Following the chemical-weapons attack in Khan Shaikhoun in Syria, on April 4, and the U.S. retaliatory strike on the Syrian airbase in Al Sharyat, the Unites State and Russia have reached a new low in their bilateral relations in recent years[i]. Indeed, a fragile balance seems to have been disrupted, and one could think that two countries are again on the edge. Despite this, it is in the interest of both sides to avoid a military confrontation and to find a diplomatic solution to de-escalate the crisis.
Although the Russian response to the 59 Tomahawks fired by the U.S. was a unanimous condemnation, it was rather symbolic and aimed to avoid any further escalation. Russia suspended a memorandum with the U.S. that prevented incidents and ensured flight safety in Syria[ii]. Moreover, Russian Ministry of Defense also reported that the effectiveness of the strikes was “extremely low” as only 23 of the missiles had hit their target[iii].
Few days after the U.S. strike on Syria Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson visited Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart and President Vladimir Putin. Given the situation, both sides declared the need for continuation of interactions not only on Syria but also on a wide range of issues. Tillerson and Lavrov announced that Russia had agreed to reinstate a bilateral military hotline. It was also stated that two countries would form a new working group meant to improve relations. “There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson said. “The world’s two primary nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship”[iv].
This is not the first time that the U.S. and Russian establish working groups for the exchange of opinions. During President Barack Obama’s presidency the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission was created as a vital mechanism for deepening collaboration among senior officials on arms control, nuclear security, counterterrorism, joint military exercises, and counternarcotics operations[v]. The U.S. suspended its participation in the Commission following the Crimean crisis.
It is obvious now that a new format will be flexible and adoptive to the concrete issues arising in the U.S.-Russian relations. However, there is no formalization yet of the working group or any information about who will lead it from both sides.
Another important sign of pragmatic approach to strategic balance between two nuclear powers is that the American side continues to keep the New START agreement. By April the arsenal of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force was reduced from 450 to 400 missiles for the first time in a decade, leaving the deployed ICBM arsenal at its smallest size since the early 1960s. In addition, as part of the treaty’s compliance process, the U.S. Air Force in January finished converting 41 B-52H bombers to non-nuclear status[vi].
Moreover, despite the accusation of violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty from both sides, the arms control frameworks continue to be extremely important in the relations between Russia and the U.S.
To conclude, President Trump has demonstrated his proclivity for unexpected decisions and actions. In the current situation Ukraine, international terrorism, NATO’s military posture in Eastern Europe, intermediate-range nuclear forces, strategic nuclear forces, and many other issues of common concern are in the shade of Syria.
Despite all this, it is extremely important to continue the dialogue. Russia and the U.S. should reestablish the lines of communication on different levels. The decision made by Tillerson and Lavrov in Moscow is a big step on this track, and it is necessary to shift it to the practical realization. On April 21 Sergey Lavrov spoke with Rex Tillerson during a call initiated by the American side. The parties agreed that a joint working group at the level of deputy foreign ministers will begin work soon to find ways to remove irritants from bilateral relations[vii].
Taking into account the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, the two countries need to find a common ground on the acute international crises, as well as on the regime of arms control. Thus, the future of the New Start Treaty and the adherence to the INF Treaty must be on the agenda.
The first call of Putin and Trump since Russia denounced a US military strike against Syria took place on May 2. The two presidents discussed cooperation between Russia and the U.S. on Syria and the Korean peninsula. They also agreed to hold their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of G20 in July. The Kremlin says the call was constructive and business-like[viii], while the White House notes it was “a very good one, and included the discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons”[ix].
Yes, the U.S. – Russia relations have reached a new low point of mistrust, but the parties seems willing to look a way out of it and to move away from the edge of a potential military clash.
[i] See, e.g., CNN, Profile: Putin meets with Tillerson in Russia as Syria rift deepens, April 12, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/12/politics/russia-syria-tillerson/ (accessed April 14, 2017); The New York Times, Profile: Syria Strike Puts U.S. Relationship with Russia at Risk, April 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/world/middleeast/missile-strike-syria-russia.html (accessed April 12, 2017); Libération: Frappes en Syrie: la Russie et les Etats-Unis entament un dialogue de sourds, April 7, 2017, http://www.liberation.fr/planete/2017/04/07/frappes-en-syrie-la-russie-et-les-etats-unis-entament-un-dialogue-de-sourds_1561282 (accessed April 12, 2017)
[ii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Profile: Foreign Ministry statement on US military action in Syria, April 7, 2017, http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2717798?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB (accessed April 10, 2017)
[iii] ТАСС: Минобороны РФ: только 23 из 59 ракет Tomahawk долетели до атакованной авиабазы в Сирии, April 7, 2017, http://tass.ru/politika/4163240 (accessed April 17, 2017)
[iv] The New Yorker, Profile: What Did Rex Tillerson Accomplish In Moscow? April 13, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-did-rex-tillerson-accomplish-in-moscow (accessed April 20, 2017)
[v] RadioFreeEurope, Profile: Freeze Settles On U.S.-Russia Commission Amid Ukraine Standoff, March 28, 2014, http://www.rferl.org/a/us-russia-commission/25312837.html (accessed April 20, 2017)
[vi] The Seattle Times, Profile: While trump talks tough, US quietly cutting nuclear force, March 19, 2017, http://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/while-trump-talks-tough-us-quietly-cutting-nuclear-force/ (accessed April 22, 2017)
[vii] Minisrty of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Profile: Press release on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, April 21, 2017, http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2735390?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB (accessed April 22, 2017)
[viii] Президент России: Телефонный разговор с Президентом США Дональдом Трампом, May 2, 2017, http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54441 (accessed May 2, 2017)
[ix] The White House, Profile: Readout of President Donald J. Trump’s Call with President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation, May 2, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/02/readout-president-donald-j-trumps-call-president-vladimir-putin-russian (accessed May 2, 2017)
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