For the past two years, phone calls between the leaders of the United States and Russia have gone pretty much like this: Barack Obama gets on the line and tells Vladimir Putin that his actions are making the world a more dangerous place.
The two men didn’t speak often – the last call was in July – but White House readouts show Mr. Obama repeated two key points to Mr. Putin almost every time they spoke: the need for “a political transition” in Syria (diplomatic speak for replacing President Bashar al-Assad), and a demand that the Kremlin cease its meddling in Ukraine. We don’t know much about how Mr. Putin responded to Mr. Obama’s haranguing: Kremlin readouts of the same phone calls are thin gruel.
Tuesday’s phone call between Mr. Putin and the new U.S. president-elect, Donald Trump, could hardly have gone more differently.
For starters, most of the information came from the Kremlin, rather than Mr. Trump’s transition team. More substantively, the men appear to agree about how to resolve Syria (hint: Mr. al-Assad can stay), and neither side mentioned the word “Ukraine.”
The call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin came before the U.S. president-elect has spoken at length with many of his country’s traditional allies, deepening worries over the foreign policy direction of the incoming administration. Media reports say former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – who, like Mr. Trump, has praised Mr. Putin as a “strong leader” and suggested a willingness to recognize Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea – is now the leading contender to be the next U.S. Secretary of State.
A geopolitical conflict sometimes described as a “new cold war” may be over almost as soon as Mr. Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20.
The U.S., of course, won the real Cold War, which ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. If there is indeed peace ahead, and Tuesday’s phone call set the parameters for it, Russia can be said to have won this round.
“President-elect Trump noted to President Putin that he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia,” read part of a brief synopsis of the call posted on the website for Mr. Trump’s transition team.
The Kremlin filled in the details. “During the conversation, Putin and Trump not only fell in on the assessment of the extremely unsatisfactory state of the Russian-U.S. relations but also spoke in favour of active joint efforts toward their normalization and bringing them into the track of constructive co-operation on a wide range of issues,” read a report on the official Tass news wire.
“The sides stressed the necessity of creating a reliable basis for bilateral ties by means of the development of their trade-and-economic component,” it continued.
From the Russian perspective, “normalization” and the development of trade and economic ties mean one thing only: an end to the sanctions war that Mr. Obama’s administration launched after Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and then threw its shoulder behind armed separatists in the east of Ukraine, in the spring of 2014.
A lowering of Western sanctions targeting Russia’s defence, finance and energy sectors would be a massive gain for Mr. Putin (and a huge defeat for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko). The sanctions have exacerbated an economic crisis in Russia; if maintained, Kremlin coffers look set to run low just as Mr. Putin is set to ask his country for another six-year term in 2018 elections.
A deal between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin over Ukraine would cause furor in Europe, where NATO members Poland, Estonia and Latvia fear they could be the next to face Russian aggression if Mr. Putin’s neo-Soviet ambitions are unchecked.
Mr. Obama is headed to Europe this week for what is expected to be his final trip abroad. He said Monday that part of his message will be to tell European leaders that he believes the president-elect is committed to NATO, despite Mr. Trump’s campaign-trail remark that the alliance was “obsolete.”
On Tuesday, even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg — long a vociferous critic of Mr. Putin – was changing his tune and calling for “constructive co-operation” with Moscow.
“The message from NATO has been that we want dialogue with Russia. Russia is our biggest neighbour, Russia is there to stay and especially when tensions run high and especially when we face many different security challenges, it is important to have dialogue,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
On the Syria file, the Kremlin readout of the Trump-Putin phone call suggests again that the U.S. president-elect is coming to office with a viewpoint remarkably similar to Mr. Putin’s.
Russia waded into the Syrian conflict last year, lending air support to Mr. al-Assad’s forces in their war against myriad anti-regime forces, including some U.S.-backed rebels. Mr. Putin has claimed there is no real distinction between the U.S.-backed militias and those fighting under the flags of al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State. Indeed some of the “moderate” rebels have made tactical alliances on the ground with an al-Qaeda-linked group.
Mr. Trump has said he will end U.S. support for anti-Assad rebels – Mr. Trump said on the campaign trail that the U.S. didn’t know who it was really helping in Syria – and will instead co-operate with Russia in the fight against Islamic State.
“Putin and Trump shared the opinion on the necessity to pool efforts against major common enemy – international terrorism and extremism. In this context, they discussed issues of the settlement of the Syrian crisis,” the Kremlin press service said
The Kremlin also reported that the two men agreed to end all interference in the internal affairs of the other country. That will be interpreted as Mr. Trump agreeing to end decades of support for politicians and organizations that have been battling to bring more democracy to Russia.
Even before the phone call – and the rumoured appointment of Mr. Giuliani – the Kremlin could scarcely contain its glee over Mr. Trump’s surprise election win.
Dmitry Kiselyov, a confidant of Mr. Putin’s who is also the country’s most prominent news anchor, surprised viewers on Sunday when he suddenly dropped the anti-U.S. vitriol that has long been a staple of his show.
There was no more need for anti-Americanism, Mr. Kiselyov said cheerfully. “Russia has a lot of trust in Trump.”