this massive refugee crisis caused by the conflict in Syria. If Russia can bring order to Syria, no matter how bad the order is, that will help solve the refugee crisis, so we [Europeans] need to talk to Russia about what its plans are and figure out how to make the best out of this situation. In the US the priority is military talks, making sure that we do not shoot each other’s planes down over Syria.

RR: Do you see Russia’s direct involvement in this crisis as a positive or a negative development?

RW: If Russia were to suppress the Islamic State terrorism in Syria, it would be easier for the US to defeat the terrorists in Iraq and that would solve a major threat to the world peace. The fear of course is that Russia is going to run into the same outcome that the US has been doing whenever it intervenes in Libya, Somalia or Afghanistan – that it will only prolong the conflict, transform the conflict. In the near term it is risky because it is going to make Russia a more probable target for the world terrorist movements. I’m not sure if the intervention is in Russia’s long-term interest but it depends a lot on the outcome.

RR: Do you think Russia really wants to talk to the United State about Syria?

RW: I think the Russian leadership, especially the Defense and Foreign Ministries, would like to have a dialogue with the US on Syria as well as on other issues. I don’t know how serious President Putin is about his call to overcome our differences and form a WWII-type alliance to fight the common enemy. But I do not know if Syria is an important enough issue to bring about dialogue between Russia and the US. It is not a major concern for Washington, the way China, North Korea or Russia itself are. Progress on Syria is useful but it is not sufficient to drive the whole larger relationship. It may be for some European countries, the EU is more concerned about Syria because they feel the impact more directly than the US. There are more fundamental forces at work that are dividing Russia and the United States.

I don’t think the relationship will go back to what it was under Yeltsin, early Putin or even under the Reset but it won’t go back to the Cold War either. I don’t see Russia and the United States coming into direct military conflict.

RR: If the West decides to impose sanctions against Russia over Syria, in your view how would it look in practice?

RW: There is a series of sanctions over Ukraine that the US and other countries adopted. Some of the sanctions could go away if there is progress on Minsk-2 but the ones on Crimea will probably never go. There may be new sanctions over Syria but I think the Administration does not want to adopt any, though the Congress itself could decide to.

There is a potential that of the Ukraine sanctions will die and some new ones will come in to substitute for them. We had this happen in the past when the United States repealed the Jackson-Vanik amendment and the Magnitsky Act came into force.

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