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How Not to Deal with the Russians


Secretary Kerry’s announcement of a peace conference on Syria only ten days ago has been met with a series of remarkable provocations from the Russians: First, they refused to halt the sale of a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system to Assad, one which would make the imposition of a no-fly zone more difficult. Second, they expelled an alleged CIA spy from the country, a move most notable for the amount of bluster and indignation that accompanied it.

And as the WSJ reports today, the Russian navy, which began a sustained buildup around Syria three months ago, shows no signs of backing down.

“It is a show of force. It’s muscle flexing,” a senior U.S. defense official said of the Russian deployments. “It is about demonstrating their commitment to their interests.” […]

Moscow’s deployments appeared designed to show that Russia intends to keep Tartus, its only remaining military outpost outside the former Soviet Union, senior U.S. officials said.

While this is not exactly a new provocation like the first two, the Obama administration’s attitude towards the Russian stance is instructive: Let’s give the Russians what they want!

Washington’s interest in the base has likewise grown—not because the U.S. sees it as a threat, but because U.S. officials believe that by assuring Russia that the base will remain under Moscow’s control in a post-Assad Syria, the U.S. has a better chance of convincing Mr. Putin to break with Mr. Assad.

Its worth noting here that some administration officials feel entitled to be making these kinds of decisions for whoever succeeds Assad. Who is the US to speak for the next Syrian government?

That aside, making concessions to Russia in the hope of building trust is a terrible strategy. These moves don’t build trust; they rather create a belief in Russia that the US is weak and desperate. Instead of offering concessions as mood enhancers, the best way to negotiate with the Russians is to bargain hard and aggressively, expect them to do the same, and come to the best overall agreement. Everything else is dangerous self-delusion.

[Photo of John Kerry courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Felipe Pait

    I do not agree with the analysis here. Removing the Russian base from Syria is not an important goal for the US. The civil war that is happening in Syria is not in the interest of the US. Russia will block any movement that increases the chance that their base will be removed.

    Therefore, if the US wants Russia to play a constructive role in stabilizing the situation in Syria, the US is justified in supporting Russia’s intention to keep the base. The reasoning is rather simple and the diplomatic provocations are secondary.

    • RedWell

      I concur. Let the Russians play in their sand box: the US has to manage a global presence, the Russians are a faded power clinging to relevance and self-respect. Further, in the end, their basic interest in the region is stability without Islamist regimes, which basically overlaps with America’s interests.

    • wigwag

      Nonsense. Russia and Iran are demonstrating to Syria and others that they are a reliable ally. On the other hand, the United States is demonstrating to its allies (the Israelis, the Saudis, the Turks, the Persian Gulf Arab nations) that it cannot be depended on. Unfortunately the Obama Administration has made a habit of leaving allies in the lurch.

      It is also worth pointing out that the Russians are displaying to the Shia street that the Russians have their back while the United States is displaying to the Sunni world total indifference to the plight of the majority population of Syria that happens to be Sunni.

      It’s not just American interests in the Middle East that are being eviscerated; as we abandon our Middle Eastern allies, we are making an unequivocal statement about American unreliability sure to be heard in China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the rest of the world.

      Obama may think he’s pivoting away from the Middle East, but collapsing American credibility in that part of the world makes it harder to do anything else we want to do in Asia or elsewhere.

      Obama is making his country look like a weakling cowering against an assault by the likes of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. In the meantime his Secretary of State is running around the world pretending that the Israel-Palstine dispute is not only time sensitive but also the most important thing going on in the Middle East.

      Obama is a disaster; John Kerry is hopeless.

      • Felipe Pait

        You have not made the argument that removing the Russian base from Syria is a fundamental interest of the US. It is not, but you seem to assume that it is, and base your reasoning on it.

        I respectfully surmise that your argument stops being a non-sequitur if you start with the last paragraph as an assumption and proceed backwards. You believe that “Obama is a disaster” and from that your criticism follows. That may be satisfying to you but on a logical level is not persuasive.

      • Corlyss Drinkard

        Amen. wig.

        “Obama may think he’s pivoting away from the Middle East . . .”

        It’s all a publicity dumb show. There’s no pivot. They have no plan, no strategy. Whatever passes for concentrated thought in the White House, it doesn’t involve Obama. There’s a reason O doesn’t know anything – “It was State.” “My AG is handling that.” “I just read the IRS IG report yesterday.” It has been abundantly clear from the early days of 2009 that he doesn’t want to know. Governing bores him. It’s messy, depressing, and unsatisfying. He likes speechifying. All he has to do is look good and sound caring and wise. He doesn’t have to DO anything.

        The pivot is all a propaganda ploy, like his harping on Afghanistan as the “good” war worth fighting during his campaigns. Only a fool would think that meant he would actually fight in Afghanistan. Fighting is not what Dems do, and certainly not Obama. His only enemy is Republicans. A revealing story about the “pivot” came as a result of John McCain chasing Adm. Locklear around the stable with sharp instruments until Locklear admitted he can’t do what has been called for by the alleged pivot.

        • wigwag

          Here’s what astounds me. Supposedly Obama is abandoning America’s historic leadership in the Middle East so we can pivot to Asia. The Asia pivot focuses on building strategic relationships with Australia, South Korea, Viet Nam, Thailand, Japan, the Philipines, Singapore and to a lesser extent Taiwan. Of course India is critical in this as well. The purpose of the pivot is to prevent the exercise of Chinese hegemony in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

          Doesn’t Obama see that by betraying American allies in the Middle East that he is sending a message to our new allies in Asia that America is unreliable and untrustworthy?

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “That aside, making concessions to Russia in the hope of building trust is a terrible strategy. ”

    Anyone with a tragic sense of history would see that in a nanosecond.

    Unfortunately, it’s the Utopian/Democrat way. They love to show that America is not a bully, that we will treat every pipsqueak nation from has-been Communist tyrannies to Andora just as if they were our equals. Do we have more war fighting capacity than you? No worries. We’ll just use only as much as would equal what you have. That way, we will be fair and we will be seen as decent folk by the nits and lice crowd after all, concerned only with the equities. Do you have a history of breaking commitments, lying, and cheating. That’s okay. Your word is our bond. We’ll show we have faith in your innate goodness and give you concessions before you’ve ever done anything to merit them.

    The current administration is weak and delights in showing it.

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