No 'Grand Bargain' with Putin

Column: The risks to American deterrence aren't worth it

Donald Trump Vladimir Putin
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July 13, 2018

The national security adviser was ecstatic. The presidents of the United States and of Russia had agreed to a ceasefire in Syria, where years of civil war had killed some half a million people and created refugees of millions more. "The United States remains committed to defeating ISIS, helping to end the conflict in Syria, reducing suffering, and enabling people to return to their homes," the national security adviser said. "This agreement is an important step toward these common goals." Southwest Syria would become a zone of "de-confliction." Among the provinces covered by the agreement: Daraa.

The national security adviser was H.R. McMaster, the presidents were Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the time was July 2017, and the ceasefire lasted about 11 months. On June 18, 2018, Syrian government forces launched an offensive against the rebels in Daraa. And the government has since made rapid gains. The Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies are pushing up against the borders of both Israel and Jordan. The deal Trump and Putin made in Germany last year has gone the way of all such ceasefires in the Syrian conflict: It is extinct.

And not just in Syria. The "Minsk II" agreement reached in February 2015 called for among other things the cessation of war in eastern Ukraine, removal of heavy weaponry, withdrawal of foreign (read: Russian) troops and mercenaries from the east, and Ukrainian government control within established national borders. Of course the war continues. "Last week was in some way the worst we have seen for far this year," an Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe said recently. "In total, we recorded 7,700 ceasefire violations." That was in May. Meanwhile, Russia continues to violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 with its deployment of the prohibited SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile.

The Russians look at ceasefires and arms control the way you and I look at dieting and nutrition: as pledges that work to one's advantage in the short term but are ineluctably broken. There is no reason to expect Russia has either the intent or even the capability to act on its promises of diplomatic comity. It's almost as if Russia can't help being the bully, especially in regions it considers important such as its near abroad and its beachhead in the Middle East, and especially when it senses an opportunity and feels emboldened. Which is how it feels right now.

No mystery why. Heading into next week's summit in Helsinki, President Trump has made plain his displeasure with NATO, his willingness to take the same personal tack with Putin ("Putin's fine. He's fine") that he did with Kim Jong-Un, his open-mindedness about the future of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 ("What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That I can't tell you"), and his desire ultimately to remove U.S. troops from eastern Syria.

The move for Putin is clear: trade assurances that Iranian forces will leave Syria in exchange for American withdrawal from same; or U.S. acknowledgment of Russian sovereignty over Crimea; or reduction in stepped-up NATO military exercises; or extension of the 2010 New START Treaty; or sanctions relief; or some combination thereof.

Such a deal might tempt the president. News of a diplomatic coup has the potential to bolster an approval rating that has been drifting down since early June. Success with Russia would draw attention away from North Korean backsliding and intransigence. And a breakthrough with Putin would allow Trump to say that his years of avoiding moralistic condemnations of the Russian leader have paid off. He'd be making a grand gesture on the world stage, while thinking of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But he would be wrong to make a deal with Putin, or agree to any concessions in which reciprocity is not verifiable, concrete, and upfront. What happened in Daraa was a classic lesson in Russian diplomacy: talk bigly and nicely, then wait for the democracies to look inward and become distracted before making your next advance on the ground.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu's recent trip to Moscow. Bibi also wants Putin to force the Iranians to leave Syria. The two leaders exchanged politic words. But then Putin said Netanyahu was making a "personal" visit to watch soccer that just happened to allow for a presidential communication. It was an unnecessary slight. But it was also entirely predictable.

Moreover, on the day of the meeting, Israel shot down a drone launched from Syrian territory. Iran has been supplying Syria with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. This was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' way of reminding the world that they may be Russia's allies, but they are not her puppets. Say the United States begins to exit Syria after Russia tells us she will ask the Iranians to leave too. And the Iranians don't leave. Russia will shrug and say, well, we tried. What will America do then? Unleash a good scolding?

American withdrawal from Syria would be doubly self-defeating. Our support and reassurance mission there creates a situation of strength that balances the competing forces, prevents the Assad government from ever reestablishing full control, deters Turkey from becoming more involved in the conflict, and provides us intelligence and forward presence. Not only would we give all of that up with our departure, we also would remove the heavy boot that has been planted firmly on ISIS' neck. If there is any lesson of American intervention in the early twenty-first century, it is that radical Islamic terrorism festers in places where no state or military has established a monopoly of lethal force. It would be the height of folly to create such a place in eastern Syria on purpose.

I have no objection to President Trump meeting with President Putin. What makes me worry is the possibility of a "grand bargain" that turns out to be anything but. Give me instead the four No's: no sanctions relief; no recognition of Crimea; no withdrawal from Syria; and no more trusting in the words of Putin's government. They are as worthless as the ruble.