White House says re­la­tions can im­prove if Rus­sia take steps; ‘What kind of co­op­er­a­tion can there be?’ Rus­sian an­a­lyst asks

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Afew weeks ago, Don­ald Trump in­vited Putin to meet—maybe even at the White House. Af­ter U.S.-led mis­sile strikes in Syria, the two na­tions’ of­fi­cials can’t get into the same room with­out in­sult­ing each other.

Speak­ing at an emer­gency ses­sion of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Satur­day, hours af­ter the U.S., France and the U.K. launched mis­siles in­tended to take out Syria’s chem­i­cal weapons ca­pa­bil­ity, Amer­i­can Am­bas­sador Nikki Ha­ley called on Rus­sia—the main backer of the Syr­ian regime— “to take a hard look at the com­pany it keeps.” Her Rus­sian coun­ter­part Vass­ily Neben­zia re­torted that the U.S. and its al­lies were en­gaged in the “diplo­macy of myth­mak­ing.”

The strikes against the regime of Rus­sia’s ally Bashar al-As­sad put an ex­cla­ma­tion point on how swiftly ties be­tween the for­mer Cold War foes have de­te­ri­o­rated in re­cent weeks, with Pres­i­dent Trump even over­com­ing his past un­will­ing­ness to crit­i­cise Pres­i­dent Putin by name.

Now, the U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tion­ship, al­ready under se­vere strain over is­sues from Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to its role in Syria and Ukraine, may be ir­re­triev­ably bro­ken for the fore­see­able fu­ture. There may be too much bad blood, too much sus­pi­cion and too much anger on both sides to turn the an­i­mos­ity around.

“I don’t see things get­ting bet­ter,” said Boris Zil­ber­man, deputy di­rec­tor of con­gres­sional re­la­tions at the Foun­da­tion for De­fence of Democ­ra­cies and a Rus­sia ex­pert. “We’re at a very low point and clearly the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­si­tion on Rus­sia has hard­ened.”

The re­sult has been an un­prece­dented wave of re­tal­i­a­tions and tit-for-tat ac­tions. Af­ter the U.K. blamed Rus­sia for the poi­son­ing of a for­mer spy in Britain, more than 150 Rus­sian diplo­mats were ex­pelled by the U.K. and al­lies in­clud­ing the U.S. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion fol­lowed with new sanc­tions on Rus­sian oli­garchs in­clud­ing bil­lion­aire alu­minum mag­nate Oleg De­ri­paska. His com­pany lost half its value in a day af­ter the sanc­tions were an­nounced.

Ha­ley raised the prospect of still more sanc­tions on Rus­sia, say­ing Sun­day on CBS’s Face the Na­tion that a fresh round of penal­ties would “go di­rectly to any sorts of com­pa­nies that were deal­ing with equip­ment” re­lated to As­sad and his chem­i­cal weapons.

While for now no sig­nif­i­cant new U.S. sanc­tions seem likely—lim­it­ing Rus­sian mar­ket losses af­ter last week’s sharp de­clines—in Moscow, law­mak­ers are start­ing Mon­day to dis­cuss a draft law with coun­ter­mea­sures against the U.S..

“What kind of co­op­er­a­tion can there be? Where?” asked Fy­o­dor Lukyanov, head of Rus­sia’s Coun­cil on For­eign and De­fence Pol­icy, who ad­vises the Krem­lin. Rus­sia gets “new sanc­tions and threats ev­ery week,” he said. “Amer­i­cans be­lieve that you can hu­mil­i­ate and put pres­sure ev­ery­where and at the same time of­fer co­op­er­a­tion where they need it. This does not hap­pen.”

Trad­ing Ac­cu­sa­tions

The two coun­tries rou­tinely ac­cuse each other of fab­ri­cat­ing events, as they did dur­ing the Cold War.

The U.S. says Rus­sia is block­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the scene of the chem­i­cal at­tack that prompted the lat­est airstrikes. Rus­sia has ar­gued both that the at­tack in the Syr­ian city of Douma never hap­pened or that it was or­ches­trated by the U.S. and its al­lies to pro­voke a mil­i­tary re­sponse.

“Amer­i­cans need to un­der­stand that the wars of the fu­ture will look more like this: Rus­sia is in­vest­ing sig­nif­i­cant re­sources to cre­ate pro­pa­ganda and dis­in­for­ma­tion,” said Se­na­tor Ben Sasse, a Ne­braska Repub­li­can, af­ter Rus­sia claimed that al­most all the mis­siles fired into Syria were shot down—an as­ser­tion the U.S. de­nied. “Our en­e­mies will work to cre­ate con­fu­sion and dis­trust among Amer­i­cans here at home.”

What lim­ited co­op­er­a­tion there was be­tween the two coun­tries has ground to a halt. A Novem­ber agree­ment be­tween the two sides to press all par­ties in Syria to­ward ne­go­ti­a­tions known as the Geneva process has stalled and they have aban­doned plans for more “deesca­la­tion zones” to ease the vi­o­lence. In­stead, Rus­sia is at­tempt­ing to cre­ate such zones with Tur­key and Iran.

White House Hopes

From the White House, there is still hope that Rus­sia will change its pos­ture, and Trump’s in­for­mal in­vi­ta­tion for an even­tual meet­ing with Putin hasn’t been re­scinded.

“Af­ter his last call with Pres­i­dent Putin on March 20, the Pres­i­dent con­firmed that the two had dis­cussed a bi­lat­eral meet­ing at a num­ber of po­ten­tial venues, in­clud­ing the White House,” Robert Pal­ladino, a spokesman for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, said in a state­ment Sun­day night. “The de­sire for a meet­ing still stands, as the pres­i­dent be­lieves a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia is in our mu­tual in­ter­est. That said, the pres­i­dent has been con­sis­tent and tough on Rus­sia.”

“While we would like to work with Rus­sia, we also recog­nise that an im­proved re­la­tion­ship will re­quire the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment to take pos­i­tive steps, and the pres­i­dent will con­tinue to hold them ac­count­able for malign ac­tiv­i­ties,” Pal­ladino said.

Spurn­ing Meet­ings

In the mean­time, though, rou­tine diplo­macy has given way to pet­ti­ness. Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to the U.S., Ana­toly Antonov, can’t get meet­ings with top of­fi­cials and had asked for help from Repub­li­can Se­na­tor Or­rin Hatch to do so, Politico re­ported last month.

Trump, pre­vi­ously re­luc­tant to crit­i­cise Putin di­rectly even as oth­ers in his ad­min­is­tra­tion have done so, has dropped any such re­straint. When he an­nounced his plan for the strikes against Syria on Fri­day night, he said Rus­sia “must de­cide if it will con­tinue down this dark path or if it will join with civ­i­lized na­tions as a force for sta­bil­ity and peace.”

Valery Solovei, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Moscow State In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions, which trains Rus­sia’s diplo­mats, said “I think, yes, this is the end. And not only in Syria, but also in all spheres of Rus­sian-Amer­i­can re­la­tions. Some well-in­formed sources say Putin is fu­ri­ous and plans to put more hard­lin­ers in im­por­tant po­si­tions dur­ing an up­com­ing reshuf­fle in his ad­min­is­tra­tion and gov­ern­ment.”

The big­gest fear on both sides—of a hot con­flict be­tween the two nu­cle­ar­armed ri­vals—ap­pears to have been eased for now given the lim­ited na­ture of the lat­est strikes in Syria and the use of U.S.-Rus­sian “de­con­flic­tion” chan­nels be­fore the at­tack to make cer­tain their planes weren’t in the same airspace. But the risk of close calls—and po­ten­tially lethal con­flicts—re­mains.

Met Their Match

That was glar­ingly ob­vi­ous in early Fe­bru­ary when U.S. forces killed more than 200 Rus­sian mer­ce­nar­ies who tried to at­tack a base held by U.S. and mainly Kur­dish forces in the oil-rich Deir Ez­zor re­gion. The Rus­sian and U.S. mil­i­taries both quickly sought to defuse the sit­u­a­tion by as­sur­ing each other that the mer­ce­nar­ies’ at­tack wasn’t au­tho­rised by Moscow.

“The Rus­sians met their match and a cou­ple hun­dred Rus­sians were killed,” Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo said at his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for sec­re­tary of state last week. He said he takes “a back seat to no one” in his view of the threat that Rus­sia presents to the U.S.

Nonethe­less, there are signs that the two sides, amid the stand­off, haven’t com­pletely cut off ties, pro­vid­ing a thin pos­si­bil­ity that the U.S. sanc­tions, the heated rhetoric and the Rus­sian ac­cu­sa­tions of U.S. men­dac­ity mask a de­sire to get along.

“Rus­sia’s po­si­tion was taken into ac­count,” said Elena Supon­ina, a Mid­dle East spe­cial­ist at the Rus­sian In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies. “No red lines were crossed.”


US Pres­i­dent Trump (R) and Rus­sia's Pres­i­dent Putin talk as the make their way to take the "fam­ily photo" dur­ing the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion (APEC) lead­ers' sum­mit

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