Sunday, July 15, 2018

Will Trump and Putin Reach a Grand Bargain?

You have probably been hearing about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin striking a grand bargain in Helsinki. True enough, Trump likes grand bargains. He sees Putin as someone to do business with. Better yet, he probably sees Putin as an adversary who should be a competitor, not an antagonist.

For this post, we examine the grand bargain: what it is, where it came from, what it might accomplish. And then, we will offer the counterarguments, why it’s a bad idea.

Adam Entous explained its origin in The New Yorker. The idea came from the crown price of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, an important player in Middle East diplomacy. MBZ, as he is called, is very close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. One notes that Israel also supports the grand bargain. A diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and its Arab neighbors has been ongoing for quite some time now. We have reported on it extensively.

Entous reports:

During a private meeting shortly before the November, 2016, election, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, floated to a longtime American interlocutor what sounded, at the time, like an unlikely grand bargain. The Emirati leader told the American that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Current and former U.S. officials said that bin Zayed, known as M.B.Z., was not the only leader in the region who favored rapprochement between the former Cold War adversaries. While America’s closest allies in Europe viewed with a sense of dread Trump’s interest in partnering with Putin, three countries that enjoyed unparallelled influence with the incoming Administration—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.—privately embraced the goal. Officials from the three countries have repeatedly encouraged their American counterparts to consider ending the Ukraine-related sanctions in return for Putin’s help in removing Iranian forces from Syria.

Who is MBZ?

M.B.Z. is regarded as one of the Middle East’s strategic thinkers. More than other Arab leaders of his generation, he hails from the school of Realpolitik. During the Obama Administration, M.B.Z. sought to establish closer ties between the U.A.E. and Putin, in the hope of encouraging Moscow to scale back its partnership with Iran, particularly in Syria. (Much like Israel, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia consider Iran their biggest strategic threat. They also lacked trust in President Obama.)

Since the Gulf states want to undermine Putin’s relationship with Iran, they have been investing in Russia and creating diplomatic ties with it:

As an inducement for Putin to partner with Gulf states rather than Iran, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia started making billions of dollars in investments in Russia and convening high-level meetings in Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and the Seychelles.

Israel is onboard with the grand bargain:

Israeli officials lobbied for rapprochement between Washington and Moscow soon after Trump’s election victory. In a private meeting during the transition, Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States and one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants, said that the Israeli government was encouraging the incoming Trump Administration to coƶperate more closely with Putin, starting in Syria, with the hope of convincing Moscow to push the Iranians to leave the country, an attendee told me.

Like M.B.Z., Netanyahu made courting Putin a priority, particularly after Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015. The Israeli leader wanted to insure that Israeli forces could continue to access Syrian airspace, which the Russians partially controlled, to prevent the deployment of advanced weapons systems by Iran and its proxies that could threaten the Jewish state. A senior Israeli official declined to comment on Dermer’s message but said that “Israel does believe it is possible to get a U.S.-Russian agreement in Syria that would push the Iranians out,” and that doing so “could be the beginning of an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations over all.”

As have the Saudis:

After Trump took office, the idea was raised again, by Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the U.A.E., during a private March, 2017, dinner that included several other guests. “Their message was ‘Why don’t we lift the Ukrainian sanctions on Russia in exchange for getting the Russians to push Iran out of Syria,’ ” an attendee recalled the foreign ministers saying. A senior U.A.E. official said that he did not recall the discussion. The dinner attendee told me, “It wasn’t a trial balloon. They were trying to socialize the idea.”
If Trump wants to make a deal he will be doing it with important domestic winds in his face:

In addition to the looming Mueller investigation, members of Congress were pushing at the time to expand sanctions against Russia, not reduce them. Trump told aides that he was frustrated that he could not make progress because of political opposition in Washington. The Americans who heard the Israeli, Emirati, and Saudi pitches in late 2016 and early 2017 assumed that the idea was dead. But ahead of the Helsinki summit, Trump started making statements that suggested he could be open to making a deal with Putin after all.

Responding to the possibility of a grand bargain with Russia, Matthew Continetti writes in National Review that we tried it once, and that it did not work:

The national-security adviser was ecstatic. The presidents of the United States and of Russia had agreed to a ceasefire in Syria, where years of civil war had killed some half a million people and created refugees of millions more. “The United States remains committed to defeating ISIS, helping to end the conflict in Syria, reducing suffering, and enabling people to return to their homes,” the national-security adviser said. “This agreement is an important step toward these common goals.” Southwest Syria would become a zone of “de-confliction.” Among the provinces covered by the agreement: Daraa.

The national-security adviser was H.R. McMaster, the presidents were Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the time was July 2017, and the ceasefire lasted about eleven months. On June 18, 2018, Syrian government forces launched an offensive against the rebels in Daraa. And the government has since made rapid gains. The Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies are pushing up against the borders of both Israel and Jordan. The deal Trump and Putin made in Germany last year has gone the way of all such ceasefires in the Syrian conflict: It is extinct.

Of course, H. R. McMaster’s political service is also extinct. Apparently he made a bad deal.

Continetti does not believe that the Russians can be trusted at all. So much for trust and verify:

The Russians look at ceasefires and arms control the way you and I look at dieting and nutrition: as pledges that work to one’s advantage in the short term but are ineluctably broken. There is no reason to expect Russia has either the intent or even the capability to act on its promises of diplomatic comity. It’s almost as if Russia can’t help being the bully, especially in regions it considers important such as its near abroad and its beachhead in the Middle East, and especially when it senses an opportunity and feels emboldened. Which is how it feels right now.

And Continetti warns against American withdrawal from Syria— even though that does not appear to be a part of the grand bargain:

American withdrawal from Syria would be doubly self-defeating. Our support and reassurance mission there creates a situation of strength that balances the competing forces, prevents the Assad government from ever reestablishing full control, deters Turkey from becoming more involved in the conflict, and provides us intelligence and forward presence. Not only would we give all of that up with our departure, we also would remove the heavy boot that has been planted firmly on ISIS’ neck. If there is any lesson of American intervention in the early 21st century, it is that radical Islamic terrorism festers in places where no state or military has established a monopoly of lethal force. It would be the height of folly to create such a place in eastern Syria on purpose.

Continetti wants no deal at all:

Give me instead the four No’s: no sanctions relief; no recognition of Crimea; no withdrawal from Syria; and no more trusting in the words of Putin’s government. They are as worthless as the ruble.

Surely, he is persuasive. And yet, America and Russia cannot engage in constructive diplomacy unless they can make deals. We made deals with the USSR. Does it make sense to say that we should never deal with Vladimir Putin?


Sam L. said...

I would not recommend an agreement with Putin that disadvantages Ukraine. (I knew a Ukrainian at my first AF assignment. In my third assignment, a Ukrainian descendant worked directly for me. Good people. Sample of 2 is insufficiently sized.)

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Trump should try to sound really sophisticated and say he’s looking for a “reset” with Russia.

If he wants to get really tough, he can announce a “red line” on some humanitarian issue.

Or, better yet, maybe he can send pallets of cash to Moscow on an unmarked cargo plane doing a dark combat landing, hoping to get Putin to give up Russia’s nuclear program.

Or he can have Medvyedev relay to Vladimir that he’ll have more flexibility after his 2020 reelection.

Any of those options should suffice.

Oh, and guess who’s upset with Trump’s performance today? Chuck Schumer. John Brennan. John McCain. John Kerry. Anderson Cooper. And there are many more. Golly, that really sucks when you’ve got heavyweights like that criticizing you.

No doubt President Trump is ashamed. Obama did so much better with Putin, as one would expect from a brilliant Messiah.

Anonymous said...

You know what? Trump should get really fucking angry and threaten Russia with nuclear war. That would show Vlad how stoked we are!