Why It’s Time to Rethink Our Pointless Standoff with Russia

Why It’s Time to Rethink Our Pointless Standoff with Russia

The following column was filed June 5, 2016, and not published.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s widely respected foreign minister, dropped a big one here over the weekend. After an hourlong conversation with John Kerry Friday, Lavrov asserted in nationally televised remarks that the American secretary of state asked that Russian planes stop bombing the Islamic militants fighting as al–Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al–Qaeda, in their air campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.

They are telling us not to hit it [al–Nusra] because there is ‘normal’ opposition next…to it,” Lavrov, who enjoys a close working relationship with Kerry, explained soon after the two put their telephones down.

Lavrov surely didn’t intend to embarrass the Obama administration’s top diplomat, but he did a pretty good job anyway. He probably didn’t mean to throw light on how impractical and costly Washington’s standoff with Moscow has become either, but he did well on this score, too.

The State Department acknowledged Lavrov’s exchange but countered that Kerry had asked only that Russian bombers avoid targeting what the U.S.—and few others—calls “moderate opposition” groups. That may sound like a counter-argument, but it isn’t: It has long been understood that many of the fighters the U.S. has armed and trained in Syria are hopelessly tangled up with al–Nusra rebels.

And this isn’t the first time the Obama administration has put this weird request to Lavrov, according to sources here. “They’ve asked the same thing on three or four previous occasions,” said Dmitry Babich, an international politics analyst at Sputnik, one of Russia’s government-supported wire services.

Lavrov’s revelation comes at a fraught moment for Russians. They’ve taken to asking a lot of questions lately, and we all ought to ponder some of them.

There’s an animated debate here concerning Moscow’s next move in Syria, where it began bombing ISIS and al–Nusra—which are excluded from intermittent talks toward a political settlement—last autumn. Sources here say some influential figures close to the Kremlin now favor putting Russian special forces on the ground as the Syrian army closes in on Aleppo and Raqaa; the latter is the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

It’s a risky business, but the view here is that all options have to be considered,” Babich told me over the weekend. “It’s clear now that since a ceasefire was declared [in February] the Islamic State and al-Nusra have taken the occasion to regroup and reposition.”

Nobody yet knows who’s going to prevail in this argument, which is said to be very heated, but behind it lies a bigger one. Russian liberals who favor obliging Washington’s preferences more or less without limit now face mounting resistance from a tougher-minded constituency around President Putin.

This latter group concluded long ago that the U.S. has to be countered forcefully because it will never recognize Russia as an equal, never meet Russia halfway on questions of concern to both nations, and never work with it as a partner with shared interests.

Sergei Karaganov, a Russian political scientist, terms this latter position the “iron fist” argument. It gained a lot of traction after the U.S.-supported coup in Ukraine two years ago, Fyodor Lukyanov, who edits the journal Russia in Global Affairs, notes in the current edition of Foreign Affairs.

And it’s gaining more in Syria as we speak. Russian jets just tripled the rate at which they’re bombing terrorist targets, according to Genevieve Casagrande, who follows Syria at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research organization. “Russia is clearly demonstrating its freedom of action in Syria,” Casagrande wrote in a note circulated the other day.

After many years of strained ties and two of hypertension, we’re now faced with the biggest question of all. Would we all be better off if Washington and Moscow could agree to turn down the heat? More cooperation, less confrontation, especially in places such as Ukraine and Syria?

Russians think so, as anyone you ask here is sure to tell you. So does Donald Trump, who famously questions why we need NATO, a Cold War military alliance, when the Cold War’s a quarter-century behind us.

But Russians and the Trump camp in the Republican Party aren’t alone. A month before an especially important NATO summit, European allies are signaling their growing weariness with sanctions, new NATO deployments, and the attendant tensions now prevalent between East and West.

France appears to be sliding gradually back to the Gaullist position, suggesting that NATO’s an infringement on national sovereignty and needs to be restrained. Germany recently agreed to support new troop deployments in Poland and other member nations bordering Russia only after the U.S. committed to renewing political dialogue with Moscow.

On this side of the pond, American policy experts of various stripes now assert that there’s more to gain than lose by working with the Russians when opportunities to do so arise. Along with Lukyanov’s essay on Russian policy abroad, Foreign Affairs published six others questioning how the U.S. and its allies can better respond to Russia’s drives and interests. Headlined “Putin’s Russia: Down but not Out,” the issue is recommended reading.

Continuing confrontation is unlikely to yield any practical result,” Doug Bandow, a longtime analyst at the Cato Institute, wrote in a much-circulated piece published recently by The World Post. “Only a deal seems likely to deliver peace for Ukraine, security for Russia, stability for Europe, and satisfaction for America.”

That sums it up—in Europe, in the Middle East, and in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow. Emphatically, it’s time for the Obama administration and its successor to adopt policies of greater restraint (and not just toward Russia). The only thing wrong with this debate is that it has taken too long to get going.