The breakdown of yet another truce in Syria has sent relations between Russia and the United States to new lows. In a tense exchange in the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State John Kerry blasted the Kremlin, accusing Russian warplanes of bombing an aid convoy headed for Aleppo and complaining that listening to Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, was like living in a “parallel universe.” In Syria, meanwhile, the carnage resumed and intensified, to levels not seen for quite some time.
Syria’s real tragedy is that the mosaic of opposing forces and conflicting agendas is so complex that without a strong element of trust between Russia and the U.S., there cannot be a sustainable truce, let alone a realistic path to peace. What Mr. Kerry refers to as the “spoilers” will always find ways to wreck such ambitions, in the futile hope of achieving a military solution on their own. And the European Union can look forward to an escalation of the refugee crisis that already threatens to break it apart.
The recent showdown in the Security Council is alarming mainly because it extinguishes any hope that the two sides will deal with each other in good faith. While it has become obvious that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot see eye to eye, their respective foreign ministers had appeared to preserve a working relationship of professionalism and trust. Their latest agreement on a truce, reached late on the night of September 9, did inspire some confidence. But that has been shattered by the escalation of hostilities. As Mr. Kerry puts it, now is a “moment of truth.”
Cause and effect
Looking forward, the essential insight is that the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine are linked, and must be resolved together. The political and military dimensions of the two differ considerably, and consequently will require different approaches in negotiations. But they are linked in the sense of being outcomes of the breakdown of trust between Moscow and Washington, rather than its cause.
From a Western perspective, the rupture was caused by the Kremlin’s illegal seizure and subsequent annexation of Crimea, and its equally illegal support for the armed insurrection in Donbas. From a Russian point of view, the causes go much further back – to the U.S. aggression against Iraq, to the toppling and killing of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, to NATO’s eastward expansion, to the unilateral declaration of independence for Kosovo, and to the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
The common denominator, from the Kremlin’s perspective, is a fundamental breach of the arrangements made to end the Cold War, manifested by open Western flouting of legitimate Russian interests and an unspoken ambition to push Russia out of global politics altogether. What caused the crisis in Ukraine to morph from a negotiable conflict of interest into a bloody war was the West’s determination not to give the Kremlin any say in the matter.
This is the context in which a peaceful solution for Ukraine and Syria must be found. It is a fundamentally asymmetrical contest, in the sense that while the Western countries consistently reject a solution brought about by military means, the Kremlin has not been shy about resorting to force, even when it leads to gross violations of international law.
The Western dilemma, in Ukraine as well as in Syria, is that its policy demands limiting military support to the minimum required to prevent the other side from winning – all but ensuring that the carnage will continue, with no political solution in sight. This is a situation the Kremlin can live with. It expects that attrition will in the end cause the Ukrainian state to fail and its economy to break down, forcing a return to Russia. Moscow is equally confident that the bloodletting in Syria will break the opposition before it breaks the regime. If developments follow their current track, this is precisely what could happen.
If restoring trust between Russia and America is the key to resolving these interlocking crises, it follows that Ukraine must take priority over Syria. An important reason why Russia intervened in Syria in the first place was to force the American side to accept Russia as an equal partner in negotiations over Ukraine.
This is where the Minsk peace process enters the picture. Brokered by France and Germany, it was signed by Russia and Ukraine in February 2015. The Minsk process entailed two parts. One was a cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of heavy weapons from the corridor separating the Ukrainian government forces from the Russian-backed insurgents. This has been supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with mixed results. The track record has been one of sporadic eruptions of violence, followed by periods of lull.
Enforcement of the ceasefire provisions has been hampered by a lack of consensus on what is actually happening on the ground. While the Ukrainian government has remained insistent that units from the regular Russian army are engaged in Donbas, the Kremlin has denied any such involvement. When regular Russian soldiers have been captured in the war zone, the claim is that they were there on holiday.
Although NATO has supposedly gathered extensive circumstantial evidence of Russian involvement, the OSCE mission has been far too weak to effectively monitor who goes where, not to mention actually enforce the separation agreement. This is a fundamental flaw in the peace process. The absence of a smoking gun has made it possible for the Kremlin to stonewall any allegations of involvement, and thus to denounce Western sanctions as unjustified punishment for crimes it has not committed.
The Western reaction has been a deep sense of frustration, coupled with public demonization of Mr. Putin. NATO has stuck to the practice of making allegations without providing the evidence to prove them. In the run-up to the alliance’s July 2016 summit in Warsaw, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted an increase in hostilities and repeated violations of the cease-fire. He claimed that Russia was to blame, for supporting the separatists with equipment and weapons.
Both sides know these allegations to be true. But the U.S. has gone considerably farther, and even overboard, in making allegations that Russia knows to be false and that cannot be realistically believed in Washington. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland claimed that the U.S. had “deterred further land grabs in Ukraine, and that was a real risk when we first started with sanctions – that they would try to run all the way to Kiev and Kharkiv.”
Moscow denies any such ambitions, and military planners would agree that the 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border would not suffice to execute the invasion that U.S. and NATO sources have claimed they are poised to carry out. The Kremlin’s response to such allegations has been to accuse the West of double standards, falsely accusing Russia while turning a blind eye to Ukraine’s violations of its own commitments under the Minsk accords.
This exchange of sometimes baseless accusations makes a wobbly foundation on which to build a negotiated settlement. The complete meltdown of trust that is contributing to the carnage in Syria originated in Ukraine, and stands firmly in the way of taking the next step in the Minsk process. Looking forward, there are three ways this impasse could be resolved.
The first and least likely scenario is that Russia quietly drops its support of the separatists. There is no doubt that the quickest way to end the insurrection would be to restore control over the border to Ukrainian government forces. This could be coupled with the evacuation to Russia of the more notorious insurgents, and amnesty for the remainder who agree to lay down their arms. Moscow would be rewarded by an immediate lifting of the sanctions, while Kiev would find it hard to keep stalling on one of Moscow’s main demands – constitutional reform granting more autonomy to the Russian-speaking territories in the east.
The main problem is Russia’s presidential ballot in March 2018. This is a must-win election for Mr. Putin, who cannot afford to betray any signs of weakness. The Kremlin also has a power legal trump, since the Minsk agreement specifies that Ukraine’s constitutional reform must come first, followed by elections and “normalization” of life in Donbas.
Under a second scenario, Kiev would begin the constitutional reform without having taken control over the contested areas. This would make it hard for Russia to refuse to hand over the border to the Ukrainian government, and would again entail a lifting of sanctions. In practice, however, this scenario is no more likely than the first. Rather than Russia’s domestic politics, the main obstacle here is Ukraine’s.
Almost any kind of federal solution would give Russia a Trojan Horse inside Ukraine, offering an instrument of direct control over decision-making in Kiev. Any Ukrainian government that agreed to this, without substantial concessions on the Russian side, would face an immediate challenge from nationalist parties and perhaps even a second Maidan revolt, backed by battle-tested veterans from the notorious volunteer battalions. It is hard to see Ukrainian politicians willing to run this risk.
Wars of attrition
That leaves the third and most likely scenario – a “dirty” deal that lifts sanctions (fully or partially) without Russia having to comply with the Minsk accords. This is what Kiev fears the most, and with good reason. While EU leaders are under heavy U.S. pressure to ramp up sanctions, they also face equal or greater pressure from within to dilute or remove them entirely – especially from member states with close Russian connections, such as Cyprus, Greece, Hungary and Italy.
A dirty deal would freeze the Donbas conflict and leave no room for reconstruction. It would also let the Kremlin get away with its illegal annexation of Crimea and more than two years of involvement in an undeclared war on a European neighbor.
The key to preventing these outcomes is to define a set of common interests: combating Daesh and restoring order in Ukraine. In theory, this should not be difficult. But acting on these interests will require taking steps when reciprocity from the other side cannot be taken for granted. Compromise is essential, but will not be forthcoming when trust is absent.
The tragedy of both Syria and Ukraine is that too much recrimination and resentment has built up between Moscow and Washington for both sides to cut a mutually acceptable deal. Without that, the wars of attrition will drag on, bringing more carnage to Syria and the possibility of a failed state in Ukraine.