Houston, We Have No Information

The meetings between America and Russia need to be watched closely because they will have a direct impact on the Indian economy.

The brouhaha over the Trump-Putin summit has started to settle down. There is little information in the public domain over what was discussed in the almost two-hour meeting between the two leaders. The press communique (and President Putin in the press conference) brought up a variety of issues that came up. This included sanctions, Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, the economy, Israel, Korea, the START treaty, the gas stream and of course, election meddling. However, as Humphrey Appleby says in Yes Minister, “The purpose of the communique is only to get one past the media.” The Russian side seems to be following the principle to the T. The US side was even more circumspect, giving nothing away. Days after the session, the US media still carries articles which talk about the non-release of information.

However, a glance at some of the events which have succeeded the talks shows up some very interesting possibilities. In response to a Russian question on Syria in the presser, President Trump spoke only about the security of Israel. He did not mention the word Syria once. In any case, in the days following the talks, the Syrian army has been able to occupy most of its Southwestern border with Israel bordering the Golan Heights. There has been minimal fighting. The opposition has simply been evacuated by buses into Idlib province under Russian guarantee. The Syrian army has reached its borders with Jordan and Israel (the Golan heights).

Last week, there was some unusual diplomacy by Russia. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to Israel accompanied by Valery Gerasimov — the chief of the Russian general staff who is responsible for the Syrian operations. The presence of the top army general in Sergei Lavrov’s retinue is astonishing to say the least. It speaks of hard-boiled negotiations between the Russians and the Israelis. Did the Russians attempt to bully Israel? One persistent Israeli demand has been the removal of all Shiite forces in Syria. The Russians do not seem to be accommodating it but there has been discussion on Russia enforcing a 100 km border between the Shiite militia (Iran and Hezbollah) and the Golan Heights. In any case, the Israeli military intelligence website debka reported that the Russians went back empty handed. Did they? There have been no reports of any Israeli overflights/strikes into Syria since.

The trip by the two gentlemen did not end there. They travelled on from Tel Aviv to Berlin, and then Paris. In a written statement, the German government gave a few details of the meeting’s outcome. It said: “The situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, was at the center of the discussion. The conflict in eastern Ukraine was also addressed.” Also, local new papers reported that Gerasimov raised the possibility of a referendum in Eastern Ukraine. It did not, however, talk about whether it was only the Donetsk and the Lugansk Oblasts or the whole territory east of the Dnieper. The eastern half of Ukraine is industrial and dominated by Russian speakers. This would effectively move Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence, which the Russians would like.

The news reports on the Paris meeting were more obtuse. They mentioned that that discussions had touched upon the “return of the refugees” from Jordan, Lebanon and Germany. This was a similar theme when President Macron visited Moscow and met President Putin. The “humanitarian crisis and supply of aid” in Syria was then the main theme of discussion. It looks like humanitarian crisis and development is the code word for the EU to spend more money in Syria and build up the economy (and enable Syria to pay back its debts to Russia). However, was this reason to warrant a visit by the foreign minister and the army general together? What was discussed and why was this visit kept a secret with minimal news-briefings.

In an interesting sidenote, Valery Gerasimov is one of the persons on whom sanctions had been imposed by the EU and the US, post the Russian occupation of Crimea. He was able to travel freely to Berlin and Paris and was probably able to stare down those heads of government in their own countries.

There has been a lot of conjecture that the Lavrov-Gerasimov meet was an attempt to exchange Iran for Ukraine. This idea reportedly arose from Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE . The deal would be that Russia would slowly reduce its influence in Iran while Ukraine would come slowly under Russian influence. The ongoing reports in the Russian media on the US military planning to attack Iran post the Lavrov-Gerasimov travel are a case-in-point. However, despite US denials, it remains to be seen whether this course of action will fructify. Russia has invested in Iran and giving it up would mean giving up the Syrian warm-water port of Tartus eventually. It would mean giving up all that they have won in battle over the past 5 years.

Also, losing Iran would mean destruction of a countervailing Arab force in the form of a Shia crescent of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon. However, the Iranian rial has tumbled and is in free fall. Iran sees it fit to organize military naval exercises on the straits of Hormuz. They have advanced the exercises from February to August because they clearly perceive a threat. Was this also one of the reasons why Gerasimov travelled with Lavrov?

Events in the coming days and months will uncover more of what was discussed during these talks. It signifies a return of Russia to great power politics. And that is what has to be watched closely by us here in India.

History repeats itself. The colonial era witnessed the splitting of Palestine, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the carving out of Africa and the Middle East between the English and the French. Before World War II, we saw the giving up of Czechoslovakia (the Munich pact) and the dismemberment of Poland (The Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact). We had new States being created in the form of the de-facto Kurdish state, Kosovo, ISIS and states being destroyed in the form of Libya and Somalia. It is also interesting to see the convulsions in the Chinese economy (post Trump’s tariffs) and their effect on geopolitics. It is, therefore, important for Indians to understand and follow these events on the world stage.

On one hand, our economy is closely interlinked with that of the US as they are our biggest trading partner. On the other hand,  a significant part of our weaponry is from Russia. Therefore, the fate of Iran and the Middle East will have a direct fallout on our politics and our economics.