Putin’s Unclenching Fist

by Eldar Mamedov

When Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation in his annual state of the union speech on December 1, he mostly focused on internal economic and social issues. But he also sent several important messages to the world.

Most notably, Putin showed openness to a dialogue with the new American administration on the “world order in the 21st century” and stressed that the US and Russia share a “special responsibility” in ensuring global stability and security. In particular, he identified strengthening the global non-proliferation regime and the joint fight against international terrorism as key areas of possible cooperation. In this context, the Russian president insisted that fighting terrorism is exactly what Moscow is doing in Syria.

If US President-elect Donald Trump’s actual policies in office are to bear any resemblance to what he said during the campaign, he would welcome this apparent unclenching of the Russian fist by extending his own hand. American-Russian reconciliation was one of the few foreign policy themes on which Trump revealed some pattern of consistent thinking.

Syria would be a good place to start the American-Russian détente. The rapidly shifting situation on the ground might facilitate it. The Russian-supported Syrian forces’ re-conquest of rebel-held eastern Aleppo may be complete by the time of the Trump’s inauguration, unless outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry manages to achieve the improbable diplomatic feat of convincing the Russians and the Syrians to halt their advance. Moscow and Damascus, however, would not likely acquiesce to another ceasefire when they clearly hold the initiative.

That would leave the incoming administration with no other choice but to accept the military and political realities on the ground—the defeat of the rebels, some of which were supported by the US—and make a deal with the Russians, however distasteful, to end the war. This would necessarily include de-emphasizing the issue of a political transition to post-Assad governance, focusing on the remaining strongholds of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Al-Nusra) and, ideally, joint efforts to rebuild the country, including making it possible for refugees to return safely.

Yet this kind of cooperation is seen as an unmitigated disaster by those who, like Brooking’s Charles Lister, advocate drastic escalation of American support for the rebels. Lister correctly observes that “an inevitable consequence of Russian-American partnership in Syria would be an attempt to negotiate a forced settlement of the civil war,” which, in his analysis, would only endorse Assad’s military victory. But ending the war and saving what remains of Syria and its people must be a top concern trumping any other consideration, including a particular political outcome of the war and the fate of one individual, President Bashar al-Assad. Following the recommendations of Lister and the like would only prolong the suffering of the Syrian people and, quite possibly, provoke a hot war with Russia and Iran. Since no US administration would be ready to make such a military commitment to unseat Assad, Trump will likely accept working with Russia in Syria.

Working together in Syria should be only the beginning of broader cooperation in stabilizing the Middle East. Both Russia and the new US administration have proclaimed that fighting “jihadist terrorism” is their top priority. But there is a long way to go to reach a minimal common understanding of the targets in this fight. Early picks to key national security positions in the Trump administration have displayed so far a monumental confusion and ignorance on what constitutes “an Islamist enemy.”

From the Russian point of view, some of Trump’s key advisors seem to be afflicted by a bizarre obsession with Iran, Russia´s key ally in Syria. Iran is an Islamist regime and certainly no friend of the US. But both sides de-facto cooperate in Iraq against IS. Moreover, while Iran supports Shia militias in Iraq and such organizations as the Lebanese Hezbollah, these days Sunni extremists from IS and al-Qaeda, not Shia Islamists, pose a terrorist threat to America. Since Wahhabi-inspired IS and al-Qaeda are also a grave threat to Iran and Shias everywhere, Iran is a natural ally in the fight against these terrorists and their ideology. If the Trump administration is serious about working with Russia on counter-terrorism, it should drop or significantly tone down its hostility to Iran.

Although high-ranking Iranian officials seem to be sanguine about the Trump presidency, privately some of them are concerned that the Russian-American détente may take place at their expense: that America could “buy off” Russia’s cooperation against Iran by, for example, lifting sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine.

This is unlikely. The lifting of sanctions is a complicated process that requires congressional cooperation, and there would be a fierce opposition to such a move, since most Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) do not share Trump’s views on Russia. Also, the situation has changed since 2010, when Russia let herself be convinced by the US to support anti-Iranian sanctions in the UN Security Council. Iran’s president at that time was the recalcitrant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not the centrist pragmatist Hassan Rouhani. And there was no UN SC-endorsed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which has proved to be a working agreement. Finally, Russia sees Iran as an important player in her attempts to forge Eurasian integration—a key Russian objective in building a “multi-polar world” and a theme Putin put higher in his order of priorities in his state of the union speech than relations with Western powers. There is simply nothing Washington could credibly offer Putin at this stage to convince him to disengage from Iran, even assuming that the Trump administration would want to do so such a thing.

US-Russian relations have been so poisoned in the last few years that it will take time to rebuild some trust. Powerful forces on both sides would fiercely resist any hint of detente. But ultimately the world cannot afford a permanent state of cold war between two superpowers. Ending the war in Syria should be the first step away from the brink. The circumstances, tragic as they are, lay the groundwork for possible cooperation in achieving that end. If successful, it should be extended to other areas of disagreement between the US and Russia.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. I find interesting this suggestion in American foreign policy discourse that it’s the Other whose fist is/was clenched. How well I remember Obama’s first act — first phone call, I think — as president, to Iran, offering a hand if only Iran would unclench its fist. Then he refused to speak to Iran for years. Trita Parsi even wrote an interesting book about it. I wonder if Obama made the same my-hand v. your-fist offer to Raul Castro (who isn’t going to fully finalize unless Congress grows up and unclenches its own fists).

    But I digress. It would be the winning irony of the year if Trump turned out to be the first American adult on the question of the New Cold War. Putin has got one helluva lot to be resentful about, so it’s to be welcomed that he’s extending a hand, now that the two clenched American fists, Hillary and Obama, are departing the scene. And he seems to have made a point about what’s on the agenda, namely the World Order and the integration of (Eur)asia. Maybe Putin will end up having a positive influence with respect to Trump’s dangerous hostility vis-a-vis China.

  2. That the American right finds deals with the contemporary Russians, as opposed to the old Soviet Russians, to be distasteful is self-defeating. It’s nearing three decades since Soviet totalitarianism and industrialized genocide collapsed, yet we appear not to be working on a comprehensive reconciliation.

    The Baltic countries in particular, but all of the rest of Europe too, have a huge stake in an enduring normalization of relations with Russia. If eventually it were to be seen as long term and natural, it could have many important consequences including a partial unwinding of the West’s wasteful level of military “preparedness” and would stimulate the civilian economies of all involved.

    Despite Imperial Russia’s deep and perhaps justified suspicion of the outside world, we did not have a markedly hostile relationship with her. By and large it was distant but correct. The spanner in the works was the Marxist-Leninist coup of 1917 and her profoundly tragic experience in the ill-fated 20th Century.

    Though it would require an extended multi-lateral project it is feasible, and nothing will be lost if it fails. There is no reason to just wait for it to happen by some sort of evolutionary process. The West as a whole should work on it with the goals completely out on the table. A dignified reception of Mr. Putin to the White House complete with that old ditty Hail to the Chief, and a state dinner wouldn’t hurt a thing. Neither would museum and Kremlin tours for junketing Congressmen and other impressionable Americans. It would be a fine alternative to sending them to Israel.

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