By Rachel Douglas
April 18—As the Trump Administration of the USA exercised a quick trigger-finger in attacking Syria’s Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles on April 7, and has made increasingly ominous statements about unilateral action to terminate North Korea’s military programs, Russian political leaders and diplomats, so far, have kept the door open for the fundamental improvement in Russian-American relations they had hoped for after Donald Trump’s election as President. That the possibility of such an improvement is still alive, was evident both in the reception accorded American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Moscow April 12, and in the latest sharply worded Russian responses to events in Syria.
From President Vladimir Putin to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov, Russian officials are saying with increasing precision: We know that there is a “party of war” in the West, we see that it continues to be orchestrated out of the British Foreign Office and other institutions in London, and we have observed the special role of the Obama Administration, which tried to put its confrontationist policies on autopilot when leaving office in January; but, these actions run counter to President Trump’s avowed desire for improved relations and fewer military adventures overseas, and we still hope that he will stick to those commitments.
Safronkov intervened dramatically in UN Security Council sessions on April 7, the day of the cruise-missile attack on Syria, and again on April 12, when Russia vetoed a UK-USA-French resolution that posed the need for an investigation of the April 4 alleged chemical weapons incident in terms that blamed the Assad government for it in advance. In both cases, he directly addressed UK Permanent Representative to the UN Matthew Rycroft, who had categorically blamed Syrian President Bashar Assad for the reported April 4 attack and had chastised Russia for backing “the toxic Assad regime that poisons its own people.”
While responsibility for the reported April 4 attack remains uninvestigated and unproven, lack of evidence has not been an obstacle for Foreign Office functionary Rycroft in the past. In 2002, as private secretary to Prime Minister Tony Blair, he played an important role in the run-up to the West’s invasion of Iraq, based on fabricated evidence and other lies about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.” Rycroft was the author of an infamous 23 July 2002 “Downing Street Memo”—top secret at the time, but leaked in May 2005, and published in the Times of London—on consultations between Blair and other British officials on the progress of their efforts, together with war-party allies in the George W. Bush Administration, to overthrow Saddam Hussein “by massive military action.” Then-head of British foreign intelligence (MI6) Richard Dearlove, referred to in the memo only as “C,” reported back from a trip to Washington that “Military action was now seen as inevitable.” (Today, Dearlove is active in efforts to frame Trump as a Russian agent, as in his interview for the May 2017 Prospect magazine, in which he attacked the American President as a “nationalist,” and insinuated that Trump was personally dependent on “Russian money.”) Rycroft, in the 2002 memo, paraphrasing then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, wrote that the case for attacking Iraq “was thin,” but that the UK could “work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.”
On April 7, Safronkov advised Rycroft to stop using “unprofessional arguments against my country.” He added, “These are not diplomatic. They are lies. Don’t even try to get into fights in the Arab world. Nothing will be achieved. All Arab countries recall your colonial hypocrisy.”
On April 12, when Rycroft presented the resolution and accused Russia of having “abused” the veto it holds as a permanent member of the UNSC, in blocking previous biased resolutions on Syria, and having “preferred to take the side of barbarians and criminals,” Safronkov let loose at the special British role again: “You got scared, you lost sleep over the possibility that we would work with the United States. That’s what you were afraid of. You are doing everything possible to undermine that cooperation. And that is the reason—look at me, don’t look away, what are you looking away for?!—that is the reason why you said nothing today about the political process. You deliberately didn’t listen to [UN Syria special envoy] Mistura’s presentation…. Don’t you dare offend Russia anymore!”
“You got scared, you lost sleep over the possibility that we would work with the United States.” Safronkov was speaking about Syria, but his remark captured the inner wheelworks of the entire Cold War. At the end of World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of a post-war world in which the USA, Russia, and China would lead the way to economic development and an end of colonialism, the famous Soviet officer Marshal Georgy Zhukov said to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the American commander in Europe and future President, “If the United States and Russia will only stand together through thick and thin, success is certain for the United Nations. If we are partners, there are no other countries in the world that would dare to go to war when we forbade it.”
The hope for such a world was dashed, when the Anglo-American (City of London/Wall Street) oligarchy’s men like Dean Acheson and the Dulles brothers took over American policy under President Harry S Truman. Still today, the unreconstructed devotees of British imperial thinking persist in both the UK and the USA, under the post-1991 banners of neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism.
On the eve of Secretary of State Tillerson’s Moscow visit, and during it, the Russian leaders continued to remind that such policies have led to nothing but disaster, and that they expect better from the United States.
Just hours after the American attack on Shayrat base, the Kremlin Press Service issued an unusual written comment, stating that “The President of Russia regards the U.S. airstrikes on Syria as an act of aggression against a sovereign state, delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext…. This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a poor state. Most importantly, this move will not bring us closer to the ultimate goal of combatting international terrorism, but will instead create a major obstacle to the establishment of an international counterterrorist coalition and to effective struggle against this global evil, something that U.S. President Donald Trump declared as one of his main goals during his election campaign.”
In Moscow on April 12, Tillerson held several hours of talks with Lavrov, before Putin received them for two more hours. Summing up, at a joint press conference that evening, Lavrov said that during the talks, “It was stated that the current stage in our bilateral relations and in the international situation is quite unstable. There are many issues, including those left by Barack Obama’s Administration as delayed-action mines. We are realists, and understand that serious efforts are needed to overcome these barriers. We are clearly committed to undertaking these efforts, while expecting our U.S. colleagues to do the same. Today, President of Russia Vladimir Putin once again reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to moving in this direction. We are seeing attempts to impede our cooperation and even exacerbate the confrontation. We view this approach as short-sighted, especially since it has been proven time and time again over the course of history, that when Moscow and Washington work together, not only our nations, but the whole world stands to win.”
At another point, Lavrov insisted, “I think both the United States and Russia have enough sensible people who are able to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ and be guided by the cardinal, rather than merely expedient, interests of our peoples, countries, and the world community.”
In reply to a question about pressuring Assad in Syria, Lavrov said, “As for the issue of Syria, including Bashar Assad, today we looked back at the history of the matter, and Rex Tillerson said that he is a new man and prefers not to delve into history, but to deal with today’s problems. However, the world is such a place that unless we draw lessons from the past, we are unlikely to succeed in the present. I recalled the situations when a group of states, above all the Western countries, NATO members, were absolutely fixated on liquidating this or that dictator, an authoritarian or totalitarian leader.” Lavrov then reviewed the U.S./NATO regime-change wars in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan, and their brutal consequences for the population in each instance, concluding, “So, this kind of experiment based on the obsession with replacing a dictator, totalitarian or authoritarian leader—we’ve been there before. We know only too well what the outcome is.”
Tillerson spoke more briefly than Lavrov in reply to questions raising specific crisis spots, but gave this crucial summary: “I expressed the view that the current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point and there is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” This formulation directly echoed what Trump had set forth at his first lengthy press conference as President, on 16 February: “If Russia and the United States actually got together and got along—and don’t forget, we’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they…. I’ve been briefed. And I can tell you, one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say, because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it: Nuclear holocaust would be like no other. They’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are we. If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Lavrov and Tillerson reported that they had covered the long roster of specific issues, set forth in a Russian Foreign Ministry press release on the eve of the talks: Syria, the broader fight against the Islamic State and other terrorists, the war in Yemen, the conflict in Libya, renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Korea, strategic arms treaties, and economic ties. Overarching these, the two countries will establish a bilateral commission, with special representatives from the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Department of State, to analyze in detail, as Lavrov put it, “the irritants that have piled up in our relations over recent years, primarily during the Obama Administration’s term, and do it without emotion or any artificial exacerbation.”
In further comments the next day, TASS reported, Lavrov said, “The results of the talks may take a while to manifest themselves. At least we agreed to establish day-to-day on-line dialogue on a number of major issues, including taking inventory of the problems that were created by the previous Administration in bilateral relations, as well as mechanisms on matters related with the implementation of the agreements we have in the military-political sphere and the mechanisms that are expected to narrow disagreements or improve the understanding of each other’s positions on various regional crises, first and foremost, the Syrian settlement…. [I]t is always better to talk face to face, instead of making loud statements over a microphone…. Therefore, this is not a speedy process, but at least, if everything that we have agreed upon … would come into reality—it would be for the good.”
Lavrov has been quoted here at some length, because, when reading articles in the world media under headlines like “Putin meets with Tillerson as Syria rift deepens” (CNN), or “Tillerson and Putin find little more than disagreement in meeting” (The New York Times), it is hard to believe they were reporting on the same diplomatic talks as described by the diplomats at their press conference. UK journalist Mary Dejevsky, writing April 13 in The Independent, was far more honest when she observed that although “any thaw in relations is now clearly some way off,” neither are they deadlocked. “Tillerson’s talks marked a beginning, not an end.”
On April 14, Lavrov met with the foreign ministers of Iran and Syria, and the same day, held a phone consultation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on coordinating Chinese and Russian diplomacy on both Syria and the Korean Peninsula. All the while, he kept hammering at the Anglo-American war party, and holding out an olive branch to Trump.
At the press conference following the Iran-Russia-Syria talks, Lavrov sharply questioned the behavior of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) for Syria. He pointed out that the JIM was set up in 2015 as a joint U.S.-Russian initiative (following the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision, as initially proposed by Putin in 2013 when the Anglo-American war party was on the verge of bombing Syria), but that Russia had not “signed on” to the JIM’s investigations being carried out only remotely, without visits by experts to the sites of alleged incidents. He also questioned why the JIM’s two working groups—one to investigate accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, and the other to investigate such accusations against opposition forces—“by some strange coincidence” are both headed by officials from the UK. “Without impugning the professionalism of our British colleagues, one must ask why an international organization, which is supposed to maintain a balance, … would have such a tilt.”
Yesterday, pressed again by journalists about rising tensions around North Korea, Lavrov expressed regret over U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s warning to North Korea “not to test [Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the Armed Forces of the United States,” as demonstrated in the Shayrat strike and the subsequent dropping of a huge bomb in Afghanistan. If this “figure of speech,” Lavrov replied, “is to be understood as meaning the unilateral use of force, then this is a very risky path…. I hope that there will be no unilateral actions like the ones we saw recently in Syria, and that the USA will follow the line repeatedly stated by President Trump during the election campaign.”
Asked about National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s recent call for “tough discussions” with Russia because of its assistance to the Syrian government and alleged “subversive actions in Europe,” Lavrov said that Moscow would not be derailed by every remark by every official, but would “orient toward what President of the USA Trump himself has reiterated, namely that he does want to improve relations with the Russian Federation. We are also ready for that.” Trump had tweeted on April 13, “Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!”