After Tillerson’s trip to Moscow, will Trump lift sanctions against Russia, or ever criticize Putin?

Rex Tillerson met Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin for two hours, in addition to his over three hours of meetings with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

See

Maxim Kireev (Moskau), “Gar nichts ist jetzt einfacher: Nach Trumps Wahlsieg hofften viele Russen auf ein neues, besseres Verhältnis mit den USA; Doch beim Besuch von Außenminister Tillerson in Moskau ist die Stimmung eisig,” Die Zeit,
12. April 2017 (22:43 Uhr).

Christina Hebel (Moskau), “Putin lässt sich kein Ultimatum stellen; Der Grundsatz von Putins Syrien-Politik: keine Regimewechsel von außen;Der Kreml hält vorerst an Staatschef Assad fest – und zeigt, wie man einen US-Außenminister zappeln lässt; Trump erhob unterdessen neue Vorwürfe,” Der Spiegel, 12. April 2017 (21:32 Uhr).

Putin continues to outrageously assert that the U.S. attack on the air base from which chemical weapons were launched constituted a “gross violation of international law”.

The assertion is false, given strong legal arguments justifying intervention to prevent the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity — particularly with chemical weapons.

It is based on a simplistic reading of the U.N. Charter provisions which assumed the Security Council would not be blocked from acting by a permament member invading another country or committing directly or through complicity war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale.

See

“April 7, 2017: Security Council Meets on Syria (7919th meeting, with link to video),” The Trenchant Observer, April 7, 2017.

Moreover, the author of the statement has himself launched a war of military aggression against the Ukraine, while Russian forces continue to occupy the Crimea and the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Donbass region of the country, all in flagrant violation of the most fundamental norms of international law and the U.N. Charter.

Putin and Lavrov demanded in Moscow a U.N. investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons recently by al-Assad, but then proceeded to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution this afternoon establishing precisely such an investigation.

The lies and cynicism of Putin and Lavrov may fool some of the Russian people, but they are not likely to fool the West and the Arab governments in the Middle East.

Does Trump have an understanding with Putin, and is it still on?

Standing back a bit from the events of the day, one can only wonder at the sharp turn in the apparent attitude of the Trump administration toward Russia.

Certainly, the increased hostility toward Russia has tended to distract public attention from Russia’s massive intervention in the November 2016 election in order to help Trump win.

The fact that Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, was the subject of a judicially-approved FISA warrant to intercept his communications, on the grounds he was a suspected Russian agent, has received less attention than it might have otherwise.

A detached analyst might argue that Trump can let his anti-Russian national security team take the lead for now, with pro-Russian Steve Bannon seemingly losing influence in the White House, while holding open the possibility of cozying up to Russia again in the future.

It is striking that Putin has not reacted strongly to the U.S. missile attacks.

It is remarkable that Trump still will not criticize Putin.

In fact, we still don’t know why Trump for so many months has refused to utter a word of criticism of Putin or Russia.

But it is worth noting that Trump appears to be hewing closely to the alleged deal laid out in the Christopher Steele dossier (the so-called “golden showers” dossier).

See

Ken Bensinger, Miriam Elder (BuzzFeed News World Editor), and Mark Schoofs, “These Reports Allege Trump Has Deep Ties To Russia; A dossier, compiled by a person who has claimed to be a former British intelligence official, alleges Russia has compromising information on Trump. The allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors,” BuzzFeed, January 10, 2017 (3:20 p.m.; updated at 6:09 p.m.).

The purported text of Christopher Steele’s dossier on Trump and Russia, is also found here.

Putin’s deepest interest is in getting the EU and U.S economic sanctions lifted. These were imposed against Russia because of its invasions of the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Russia is currently intervening in the French presidential elections, with the primary to be held within a week.

Neither the United States nor the EU is doing anything to deter or sanction such behavior. Even the sanctions imposed by Barack Obama in December, 2017, in response to the Russian intervention in the elections, amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Given the gravity of the Russian attacks on the core institutions of the American, French, and other democracies, one would think the adoption of additional sectoral economic sanctions against Russia would be under urgent consideration.

It isn’t.

The U.S., which should be leading the charge, is far from even considering the possibility.

Moreover, we need to look more closely at the Tomahawk cruise missile attack on the Syrian air base.  The key point is that the runway wasn’t targeted, and the objective was not to put the air base out of operation.

The idea was to send al-Assad and Russia a finely calibrated message that Syria should not use chemical weapons again.

Yet the U.S. seems to have also sent the messsage that Syria, Russia, and Iran may continue the widespread commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria with impunity.

Trump’s deal with Putin, whether implicit or explicit, seems to be still on.

Trump will not himself criticize Putin or Russia, or himself demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. At some convenient point in the future, the U.S. will support the lifting of U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia.

Tillerson apparently intimated weakness in U.S. support for the sanctions at the recent foreign ministers meeting in Sicily, on his eay to Moscow.

The news media should demand a full account of what was said in Tillerson’s meeting with Putin and his meetings with Lavrov about the Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions.

Of course the real message to Putin could have been delivered with “a wink and a nod”.

Trump’s tweet after Tillerson’s meetings that everything would work out fine with Russia merits close scrutiny.

Both Trump and Putin are master showmen.  We have to ask whether many of the recent apparent changes in position toward Russia have been merely for show.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.