by Dennis Ross*
President Trump will meet with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday 16 July. From the outset of his administration the president has indicated his desire for good relations with Russia, constantly saying and tweeting that they would be a good thing for America. Ironically, his senior officials, from the Secretary of State to the Director of National Intelligence, have portrayed Russia as an adversary; they have not pulled their punches about Russian meddling in our election–and the elections in Europe–and have emphasized the threat this poses to our national security. Not surprisingly, they have supported the sanctions Congress mandated on Russia for its meddling.
The gap between the president’s desire for good relations and the actual policies of his administration is striking: the administration has preserved sanctions adopted over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and it has provided lethal equipment to Ukraine to counter-act Russia proxies and hybrid forces there. So what should we expect in the summit?
No doubt the president will want to declare that he has forged a good personal relationship with Putin. For his part, Putin sees what Trump wants and is likely to use that as leverage to press for the end of sanctions. He will not want to look weak or desperate—in truth, he is neither—so Putin will say that Russia is strong and can live with the western sanctions but any real improvement in relations will depend on the lifting of all sanctions against Russia. Trump, who has already said that we should recognize Crimea as part of Russia and permit Russia’s return to a restored G-8, is unquestionably sympathetic toward such a posture. True, he will face push-back from Democrats and a limited number of Republicans, but Trump has repeatedly shown little concern about such opposition to him, especially because his political base simply accepts what he regards as important.
Still, the politics won’t make it easy to simply lift sanctions voted by the Republican-dominated Congress—and Trump should use that as leverage with Putin, essentially saying I want to do this but I will need something to be able to persuade Congress. The issue, therefore, is what does Trump want or feel he needs from Putin, and is Putin in any mood to give it.
For some time, there has been talk of a grand bargain with Russia. We end the sanctions over Crimea and recognize Russian interests in Ukraine, and in return, Russia acts to contain or limit Iran and its Shia militia proxies in Syria. Any such Russian action to prevent the expansion and spread of Iranian and Shia militia presence would blunt Iran’s growing leverage in the region. It would signal that Iranian expansionism had come to an end. That is an important, even essential aim. However, leaving aside the morality of such a bargain or trade-off, it is simply not going to happen.
From Putin’s standpoint, he already has Crimea, and believes that the EU, with the new governments in Italy and Austria, will lift the sanctions relatively soon anyway. As for Ukraine, he treats it much like other frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova—conflicts that allow him to maintain the ability to ratchet up or down pressures on the leaderships in each of these countries. He keeps Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova under constant stress, with the ability to make their circumstances far more difficult for each of them. Moreover, he seems to have adopted a variant of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s formula; for Brezhnev, once a country came into the Soviet sphere of control, there would be no reversibility tolerated. Putin, too, seems to believe that once he has incorporated a country or part of a country into Russia’s sphere of influence that cannot be reversed.
In other words, he will not pay for something he already has. Paradoxically, we do have leverage in Syria because Putin wants our roughly 2000 forces primarily in northeastern Syria to leave. Unfortunately, every time President Trump speaks of getting out of Syria, he reduces our leverage on Putin to act differently in Syria. Until now, the Russians hint at a clash of interests with the Iranians but never do anything to reflect such a posture. On the contrary, they continue to give the Iranians freedom of action in Syria. (It is true that they also give the Israelis freedom of action against the Iranians in Syria, but that may simply be Putin’s way of creating a lever on both.)
In the summit, Trump could tell Putin he would like to have an understanding with the Russians on Syria. But doubts it is possible because the Russians have not felt bound by any of the understandings we have struck with them on Syria until now, including the one embodied in their joint statement last November at the ASEAN conference—a joint statement that called for a ceasefire in southwest Syria and an expansion of the de-escalation zones. With the Russian bombing now having created 270,000 refugees in this area (and along the Jordanian and Israeli borders), the president could say we feel the need to stay in Syria, back the Israelis as they hit Iranian and their proxy militias, and work out a set of understandings with Turkey to secure the area of northeastern Syria. Not an ideal outcome the president could say but one that is likely to blunt Iran’s expansion which we see as a threat to the region.
Putin might well respond by saying he does not control the Iranians and is simply helping the Assad regime take back its territory. The president’s response should be: fair enough, but then we feel obliged to keep our forces where they are so that with the Israelis and Turkey we can prevent Iran from building a land-bridge through Syria. Yes, that will increase the risk of a broader Israeli-Iranian conflict that could put the Russia in the middle, but that is a Russian choice so long as it won’t act to contain the Iranians and simply backs Assad’s reassertion of control.
Such an exchange would probably give Putin an incentive to act differently in Syria and toward Iran. It might even give him an incentive to say to the president let’s work together implement UNSCR 2254—the resolution that called for a cessation of hostilities, unimpeded delivery of humanitarian materials, drafting of a new constitution in 6 months, and a political transition process of 18 months. In truth, the Russians allowed the Syrians and Iranians to prevent its implementation.
Putin’s behavior in Syria will not change unless he believes either the price for Russia will go up for being there or there is something else of value to be gained. Right now, the American posture offers neither prospect. The upcoming summit presents a possibility to change that. Time will tell whether it does.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.