As US Secretary of State Tillerson sought dialogue avenues with North Korea (under cover of the exchange of hostile rhetoric between the leaders), Russia offered a channel of communications. Following Russian-US consultations in Moscow at Deputy Foreign Minister level, and further Tillerson-Lavrov telephonic conversations, Russian and North Korean Deputy Ministers met in Moscow in end-September. The US State Department spokeswoman commented that the US would welcome it, if Russia could persuade North Korea “to move towards a better place”. FM Lavrov said in a press conference that the US position, as articulated by Secretary Tillerson, is not much divergent from the Russia-China proposal for North Korea (RR, July 2017). The reference was to a Wall Street Journal op-ed jointly by Secretary Tillerson and Defence Secretary Mattis, in which they affirmed that “the object of [US] peaceful pressure campaign is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, adding that “the U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea... [and does not] seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone”.
This seeming harmony on North Korea contrasted sharply with the discordant notes on Syria and Afghanistan.
On Syria, Russia moved simultaneously on the three tracks of intensifying military operations against ISIS, promoting rehabilitation in liberated Syrian areas and launching new initiatives for a political settlement.
The Russian Defence Ministry announced that with the successful military campaign in Deir ez Zor, Russia had liberated over 87% of Syrian territory from ISIS. However, soon after Syrian and Russian troops ended the ISIS siege of Deir ez Zor, Russian allegations started that the US was colluding with ISIS and its affiliates to enable the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – the US-backed Syrian Kurds’ military outfit) to occupy the oil-rich Deir ez Zor region, before the Russian-backed Syrian army could do so. It was alleged that, as the Syrian Army was poised to break the siege of Deir ez Zor, the SDF left the theatre of Raqqa (with 25% of it still unliberated from ISIS) and rushed along the left bank of the Euphrates to block the Syrian army advance in Deir ez Zor. A Russian Lieutenant General and two other senior army officers (along with other service personnel) were killed in attacks in the vicinity, attributed to Jabhat al Nusra – the Russians saw a US hand in it.
Russia attributed a worsening of the security situation around Idlib – the fourth of the four de-escalation zones, which the Russia-Turkey-Iran Astana process seeks to establish – as a US-instigated development, also to slow down the advance in Deir ez Zor. President Putin sought the urgent assistance of Turkey to beef up its military presence in the area to thwart this objective.
The Kurdish referendum in northern Iraq added another twist to the situation, complicating both the fight against ISIS and its aftermath. The Russians, who (like the Americans) have maintained contact with all Kurdish groups in the region, reacted cautiously to the results of the referendum. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Russia “respected the national aspirations of the Kurdish people”, but hoped for “a mutually acceptable formula” for their co-existence “within a unified Iraq”. Russia also welcomed a Syrian commitment to grant genuine autonomy to its Kurdish population after the war with ISIS was concluded. However, the Syrian Kurds’ present ambitions (with presumed US backing) appear to be politically higher and geographically wider.
Russian diplomacy for a political settlement included dialogue with Saudi Arabia (which FM Lavrov visited, and whose King is to pay the first ever visit to Russia by a Saudi King in early October). Standing alongside the Saudi FM, Lavrov announced Russia’s support for Saudi efforts to unite the Syrian opposition – bringing together the diverse strands of the so-called Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo groups – for negotiations with the Syrian Government in Geneva under the UN Security Council resolution 2254 (without the pre-condition that President Assad should step down). This would be a major political and diplomatic coup, but unfinished business in Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, complications created by the Kurdish referendum and US interests in the region would provide difficult reality checks.
Russia and the US continued to trade allegations on their activities in Afghanistan. After Russia’s criticism of President Trump’s newly-unveiled Afghanistan policy, which included the suggestion that isolating Pakistan was not a viable policy, Secretary Tillerson and FM Lavrov discussed Afghanistan in their meetings and telephone conversations. However, US Defence Secretary Mattis, during his recent visit to Kabul, again accused Russia of supplying arms to the Taliban, drawing a Russian denial and the counter-allegation that US harping on Russia’s “mythical assistance” to the Taliban was meant to cover up American failure to curb Taliban’s activities and to mask US support for ISIS and affiliate groups in fomenting sectarian violence in Afghanistan.
Ukraine also figured in the Tillerson-Lavrov dialogues in September. Increased violence has been reported in eastern Ukraine, including on OSCE personnel. Russia has taken the line (which does not seem to have been contradicted in OSCE, UN and other Western reports) that much of this violence is being provoked by the Ukrainian government, which has no interest in the fulfilment of the Minsk accords and the consequent lifting of pressure on Russia. Russia’s proposal for a UN peacekeeping force on the line of contact between the eastern Ukrainian militants and the Ukrainian army has not yet gained traction in the UNSC. Ukraine has naturally campaigned strongly against it.
Developments in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine will inevitably be influenced by the course of the present US-Russia geopolitical tussle. Inevitably too, compromises may be reached in one area to secure objectives in another. Russia certainly seems to be actively collecting bargaining chips for trade-offs, which may have collateral consequences for other countries in these regions.
September 30, 2017