Russian Euphoria at Trump’s Retreats Tinged With Doubts, Concerns
(Bloomberg) -- It seemed like a dream come true for Vladimir Putin when Donald Trump ordered U.S. withdrawals from key global hotspots, prompting one of the administration’s toughest Russia hawks to tender his resignation. Now the Kremlin isn’t so sure.
Having gained more policy victories from Trump in 24 hours than in the whole of his presidency to date, Putin’s voiced caution on whether the U.S. leader will follow through on pledges to cut forces in Syria and Afghanistan, while Kremlin officials have begun to worry whether Russia will have to fill the vacuum if U.S. troops do leave.
Trump’s decision to recall all troops from Syria and halve the number deployed in Afghanistan triggered the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, seen by many U.S. allies as the last restraining influence on the president’s “America First” policies.
While the Kremlin contained any public jubilation, there have been hints of unease. “When stability and predictability give way to unpredictability, surprise and, shall we say, a certain chaotic nature in various decisions, that of course is a cause for discomfort and concern,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday.
Putin, who’s long demanded a U.S. withdrawal from Syria, called Trump’s decision the “right thing to do.” While there’s a widespread sense of disbelief in Moscow at the Kremlin’s good fortune, some officials also worry that, if it goes ahead, the reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan may leave Russia to inherit a conflict from its former Cold War rival that contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
“I’m not not sure whether the Russian leadership really welcomes all this,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization set up by the Kremlin. “It puts more responsibility on Russia’s shoulders and raises the cost of any failure. The U.S presence was a stabilizing factor. Now, as they say in America: ‘you break it, you own it.’’’
Putin has been ratcheting up Russia’s global role following his successful military intervention in Syria in 2015 that turned the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor against U.S.-backed militants. He’s followed up with a push into Africa, including grabbing a role as a key power broker in Libya. In Afghanistan, the Kremlin is courting the resurgent Taliban as the Western-backed government in Kabul weakens.
Mattis’s resignation is a “positive” development, said Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
Trump’s move to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria, where they supported Kurdish-led forces, was staunchly opposed by his security advisers including Mattis and leaves Russia in the driving seat. In Afghanistan, the U.S. plans to pull out 7,000 of its 14,000 troops, according to a U.S. defense official.
These steps, along with Mattis’ departure, represent a rejection of the traditional American view of projecting power all over the world, said Oleg Morozov, a Russian lawmaker and former senior Kremlin official. “Putin is victorious here in the sense that he offered a more effective strategy,” he said.
While Trump justified the pullback from Syria by saying Islamic State has been defeated, that’s not a view shared privately in Moscow. One immediate impact may be to bolster Iran’s influence and embolden Assad to strike at the oil-rich area of northern Syria under the control of the Kurdish forces.
The U.S. is “admitting that it was defeated months ago and that it has to choose a new policy and strategy that is more in line with realities on the ground in Syria,” said Diako Hosseini, director of the world studies program at the Center for Strategic Studies in Tehran, which is affiliated with the Iranian presidential office.
That’s a problem for Russia, already struggling to nudge Assad into even limited power-sharing in order to get Europe to help pay for Syria’s reconstruction after almost seven years of civil war. A rapid victory for the Syrian leader would complicate that task. For now, Iran sees the priority as maintaining its armed presence in Syria and as firm a grip as possible by the Assad regime.
Tha can lead to intervention from Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel, and confrontation, setting back efforts for a post-war settlement, according to Amir Handjani, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
The U.S. withdrawal “strengthens Iran at Russia’s expense and makes a serious conflict with Israel plausible,” agreed Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow.
Another complication for Russia is that Trump made his decision after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’s already planning to send more troops into northern Syria to strike at Kurds allied to separatists inside Turkey. Russia may be forced to try to manage a conflict that could easily spiral out of control.
It’s not clear if Trump and Erdogan came to any arrangement. One concern is that Turkey will eventually drop a plan to buy Russian S-400 air-defense missiles as Erdogan rekindles strategic ties with Washington, said Kortunov of the Kremlin-linked research group.
In Afghanistan, a gradual retreat of U.S.-led forces risks weakening the central government’s tenuous hold on the country even further.
For Russia, taking full responsibility for Syria may not be such a prize, according to Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international politics at Cardiff University.
“It’s an expensive, unreliable ally that takes your money but doesn’t follow your advice: a colossal strategic liability,” Radchenko said. “The right question to ask is not why Trump has ‘gifted’ Syria to Putin but why Putin has not ‘gifted’ this mess to someone else.”
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