Home Global Village Rex Tillerson harshly criticizes Russia in order to rally NATO allies

Rex Tillerson harshly criticizes Russia in order to rally NATO allies

Rex Tillerson

M K Bhadrakumar |

The remarks by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Russia, while speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC on Tuesday, must be the harshest ever he made in office. Some excerpts are in order:

  • Russia continues aggressive behavior toward other regional neighbors by interfering in election processes and promoting non-democratic ideals. We, together with our friends in Europe, recognize the active threat of a recently resurgent Russia.
  • We hope Russia will take steps to restore Ukraine’s full sovereignty and territorial integrity… But let me be clear, Minsk-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia reverses the actions that triggered them.
  • Europe and the United States seek a normalized relationship with Russia. However, Russia has shown it seeks to define a new post-Soviet global balance of power, one in which Russia, by virtue of its nuclear arsenal, seeks to impose its will on others by force.
  • Russia has often employed malicious tactics against the U.S. and Europe to drive us apart, weaken our confidence, and undermine the political and economic successes that we have achieved together since the end of the Cold War. Playing politics with energy supplies, launching cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns to undermine free elections, and serially harassing and intimidating diplomats are not the behaviors of a responsible nation. Attacking a neighboring country and threatening others does nothing to improve the lives of Russians or enhance Russia’s standing in the world.
  • I think… perhaps since the end of the Cold War, we lost our way a bit in some of these relationships, maybe a view in particular in Europe that with the end of the Cold War, the imminent threat that everyone faced for that 70-year period was now diminishing, and what we now realize is it didn’t. It didn’t diminish. It’s still defining itself; it’s still searching for its role in the name of Russia.

Interestingly, Tillerson insisted in his speech on Tuesday on “implementing a political solution that leaves no room for the Assad regime or his family in Syria’s government.”

What explains the outburst? A combination of circumstances could explain it. One, in the civil war conditions in Washington, Tillerson finds its expedient to take a hard line on Russia. David Ignatius wrote last week in Washington Post in a biting piece that if Trump has not fired Tillerson yet, that’s because of Tillerson’s “one secret survival weapon” – his alignment with Secretary of Defence James Mattis “through all the palace intrigue.” In Ignatius’ estimation, “Trump may not be a soul mate of his secretary of state, but he’s not going to pick a fight with Mattis.”

Read more: James Mattis warns Pakistan; ‘Do more’ or face consequences

Of course, Pentagon feels humiliated that it lost the war in Syria to Russia. What must be rankling even more is that Trump personally is inclined to still work with President Vladimir Putin to negotiate a Syrian settlement. Whereas, Mattis has spoken about an open-ended US presence in Syria, where Pentagon has set up 13 military bases. Michael Carpenter, former director for Russia at the NSC in the Obama administration, reflected the mood of the Washington establishment in an opinion piece in The Hill today entitled The United States cannot allow Russia to take the lead in Syria(here).

In the rush to unearth and expunge nefarious Russian influence in our country, Americans have embraced a logic of conspiracy theories and strictly zero-sum thinking that is, if anything, familiar to Russians from decades of Soviet and post-Soviet life.

Then, Tillerson’s upcoming European tour next week must be factored in. The fact of the matter is that the trans-Atlantic ties are in drift, buffeted by mounting disputes. Europe and the Trump administration have sharply divergent approaches on several major issues – climate change, free trade, Iran nuclear deal, defence spending, etc.

The leitmotif of Tillerson’s speech was the “highest importance” that the Trump administration places on the US’ security alliance with Europe. But the fundamental dilemma remains. Simply put, NATO needs an enemy to focus on; the raison d’etre of the alliance depends on it. Thus, a resurrection of the ‘Russian threat’ becomes necessary. Fortuitously, such a narrative is also in sync with the national mood in the US where Cold War-style paranoia about the Russian bogeyman has bred a zero-sum, ‘us versus them’ view on anything and everything under the sun. Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Centre and an old ‘Russia hand’, wrote this week:

  • In the rush to unearth and expunge nefarious Russian influence in our country, Americans have embraced a logic of conspiracy theories and strictly zero-sum thinking that is, if anything, familiar to Russians from decades of Soviet and post-Soviet life.  In this climate, efforts to understand and explain Russian conduct as something more than earthly expressions of evil are condemned as victories for Russian propaganda and calls for diplomatic engagement are dismissed as hopelessly naïve. (Dysfunction in US-Russia relations)

Read more: What should India expect from Tillerson?

Tillerson’s speech suggests that it may be too premature to assess that Trump is going to be the last word on the US’ foreign policies. Interestingly, Tillerson insisted in his speech on Tuesday on “implementing a political solution that leaves no room for the Assad regime or his family in Syria’s government.” This is hardly 17 days after Trump affirmed in his joint statement with President Putin (Danang, November 11) that the way forward in Syria lies in “constitutional reform and free and fair elections under UN supervision, held to the highest international standards of transparency, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.” Tillerson’s speech is here.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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