The Hotline: September 2018

By Lincoln Pigman

While Russian-American relations continue to deteriorate, the Syrian conflict is growing increasingly complex.  The announcement of an indefinite US military presence and strained relations between Russia and Israel make the resolution of the war on Russia’s terms a more distant prospect. Meanwhile, the mishandling of the Salisbury operation and its fallout raises questions about Moscow’s basic judgment and continues to embarrass the Kremlin six months on.

This month US-Russia relations continued in a pattern of what scholar Dmitry Suslov has called ‘managed confrontation’ — a state of dialogue and containment but little real cooperation. This was clear when US Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s visit to Moscow coincided with US President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order targeting foreign actors who interfere in US elections.

It was not the only punitive step taken by Trump, who signed a second executive order punishing those in violation of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. His administration also blacklisted more than 30 Russian entities and individuals known to be ‘part of’ or to ‘operate for or on behalf of’ Russian defense or intelligence sectors. These include businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and his various operations, most notably Wagner, the private military company whose mercenaries clashed with US troops in Syria in February, and the Internet Research Agency, a key player in Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election.

Adding insult to injury, Trump is openly considering Polish President Andrzej Duda’s offer to host a permanent US military base in Poland, a move that would make Moscow nostalgic for the Obama era.

IUS National Security Adviser Bolton has announced an indefinite US military presence that will last ‘as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders’. His remarks suggest that the US has revised its Syria policy to that effect, despite Trump’s inclination to withdraw US troops from Syria. For some analysts, the US’s change of heart regarding Syria reflects Russia’s failure to convince the US that it can contain Iran’s military presence there. This explanation is more plausible than Russia’s go-to ‘deep state’ theory: the notion that US-Russia relations have deteriorated because of a shadowy US bureaucracy that is opposed to any cooperation with Russia, not as the result of the Kremlin’s mismanagement of the relationship.

Expanded US involvement in Syria – as well as an escalating Iranian-American confrontation – further complicates resolving the civil war on Russia’s terms. In September, Russia called off a joint attack on the rebel stronghold of Idlib Province, acquiescing to Turkey as well as the US. Moscow also suffered casualties after Syrian anti-aircraft defenses downed a Russian military plane with 15 people onboard, losses that Russia’s military blamed on risky maneuvers by Israeli fighter jets operating in Syrian airspace.

The former development underscored that Russia is under pressure to accommodate the West, whose participation in the financing of Syria’s post-war reconstruction the Kremlin needs, limiting its freedom of action on the Syrian battlefield. The latter incident strained Russian-Israeli relations and led Russia to commit to the deployment of S-300 missile systems in Syria, a move to which Israel has long objected. These developments come at a time when public opinion on Russia’s foreign policy is souring: amid austerity measures, Russians increasingly question the cost of their country’s assertive role in international affairs.

Last month’s revelations regarding the Skripal affair do not bode well for the Kremlin. What began as an intimidating demonstration of the reach of Russia’s intelligence services has led to diplomatic repercussions and, increasingly, embarrassment for Moscow. First, the British government revealed the aliases of the two perpetrators of the poisoning, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Shortly thereafter, investigative group Bellingcat and various Russian news outlets obtained the passport details of the two men. Using this information, Bellingcat identified one of the two men as a GRU colonel, findings that multiple news outlets have corroborated. These disclosures helped journalists identify other GRU personnel on the basis of their passport details.

The week before, Petrov and Boshirov sat for an interview with RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan in what appeared to be an effort to exonerate themselves. Simonyan was visibly skeptical of the two men’s explanation of events, and she even joined the Russian internet in ridiculing their dubious account of their trip to the UK. The revelations by Bellingcat have made the interview look doubly clumsy.

Six months on, the Skripal affair inspires mockery of Russia, not fear. The contributions of RT and Putin – who assured the world that the two men were merely civilians yet personally awarded one of them a medal for his GRU service in 2014 – have only made things worse. Russia’s covert actions have not just led to diplomatic repercussions. They have also made Moscow look inept.

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