Aletho News

ΑΛΗΘΩΣ

New Cold War tensions are easing

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | March 3, 2017

After a 3-year interlude, NATO and Russia resumed contact at the military level today. Back in April 2014, in the immediate aftermath of the ‘regime change’ in Ukraine, the NATO Council had made a decision to freeze relations with Russia. The Russian Defence Ministry announced today that Chief of Russia’s General Staff General Valery Gerasimov had a phone conversation with the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee General Petr Pavel. The announcement in Moscow said, inter alia,

  • The Chief of Russia’s General Staff drew his interlocutor’s attention to the existing concerns related to the considerable build-up of the North Atlantic alliance’s military activity near Russian borders and the deployment of the system of the NATO united forces’ forward stationing… The sides confirmed the need of mutual steps aimed at reducing tension and stabilizing the situation in Europe. Army General Gerasimov and General Pavel agreed on continuing such contacts.

Such a major NATO decision – resumption of ties with the Russian military top brass – could only have been possible with a green light or prior clearance from Washington. Simply put, the Donald Trump administration is chipping away at the Barack Obama administration’s policy to “isolate” Russia. Trump’s speech at the US Congress on Tuesday eschewed any reference to Russia. This was also a break from Obama’s diatribes against Russia in his final address to the Congress last year. (See my piece Trump Can Be Good for World Peace — If Only He’s His Way.)

Interestingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel will visit Moscow on March 9 and that the agenda will have “a focus on multilateral efforts to resolve the Ukraine and Syria crises and normalise the situation in Libya.”

Three days back, on February 28, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hinted at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and President Trump. In Ryabkov’s words,

  • There is no understanding yet on the date and the place of holding such a meeting but practical preparations for it have been launched and there is mutual understanding with the U.S. side on this score. Naturally, at this initial stage of a dialog with the new administration, it is difficult to make a conclusion about how work will proceed further on specific issues. The forecasts for a perspective will become possible when we see Washington’s practical actions.

Meanwhile, in an unbelievable twist of fate, Russia and the US find themselves on the same side in northern Syria in an effort to restrain Turkey from precipitating a “war within the war” in Syria. (See my blog Turkish army to march deeper into Syria – alone and defiant.) The Syrian Kurdish militia (which is the US’ ally in northern Syria) has struck a deal with the Syrian government forces to block the Turkish troops from advancing toward Manjib. (To jog memory, Manjib was captured from the ISIS in a joint operation between the US Special Forces and the Kurdish militia last August.) And, curiously, Russia mediated the deal today between the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army. (TASS ) .

So, what do we have here? Turkey is planning to go for the jugular veins of the Kurdish militia who are in control of Manjib, knowing full well that the latter is backed to the hilt by the US Central Command and that US forces are on the ground with the militia. As a Reuters analysis put it, Turkey and the US are apparently on a “collision course”. And at this point, Russia steps in and gets the Syrian government to take charge from the Kurdish militia over the western approaches to Manjib to block the advancing Turkish forces.

Suffice it to say, it is difficult to believe that there have been no contacts between the US and Russian militaries at the operational level as regards the dangerous situation developing around Manjib. When the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked earlier today about contacts between Russia and US on the Syrian crisis, he said, “There have been no substantial contacts.”

On February 28, Pentagon submitted to the White House its report on the strategy to fight the ISIS. A Moscow analyst on security issues Andrei Akulov has given a positive evaluation, visualizing the possibility of Russian-American cooperation and coordination in the fight against terrorism. The picture that emerges from a briefing given by the top US commander in Iraq Lt. General Stephen Townsend on Wednesday via a teleconference from Baghdad is also that

  • US is unlikely to deploy a large number of troops in Syria;
  • US will continue to regard the Kurdish militia as an indispensable ally in Syria;
  • US military will not recommend any fundamental shift in strategy in Syria – namely, fighting “by, with and through our (US’) local partners”;
  • Kurdish militia will have a significant role in the forthcoming operation to liberate Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital in eastern Syria; and,
  • US does not agree with Turkey’s perception that the Syrian Kurds pose a threat to its national security.

The transcript of Lt. Gen. Townsend’s teleconference is here. The big question is whether there could be prospects of US-Russia military cooperation in Syria. In a remark in mid-February, Defence Secretary James Mattis had ruled out such a possibility. But things can change. The resumption of high-level military contact today between the NATO and Russia signals that an overall easing of tensions in the West’s ties with Russia can be expected. Today’s phone call could be the harbinger of changes in the air. Let us call it the “Trump effect”.

Against this backdrop. German FM Gabriel’s talks in Moscow coming on Thursday assume importance. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Gabriel was a protégé of late Egon Bahr, the famous German SPD politician who is regarded as the creator of the so-called Ostpolitik  – the foreign policy of détente with the former USSR and other Warsaw Pact member countries in general, beginning in 1969, which was promoted by the then Chancellor Willy Brandt.

March 4, 2017 Posted by | Militarism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What explains US-Russia tango over Syria

By M K Bhadrakumar | India Punchline | July 20, 2016

A 5-hour meeting between a visiting foreign minister and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only rare but difficult to recall. Putin makes rare exceptions to receive foreign ministers. And he always receives them after their talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. By all these yardsticks, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Putin last Thursday in the Kremlin was extraordinary.

He drove into the Kremlin straight after touching down in Moscow Thursday evening and had talks with Putin lasting till 1 am in the wee hours of Friday morning. Putin’s rare appearance for a joint press briefing with a foreign minister (Kerry), Puitn’s ‘body language’ and, of course, the subsequent joint press conference by Kerry and Lavrov — they distinctly sought to convey the impression that the US and Russia were on to a big joint venture apropos the Syrian conflict. (here and here)

None of the three statesmen – neither Putin and Lavrov nor Kerry – was even remotely affected by the negative energy radiated by the high-profile summit meeting of the NATO, which had taken place in Warsaw hardly four days ago whose leitmotif was the strong determination of the western alliance to defend  and deter Russia’s perceived aggressive tendencies in Eurasia.

Kerry is going to meet a select group of European allies later today in London to brief them on “the concrete steps that the U.S. and Russia are planning to take”. He disclosed that he had a phone conversation with Lavrov on Tuesday, and,

  • We both [with Lavrov] believe that we have understanding of the direction we are going in and what needs to be achieved. Our teams will meet shortly in order to continue to do that, in order to bolster the cessation of hostilities, in order to increase our capacity to fight against Al Qaeda, an Nusra, as well as fight back against ISIL.

It all sounds too good to be true. But then, Kerry is a seasoned diplomat with 30 years as a senator behind him during which he also headed the senate foreign relations committee and now as America’s top diplomat for over 3 years. Why is the US all of a sudden giving such hype to a peace project with Russia, an aggressive regional power, to kickstart a political process Syria?

The US has always sought a “selective engagement” of Russia on issues of concern to Washington while pursuing the containment strategy on another track. Lavrov may have gently rubbed this in when Kerry phoned him on Thursday to discuss the “concrete steps” on Syria as follow-up to his talks in the Kremlin last week. Curiously, the Russian Foreign Ministry readout makes a wry reference to Lavrov also, inter alia, availing of the opportunity to gently remind Kerry how the Obama administration is also simultaneously moving heaven and earth to humiliate Russia on another front by keeping it out of the Rio Olympics. These seasoned diplomats must be having the hide of rhinoceros — the readout says, “Mr. Kerry agreed that sports should not be politicized”. (here)

Won’t Moscow be aware that Kerry might even be dissimulating a concord with Russia over Syria? Won’t Moscow know that the Obama administration is on its last leg and time has run out? The point is, there is a powerful lobby in Washington, including the Pentagon and apparently within the State Department itself, which opposes any form of US-Russia cooperation in Syria that does not lead to the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in a near term. (Read a briefing by the Brookings Institution, on the hawkish opinion in Washington.)

Indeed, the US is engaging Russia assiduously against the backdrop of the dramatic events in Turkey. The ground has shifted in the geopolitics of the region. Interestingly, Kerry made the hurried unscheduled trip to Moscow last week within 4 days of the NATO summit even as the failed coup attempt was getting under way in Turkey. Actually, Kerry was about to meet with Putin in the Kremlin — or had been conversing with him already –even as the coup began in Turkey. Something doesn’t quite gel here, isn’t it? Suffice it to say, much depends on how far back Kerry (Obama administration) actually had known about the coup that was in the making in Turkey. (Read a breath-taking, blow-by-blow account of the ‘Turkish coup’ by senior editor Murat Yetkin in today’s Hurriyet.)

Of course, the failed coup in Turkey becomes a defining moment for the Syrian conflict. The Turkish military and state intelligence – and the political leadership – are all passing through such turbulence that Ankara simply lacks the presence of mind or the sheer capacity to continue to pursue an interventionist policy in Syria in a foreseeable future. Meanwhile, great uncertainties have crept into Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe. Moscow cannot but be aware that Turkey desperately needs to hold the Russian hand — and that indeed adds to Russia’s politico-military options in Syria. The thinking is reflected in a commentary by a top Kremlin pundit Fyodor Lukyanov in Moscow Times.

Clearly, the US policies on Syria are floundering. The Syrian forces have laid siege to Aleppo and the US-backed rebels are trapped inside the city, while Turkey may have begun disengaging from reaching aid to them. Washington has no option but to engage Moscow to work out some sort of face-saving compromise formula.

But what does Russia get in return? Participation in Rio Olympics? It shouldn’t be surprising if the International Olympics Committee has a last-minute change of heart and says ‘Da‘ to the Russian team, finally. If that happens, it will be in the best traditions of Russian-American trade-offs, and Kerry worked hard on it.

July 21, 2016 Posted by | Wars for Israel | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment