Eurasia Analyst

 

Eurasia Analyst
Volume V, Number 1 July 2017
Precarious Balance by Susan J. Cavan

 

Precarious Balance

There is a palpable sense of expectation in advance of the first official meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the context could not be more fraught; setting aside the US domestic issues surrounding the Russia investigation currently being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the international scene has witnessed a disconcerting realignment of forces as Russia, China, and Turkey maneuver to position themselves more advantageously in the absence of US leadership.

The North Korean “gift” of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test will now dominate some measure of discussions this week. Kim Jong Un’s taunts are particularly stinging in the face of Russian and Chinese coordination in response. The United States may hope to persuade a mitigation of the joint statement made by Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin at their two-day summit in advance of the G-20 meetings, but the fact that they have discussed and agreed a position starts any US efforts on North Korea at a disadvantage. China and Russia agreed that military options do not present a path to resolution of North Korea’s provocations. In addition to condemning both the North Korean missile test and the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system, the Russian-Chinese joint statement declared: “Any possibility of using military means to solve the problems of the Korean Peninsula should be ruled out.” (1)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his comments on the joint statement, made clear that increased economic sanctions would be viewed as an effort at “strangling” the North Korean economy and were thus unacceptable. (2) The fact that this was not an official element of the joint statement might signal a breath of air between the Russian and Chinese positions that could be useful in negotiations.

The US response, setting aside presidential tweets, which would perhaps boost ratings if this were a television program but are generally unserious and unhelpful from a diplomatic perspective, has been to condemn the attack, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denouncing the test as a “new escalation” of the threat from North Korea and calling for “global action” to restrain the rogue state. (3) The United States and South Korea also announced a new missile drill and test fire as a countermeasure to the North Korean test. (4)

China is a key element to the resolution of any crisis on the Korean peninsula, and it will be crucial to see how much space exists between the Russian and Chinese positions on sanctions. Russia, which responded to earlier impositions of sanctions against North Korea by increasing its exports, may attempt to pressure China to adhere to its more strident opposition to new sanctions; however, as mentioned above, the absence of a joint position on economic sanctions suggests the failure of consensus on this issue.

While it is vital to note the importance of the timing of the Xi-Putin pre-G-20 summit and public avowal of a strong Russian-Chinese “strategic partnership,” Putin should not be under any illusions that Russia has, for some time, been anything more than the junior partner in this venture. Thus, using bilateral negotiations with Xi to highlight the disparities in the Russian and Chinese approaches might prove fruitful. While North Korea represents a pressing issue to the United States, Russian interest is secondary—North Korea serves as a further bludgeon to use against US leadership in the world community and a destination for Russian exports, but until Kim Jong Un turns his attention northward, the issue is not central to the Putin leadership’s strategic foreign policy goal of multipolarity in the international system.

Here, the Russian-Chinese relationship takes on serious strategic import: Combined efforts to influence, shape, and perhaps destroy international institutions that do not serve Russian or Chinese interests is the most potent sphere of common ground that Putin and Xi occupy. Despite the immediacy of the North Korean missile provocation, discussions this week should focus on identifying and accepting what partial agreement is possible and rejecting attempts to dictate US actions. China and the United States cannot be full partners on this issue, as their objectives for the Korean peninsula are mutually exclusive: the United States seeks a re-united Korea under South Korea’s auspices, and China vehemently rejects the possibility of a solution that locates a strong, united US ally at its doorstep. Understanding these constraints, US policy should aim for achievable outcomes.

Advice on the much-heralded Putin-Trump meeting this week will be thick on the ground. Reports that the American president was seeking “deliverables” for Putin are disconcerting, but, it is worth noting that Putin has made clear exactly what he would like to have delivered: Declaring that Russian forbearance “has its limits,” Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov warned that the United States should return Moscow’s ambassadorial summer camps (seized by order of then-President Barack Obama along with the expulsion of Russian diplomats over the Russian election hacking issue), in order to “free Russian from the need to take retaliatory moves.” (5) I hope it goes without saying that acceding to Putin’s demands on this issue, particularly given the sensitivity of this president’s Russia problem, would be taken as a sign of weakness in Moscow, at home, and internationally.

It is perhaps wiser to tamp down expectations of this Trump-Putin meeting. There need be no predictions for outcomes, no announcement of asks, and no delivery of sweeteners. This is presumed to be a get-acquainted session, and as such should be free of grand aspirations. Granted, with a different type of “modern” president, one might hope for a condemnation of Russia’s aggressive and offensive election meddling, but there is no option at the moment than to work with the cards we have dealt ourselves.

There is another interesting factor that brings the importance of NATO to the forefront of this week’s meetings. On June 29, Russia announced the finalization of a deal to provide the S-400 series missile defense system to Turkey. (6) A 2013 Turkish decision to award the contract for such a system to China sparked consternation among Turkey’s NATO allies, and that plan was eventually scrapped. Turkish President Erdogan and Putin have teased discussions over the possibility of Russia supplying this NATO ally with a system; however, this deal seems likely designed to spark a divisive response from the Allies and perpetuate conflict with the Turkish leadership. The benefit to Putin is obvious—any chance to rile NATO is not to be missed. The benefit to Erdogan is less clear. Perhaps the G-20 meeting is an appropriate time to ask the Turkish president to make clear his intentions.

The most positive outcome this week would see the United States reaffirming its commitments in Europe and throughout the global economic community. Taking the opportunity in Warsaw to emphasize the role of NATO and the importance of Article Five would be a powerful message throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, as well as a relief to the president’s Polish hosts.

The actual agenda of the G-20 presents problematic conflicts with President Trump’s approach to international economic relations, but there may be opportunities to present a more comprehensive expansion of the US approach on climate post-Paris, as well as initiatives on Chancellor Merkel’s focus on Africa and sustainable development.

This is a precarious moment in international relations, and recent developments demand a thoughtful reassessment of US objectives and intentions. But this week, for this series of meetings, small victories and doing no harm are noble enough goals.

 

Source Notes

1) “Joint statement by the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries on the Korean Peninsula’s problems,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, July 4, 2017, via http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2807662.

2) “Russia, China to put forward initiative on North Korea at UN meeting,” TASS, July 5, 2017, via tass.com/politics/954819.

3) Ben Westcott and Stella Kim, “US, China divided over how to deal with new North Korean ICBM threat,” CNN, July 5, 2017, via www.cnn.com/2017/07/04/asia/north-korea-missile-response/index.html.

4) Ibid.

5) “Russia says it’s patience with U.S. is running thin in returning Russian embassy assets,” CBS News, July 3, 2017, via http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-says-its-patience-with-u-s-is-running-thin-in-returning-russian-embassy-assets/.

6) “Contract with Turkey on S-400 missile systems ‘agreed upon’ – Putin aide,” RT, June 29, 2017, via https://www.rt.com/news/394604-turkey-russia-s-400-contract/.

By Susan J. Cavan (sjcavan@bu.edu)

Copyright © 2017 resides with individual authors. All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to EurasiaAnalyst@gmail.com. Visit our website www.eurasiaanalyst.org or follow us on Twitter @EurasiaAnalyst. To subscribe or unsubscribe to the Eurasia Analyst, please contact EurasiaAnalyst@gmail.com.

Eurasia Analyst
  Beginning with our first issue, Volume I, Number 1; 26 March 2012, the Eurasia Analyst has provided a forum for independent researchers and specialists to publish their analysis of current events and significant developments regarding political, military, and security affairs across Eurasia.    
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Eurasia Analyst Volume I, Number 1
26 March 2012 In this Issue: Georgian parliamentary elections: Succession in the making by Robyn Angley Putin's Choice by Susan J. Cavan   Georgian parliamentary elections: Succession in the making by Robyn Angley This October, Georgians are scheduled to go to the polls and select...
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A Page from Putin’s Playbook: Political Commissar on NSC

Signals

A Publication of Eurasia Analyst

Volume II, Number 1             2 February 2017

Der Kommissar’s in Town, uh-oh

Newly minted US President Donald Trump has been very busy in his two weeks in office, demonstrating his flair for the dramatic, headline-grabbing executive actions, tin-eared statements and appearances, confoundingly erratic policy pronouncements and investigations. <The sound of jaws dropping at his insistence on conducting an investigation of fraud in the election that brought him to power was nearly deafening.>

With this whirlwind of activity, it is easy to lose sight of the details…and the truly important changes taking place. Whether your focus is on the putative erosions of civil liberties, corruption in the executive branch, or the importance of civil-military relations, these two weeks have provided plenty of fodder to process. But for all the policy mishigas, which can be challenged in court and subject to injunction, as with the “Muslim ban,” serious attention is focusing on the structural changes ordered to the highest security and defense advisory body in the nation.

Trump’s presidential memorandum, “Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council,” adds “the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff,” Reince Preibus, and “the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist” Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council (NSC) as “attendees.”  It also adds them ex officio to the “Principals Committee” (PC), which is a smaller advisory core tasked with “considering policy issues that affect the national security interests of the United States.” (1) It is unusual, but not unprecedented, to have the president’s political strategist on the NSC; however, it is astounding, when juxtaposed against the removal of the Director of National Intelligence and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the highest level presidential security advisers by statute—from the Principals Committee, except “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” (2)

When questioned by those damned first amendment literalists—the press corps—on the rationale behind the move to separate the leading military and intelligence officials in the country from the highest-level security advisory body, Trump press spokesman Sean Spicer fumed: “The idea that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the DNI are being downgraded or removed is utter nonsense.” (3) This, of course, is a lie. The purpose of leaving the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the DNI off the list of regular attendees of the Principals Committee is precisely to let them know that they are not in charge of security policy. To say they “are welcome to attend” meetings is not to say they are in charge of the agenda or discussion. Political strategy now trumps security and this classic power move over committee membership versus invitees is what passes for subtlety from these alpha dog wannabes.

While their tactics are remarkably ham-handed, don’t doubt that there is a strategic vision at the heart of these executive changes. It did seem curious that the very first rule Trump insisted his republican compatriots break involved civilian oversight of the military for the nomination of General “Mad dog” Mattis. (4) It also seems resonant of Putin’s appointment of Sergey Ivanov, his longtime strategic adviser, to be the first “civilian” head of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Ivanov put aside his general’s uniform—his KGB/FSB general’s uniform—to move to the defense ministry. This shuffle was less about civilian control and more about Putin’s control, an attempt to put one of his most trusted allies in charge of a military he did not trust. (5)

And Putin’s decision to move Ivanov to the Defense Ministry followed by a year his first attempt to assert control over the Russian military by decreeing the insertion of FSB commissars in military units, where they were “tasked with investigating terrorist activity, espionage, smuggling, sedition and a host of other criminal activity within the Russian military.” (6) While this attempt to revive political commissars to supervise the military failed, it was a significant signal that Putin tried to assert himself in this way so soon after his appointment as acting president.

Perhaps Trump’s appointments and restructuring of the National Security Council and Principals Committee membership likewise give indication of the organization he fears would be capable of disrupting his strategic vision. Yet, that seems ridiculous. The military has enough to do protecting this country from all threats foreign and domestic to involve itself in presidential politics and power struggles, right?

It should be noted that Trump’s strategist, Stephen Bannon, fancies himself a “Leninist,” (7) so perhaps pulling a page from President Putin’s playbook is less about the Russian president’s sway over the Trump administration and more about the political strategist who has elbowed the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff out of his statutory advisory role having a fondness for the ideological father of the Soviet Union. Who would ever have imagined?

 

End Notes

1) White House, “Presidential Memorandum Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council,” January 28, 2017, via https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/28/presidential-memorandum-organization-national-security-council-and.

2) Ibid.

3) Pamela Engel, “White House press secretary goes on lengthy rant in attempt to clarify changes to national security team,” January 30, 2017, via http://www.businessinsider.com/spicer-trump-national-security-council-2017-1.

4) For a discussion of the appointment provisions, please see: Mike Rappaport, “Mad Dog Mattis, the 7 Year Delay Provision, and the Appointments Clause,” December 5, 2016, via http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/12/05/mad-dog-mattis-the-7-year-delay-provision-and-the-appointments-clause/.

5) Sophia Lambroschini, “Putin Reshuffles Government,” RFE/RL, March 28, 2001, via http://www.rferl.org/a/1096081.html.

6) Susan J/ Cavan, “Watching the Troops,” in “Executive Branch,” The NIS Observed: An Analytical Review, Volume V Number 4 (29 February 2000), via http://www.bu.edu/iscip/digest/vol5/ed0504.html. The Edict under discussion was accessed here: Edict No. 318, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 12 Feb 00; FBIS-SOV-2000-0220, via World News Connection For more discussion of this edict, please see: Jacob Kipp and Robert Love, “A New Russian Presidential Decree on the FSB Organs Operating Inside the Russian Militaries: Analysis and Abstract,” Foreign Military Studies Office, via http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/putin.htm.

7) Here’s the quote as cited by Ryan Lizza, in The New Yorker, November 14, 2016, via http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/steve-bannon-will-lead-trumps-white-house:“I’m a Leninist,” Steve Bannon told a writer for The Daily Beast, in late 2013. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too.”

Susan J. Cavan

Eurasia Analyst
  Beginning with our first issue, Volume I, Number 1; 26 March 2012, the Eurasia Analyst has provided a forum for independent researchers and specialists...
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Eurasia Analyst Volume I, Number 1
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Vol IV, No. 2, 30 October 2015 Palatial Presidencies

 Volume IV, No. 2         @eurasiaanalyst          October 30, 2015

Palatial Presidencies

By Susan J. Cavan

Are modern presidential-style democracies just another way of constructing corrupt oligarchic regimes with personality driven multiple decade, one-person rule? A “quick start” guide to identifying the type of presidential democracy in any given state might best be found in the size of the presidential palace. If a state’s leader constructs a multi-million dollar palace while in office…he probably isn’t planning to go anywhere else, anytime soon. Before long the presidency, like the palace, becomes a representation of the politician, and it’s just as hard to get him to leave office, as it is to evict him from the palace grounds.

Turkey’s White Palace, Ak Saray, initially was slated to be the seat of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When Erdogan won the presidential elections in August 2014, Ak Saray became the presidential palace. (1) Interestingly, when Russian President Vladimir Putin first built his palatial estate, it was as prime minister as well. (2) Despite court ordered condemnation of Turkey’s White Palace construction, building suspensions, and protests over its placement in previously protected forest reserves, Erdogan persisted and answered court sanctions with: “If they have the power, let them destroy it.” (3) N.B.: rejecting judicial decisions that hinder even one’s most egregiously authoritarian actions are another sure sign that democratic might not be the proper adjective to describe this type of president.

In reality, elections are the real shorthand for democracy. As such, the levels of electoral fraud and fakery—often accompanied by the removal of election monitors—provide significant insight into the path a president might take. The June 2015 parliamentary elections in Turkey, which clearly were a disappointment to President Erdogan, as they failed to produce a majority for his Development and Justice Party (AKP), nonetheless represented a positive democratic development.   Disappointment in unexpected electoral results is not typical of the mature authoritarian presidency and holds some element of hope for Turkey’s democratic development. Despite June’s setback, President Erdogan remains as acerbic as ever, threatening opposition political leaders who refuse to visit his “illegally constructed” palace with claims that they will bend to his will: “May a rock as large as Kaçak Saray fall on your heads. You will come [to the palace] like a lamb. You have no other option.” (4)

Turkey’s snap elections, scheduled for this Sunday, November 1, are now also thought to be unlikely to produce a majority for President Erdogan’s AKP, assuming relatively free and fair balloting, and while that may move Turkey towards a coalition government, it may also result in more polarization as yet another round of elections are contemplated. (5) While domestic political turmoil is chaotic no matter the circumstances, ambiguous election results and coalition negotiations in an atmosphere of heightened tensions over a devastating terrorist bombing in the capital, an increasingly violent struggle with separatist minorities, a devolving state spinning off desperate refugees to the south, and jihadist ideologues threatening further terror attacks do not create an ideal atmosphere for calm political decision-making. Yet the chaos may be a more welcome result than the possibility of the consolidation of yet more power in the hands of Turkey’s first democratically elected president, whose thirst for power just might throw a shadow.

Turkey is facing a particularly critical political moment, with extreme challenges even a long-ingrained democratic system would find difficult to address. A coalition government might be a messier solution, but a one-party system under the palatial presidency of Erdogan might prove even messier. Consider Erdogan’s brief embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin: Despite simmering disagreements over Russian policy toward Syria and the annexation of Crimea, Putin and Erdogan managed a high level summit last year, resulting in cooperation agreements, most notably over new pipelines and nuclear power facilities. (6) Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, as well as their poorly-reasoned testing of Turkey’s air defense systems seems to have cast doubt on previous arrangements. This week, Turkey’s state-owned pipeline company, Botas, announced that it would be suing Russia’s Gazprom over breached promises for price discounts. It seems Gazprom never signed off on the agreements made between the two presidents last year. (7)

Any blossoming relationship between the Russian and Turkish presidents may have faded with the reality of opposing foreign policy aims and energy cooperation goals. As a NATO member, and one that values its membership dearly, Turkey was unlikely to fall sway to Putin’s Russia. It is more likely that these two distinct palatial presidents saw a brief synchronicity in approaches to western criticism that set them momentarily on a similar path. Their divergent national interests, however, seem unlikely to draw near again despite the appeal President Putin’s highly personalized presidential system of rule might hold for President Erdogan.

Vladimir Putin is not the first leader to warp ideology to fit his executive authoritarian vision, however his multi-polar, sovereign democracy rhetoric is driving a distinctly anti-Lockean view that states are not created to represent the will of the people, but rather to appear to represent the citizenry, while in fact focusing on enlarging the bank accounts of a few authoritarian-minded individuals who control the mechanisms of voting and knock out election monitoring, all while pumping out opinion polls that show stratospheric personal popularity (the alleged validity of which really makes one wonder why the election monitors are hamstrung).  State controlled media pump fears of outside interference as a rallying point for nationalistic rage. Despite Putin’s concerns, however, sovereignty (however diminished) still exists as a concept of contemporary international relations, so if the elections are solid and your citizens sustain support for you, there is no need to fear the popular protests or color revolutions that once shook the former Soviet Union, nor those of the Arab Spring. That is, if the elections are valid….

The irksome element of Putin’s rhetoric is its appeal, particularly to other would-be authoritarian presidents who see parliamentary structures as constraining their ability to construct a super-presidential regime much as they build their presidential palaces. With authority aggregated in the presidency, as the argument goes, the state would be more effective in facing terrorism, civil war, economic decline, corruption, etc. Sadly, free speech and freedom of the press are the first victims in such regimes: no need to draw back the curtain on methodologies that might cause citizens to balk at the cost of suppressing minorities or noticing that corruption investigations target only political rivals.

In Russia, where economic sanctions and import restrictions deliver hardships for the population, it’s not just the presidents who get to construct palaces. Recent weeks have seen the release of images of a grand estate reputed to belong to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. (8) It has brought the wrath of the authorities upon him, but Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny has long sought to publicize the outrages of Russian apparat fortune, such as the recent revelations about Putin’s spokesman’s multi-million dollar home. (9) So perhaps, it’s not just the size of the president’s palace that stands as a test for authoritarian governance, but the breadth of the palatial hubris within his entourage.

Sunday’s elections are likely to represent an important moment in Turkey’s political journey. For now, President Erdogan has offered qualified assurances that he’ll respect the results: “We will all together respect the result that emerges from the ballot boxes. But when we look at societies in the world where stability and confidence exist, we don’t tend to see coalition governments; rather, we see single-party governments….” (10) Time will tell.

By Susan J. Cavan

(sjcavan@bu.edu)

Source Notes:

1) Turkey’s President And His 1,100-Room ‘White Palace’

December 24, 2014 9:23 AM ET, via http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/12/24/370931835/turkeys-president-and-his-1-100-room-white-palace.

2) Council of State decides presidential palace illegal, May 26, 2014, Today’s Zaman, via http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_council-of-state-decides-presidential-palace-illegal_381813.html.

3) Images purpoted to be of Putin’s estate are available here: http://www.rferl.org/content/putin_mansion_photographs/2283270.html;

Erdogan’s White Palace images, here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2014/oct/29/turkeys-new-presidential-palace-unveiled-in-pictures.

4) Erdoğan tells opposition boycotting his palace they will come to it later ‘like a lamb’, Today’s Zaman, 17 October 2015, via http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_erdogan-tells-opposition-boycotting-his-palace-they-will-come-to-it-later-like-a-lamb_401811.html.

5) Turkish poll shows AK Party falling short of majority on November 1, Reuters, Thu Oct 15, 2015 5:27pm EDT, via http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/15/us-turkey-election-survey-idUSKCN0S92RP20151015.

6) See, for example, “Putin’s Pitch to Turkey,” Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, December 17, 2014, via www.eurasiaanalyst.org.

7) Turkey sues Gazprom over Gas Prices, New Europe, 28 October 2015, via http://neurope.eu/article/turkey-sues-gazprom-over-gas-prices/.

8) See, for example: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11963934/Russias-defence-minister-secretly-builds-12-million-palace-say-campaigners.html.

9) Kremlin Spokesman Linked To $7.1 Million House In Latest Navalny Exposé, RFE/RL, September 17, 2015, via http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-peskov-house-navalny/27254407.html

10) Wishing for a ‘single-party gov’t,’ Turkish president says he will respect Nov 1 result, Hurriyet Daily News, October 30, 2015, via http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/wishing-for-a-single-party-govt-turkish-president-says-he-will-respect-nov-1-result.aspx?pageID=238&nID=90526&NewsCatID=338.

Copyright © 2015 resides with individual authors.  All rights reserved.  Send requests for permissions to EurasiaAnalyst@gmail.com

Visit our website www.eurasiaanalyst.org or follow us on Twitter @EurasiaAnalyst. To subscribe or unsubscribe to the Eurasia Analyst, please contact EurasiaAnalyst@gmail.com

Eurasia Analyst

 

Eurasia Analyst
Volume V, Number 1 July 2017
Precarious Balance by Susan J. Cavan

 

Precarious Balance

There is a palpable sense of expectation in advance of the first official meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the context could not be more fraught; setting aside the US domestic issues surrounding the Russia investigation currently being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the international scene has witnessed a disconcerting realignment of forces as Russia, China, and Turkey maneuver to position themselves more advantageously in the absence of US leadership.

The North Korean “gift” of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test will now dominate some measure of discussions this week. Kim Jong Un’s taunts are particularly stinging in the face of Russian and Chinese coordination in response. The United States may hope to persuade a mitigation of the joint statement made by Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin at their two-day summit in advance of the G-20 meetings, but the fact that they have discussed and agreed a position starts any US efforts on North Korea at a disadvantage. China and Russia agreed that military options do not present a path to resolution of North Korea’s provocations. In addition to condemning both the North Korean missile test and the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system, the Russian-Chinese joint statement declared: “Any possibility of using military means to solve the problems of the Korean Peninsula should be ruled out.” (1)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his comments on the joint statement, made clear that increased economic sanctions would be viewed as an effort at “strangling” the North Korean economy and were thus unacceptable. (2) The fact that this was not an official element of the joint statement might signal a breath of air between the Russian and Chinese positions that could be useful in negotiations.

The US response, setting aside presidential tweets, which would perhaps boost ratings if this were a television program but are generally unserious and unhelpful from a diplomatic perspective, has been to condemn the attack, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denouncing the test as a “new escalation” of the threat from North Korea and calling for “global action” to restrain the rogue state. (3) The United States and South Korea also announced a new missile drill and test fire as a countermeasure to the North Korean test. (4)

China is a key element to the resolution of any crisis on the Korean peninsula, and it will be crucial to see how much space exists between the Russian and Chinese positions on sanctions. Russia, which responded to earlier impositions of sanctions against North Korea by increasing its exports, may attempt to pressure China to adhere to its more strident opposition to new sanctions; however, as mentioned above, the absence of a joint position on economic sanctions suggests the failure of consensus on this issue.

While it is vital to note the importance of the timing of the Xi-Putin pre-G-20 summit and public avowal of a strong Russian-Chinese “strategic partnership,” Putin should not be under any illusions that Russia has, for some time, been anything more than the junior partner in this venture. Thus, using bilateral negotiations with Xi to highlight the disparities in the Russian and Chinese approaches might prove fruitful. While North Korea represents a pressing issue to the United States, Russian interest is secondary—North Korea serves as a further bludgeon to use against US leadership in the world community and a destination for Russian exports, but until Kim Jong Un turns his attention northward, the issue is not central to the Putin leadership’s strategic foreign policy goal of multipolarity in the international system.

Here, the Russian-Chinese relationship takes on serious strategic import: Combined efforts to influence, shape, and perhaps destroy international institutions that do not serve Russian or Chinese interests is the most potent sphere of common ground that Putin and Xi occupy. Despite the immediacy of the North Korean missile provocation, discussions this week should focus on identifying and accepting what partial agreement is possible and rejecting attempts to dictate US actions. China and the United States cannot be full partners on this issue, as their objectives for the Korean peninsula are mutually exclusive: the United States seeks a re-united Korea under South Korea’s auspices, and China vehemently rejects the possibility of a solution that locates a strong, united US ally at its doorstep. Understanding these constraints, US policy should aim for achievable outcomes.

Advice on the much-heralded Putin-Trump meeting this week will be thick on the ground. Reports that the American president was seeking “deliverables” for Putin are disconcerting, but, it is worth noting that Putin has made clear exactly what he would like to have delivered: Declaring that Russian forbearance “has its limits,” Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov warned that the United States should return Moscow’s ambassadorial summer camps (seized by order of then-President Barack Obama along with the expulsion of Russian diplomats over the Russian election hacking issue), in order to “free Russian from the need to take retaliatory moves.” (5) I hope it goes without saying that acceding to Putin’s demands on this issue, particularly given the sensitivity of this president’s Russia problem, would be taken as a sign of weakness in Moscow, at home, and internationally.

It is perhaps wiser to tamp down expectations of this Trump-Putin meeting. There need be no predictions for outcomes, no announcement of asks, and no delivery of sweeteners. This is presumed to be a get-acquainted session, and as such should be free of grand aspirations. Granted, with a different type of “modern” president, one might hope for a condemnation of Russia’s aggressive and offensive election meddling, but there is no option at the moment than to work with the cards we have dealt ourselves.

There is another interesting factor that brings the importance of NATO to the forefront of this week’s meetings. On June 29, Russia announced the finalization of a deal to provide the S-400 series missile defense system to Turkey. (6) A 2013 Turkish decision to award the contract for such a system to China sparked consternation among Turkey’s NATO allies, and that plan was eventually scrapped. Turkish President Erdogan and Putin have teased discussions over the possibility of Russia supplying this NATO ally with a system; however, this deal seems likely designed to spark a divisive response from the Allies and perpetuate conflict with the Turkish leadership. The benefit to Putin is obvious—any chance to rile NATO is not to be missed. The benefit to Erdogan is less clear. Perhaps the G-20 meeting is an appropriate time to ask the Turkish president to make clear his intentions.

The most positive outcome this week would see the United States reaffirming its commitments in Europe and throughout the global economic community. Taking the opportunity in Warsaw to emphasize the role of NATO and the importance of Article Five would be a powerful message throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, as well as a relief to the president’s Polish hosts.

The actual agenda of the G-20 presents problematic conflicts with President Trump’s approach to international economic relations, but there may be opportunities to present a more comprehensive expansion of the US approach on climate post-Paris, as well as initiatives on Chancellor Merkel’s focus on Africa and sustainable development.

This is a precarious moment in international relations, and recent developments demand a thoughtful reassessment of US objectives and intentions. But this week, for this series of meetings, small victories and doing no harm are noble enough goals.

 

Source Notes

1) “Joint statement by the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries on the Korean Peninsula’s problems,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, July 4, 2017, via http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2807662.

2) “Russia, China to put forward initiative on North Korea at UN meeting,” TASS, July 5, 2017, via tass.com/politics/954819.

3) Ben Westcott and Stella Kim, “US, China divided over how to deal with new North Korean ICBM threat,” CNN, July 5, 2017, via www.cnn.com/2017/07/04/asia/north-korea-missile-response/index.html.

4) Ibid.

5) “Russia says it’s patience with U.S. is running thin in returning Russian embassy assets,” CBS News, July 3, 2017, via http://www.cbsnews.com/news/russia-says-its-patience-with-u-s-is-running-thin-in-returning-russian-embassy-assets/.

6) “Contract with Turkey on S-400 missile systems ‘agreed upon’ – Putin aide,” RT, June 29, 2017, via https://www.rt.com/news/394604-turkey-russia-s-400-contract/.

By Susan J. Cavan (sjcavan@bu.edu)

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