Horse trading in Sochi
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(13 May 2019) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Sochi, Russia (05/14/2019) to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin to discuss what the State Department identified as the “full range of bilateral and multilateral challenges” comes at a time of when global instability touches practically every continent. The agenda is packed with security and geopolitical issues of global concerns. Idealists may have high expectations that a meeting of this nature at a time of great stress on global stability will end in resolution of these issues. Realists justifiably may think otherwise.
The lack of transparency in U.S.-Russian relations leaves the world in the dark on the issues under consideration, in particular the issues discussed between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during those private telephone conversations that are not revealed to the general public. Speculation is rampant and all are kept guessing. Pompeo’s trip to Sochi is not so much to seal any deal or deals Trump and Putin agreed on tentatively over the phone. There will be horse trading in Sochi. We will know sooner rather than later which country is sacrificed.
There are several hot issues which have become mere pawns for the American and Russian presidents. So far, Russia seems to be playing from a stronger position than the United States, at least in the short term. Unexplainably, and to much global consternation, Putin has steadily gained the upper hand over Trump on practically every issue. While this untenable situation seems unbelievable, it should not be surprising, except to those who fail to accept that the Trump Administration does not have a foreign policy framework or geopolitical strategic approach to global issues. Surrounded by sycophants who support the view that the U.S. wins on the global stage by its mere projection of military power, the Trump Administration from the very outset has exercised foreign policy by the seat of his pants.
Issues at the top of the agenda, depending on whose priority is considered, include: Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Rising tensions between Israel and the Palestinians seem to be drifting along without much attention being paid to a resolution. No doubt the dynamics of each issue could change overnight and the pendulum could swing either way. All issues are evolving, some at a greater pace than others.
The issues surrounding each of the countries identified create a different level of urgency for the security and geopolitical interests of the U.S. and Russia. Realistically, all of these countries and the issues they face have become pawns between the U.S. and Russia and there is every reason for the international community not to believe any good resolution will emerge from the horse trading in Sochi.
I will repeat here, as I have written before, President Trump is desperate for a geopolitical victory. Members of Trump’s foreign policy team effused confidence, though misplaced, that victory in Venezuela, specifically regime change, was imminent. If there weren’t so many domestic issues threatening Trump’s presidency thus crowding the headlines there would be many foreign policy watchers concluding that failure in Venezuela is one of the Trump Administration’s greatest failures to date.
Trump Administration’s misreading of the Venezuelan dynamics, particularly Russia’s support for Maduro, at least in the short term, postponed or reduced the likelihood of a clear U.S. victory in Venezuela. However, opposition against Nicolás Maduro’s regime has grown so significantly that any victory by Maduro over the Juan Guaidó led opposition may be nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory. On the other hand, Maduro’s military support may have been strengthened, or at least emboldened by a less than robust U.S. military support for a failed Guaidó’s initial revolution. A final outcome will depend on how far Putin plans on going in support of Venezuela.
Thus, Pompeo’s trip to Sochi is brought into sharp focus not so much on the plethora of issues on the agenda, but on what Pompeo offers Putin for a U.S. victory in Venezuela. If Pompeo offers Putin a free hand in Ukraine, it may be enough for Putin to walk away from Venezuela. Will the Ukraine prize also means Cuba and Nicaragua will be left to the whims of foreign policy hawks in the Trump Administration? The hemisphere and the Caribbean sub-region will be pressed to keep a close watch on the possible outcomes of these issues.
Depending on the outcomes, the implications could be great. Putin seems to have a strong hand in all of these issues. In the cases of Venezuela and Ukraine, the people of both countries will lose. Solutions to their problems will be determined by outside powers and not from within, thereby not guaranteed to be reflective of the will of the majority of their peoples and the potential for the long-term is subject to unqualified speculation.
There are other critical issues on the agenda, such as Iran and Syria that are quite troubling. The Europeans find themselves in a difficult place with regard to Iran, and the remnants of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal) are on life support. Regime change in Iran resulting from possible U.S. military action sends tremors throughout Europe’s capitals. Short of military action by the United States against Iran, the future of Iran’s continued participation in what’s left of the Iran Nuclear Deal, may not be determined so much by the Trump Administration but more so by Iran’s response to provocation from the United States. European countries will find it untenable to continue with the Iran Nuclear Deal should Iran selectively determine which provisions to uphold. Resumption of uranium enrichment will be a major game changer. The Iran nuclear deal will come crashing down and the region and the world will become significantly more unstable.
The respective roles of the United States and Russia and the trade offs agreed in Sochi or later may be too much to prevent increased instability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Israel have great stakes in the outcomes in both Iran and Syria. Both countries may find themselves at war with Iran and as tension rises in the region the threat from Iran’s proxies in Syria and the region may create greater challenges to these countries.
At the end of the day, it’s the horse trading in Sochi which will strengthen and embolden Putin as a global leader, thus setting the stage for global geopolitical and security instability for the immediate future.
© 2019 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post