USA Foreign Policy

What Comey's firing means for repairing strained US-Russia ties

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson Wednesday. It was supposed to be a step toward rebuilding cooperation on issues such as Syria. But the Comey firing could change all that.

US President Donald Trump, right, meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House in Washington on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. President Donald Trump on Wednesday welcomed Vladimir Putin's top diplomat to the White House for Trump's highest level face-to-face contact with a Russian government official since he took office in January.
Russian Foreign Ministry/AP
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The “Putin Not My President” signs had disappeared from Washington protests. The ongoing probes of Russian interference in the US election had receded enough from the foreground to allow the Trump administration to test the prospects for diplomacy with Moscow.

In that light, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meetings in Washington on May 10 with President Trump and with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were set to be almost normal encounters for a difficult but necessary relationship.

Syria, fighting terrorism, and maybe even planning for a first meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were on the agenda.

But then Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey the previous night, and suddenly Russia and its role in influencing the outcome of the US presidential race – a role Mr. Comey was investigating – were back on center stage.

That will make any cooperation with Moscow – whether it’s on Syria, or Ukraine, or over any of the many other international issues the two powers have a stake in – all the more difficult.

“As long as the controversy over collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign continues, Russia-US relations are kind of blocked,” says Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“To the extent [the Comey firing] keeps the controversy alive, it’s hard to see how the relationship can improve,” he adds. “In fact it can probably only get worse.”

That’s saying something. Mr. Tillerson had already deemed bilateral relations to be at a “low point” when he visited Moscow last month. After meeting with Mr. Putin, Tillerson concluded at a terse press conference with Mr. Lavrov that “there is a low level of trust between our two countries.”

Until Tuesday, that cloud of mistrust that lingered over the relationship, while hardly dissipating, was gradually shifting from the election interference issue to more geopolitical and diplomatically manageable questions, like Russia’s support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

'Grand bargain' less likely

Indeed, Trump and Tillerson appeared to have decided that, while relations were going to remain difficult, “Syria was the one issue they could try to use to turn the relationship around,” says Dr. Sestanovich, who was US ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union from 1997-2001. That was never going to be easy, he adds, because Putin’s plan for moving forward in Syria and resolving the long civil war there offers little to entice the US.

“The Putin plan doesn’t give the US much: it legitimizes the Russian role in the conflict, it fortifies Iran’s involvement, and it strengthens Assad,” he says. “For the US, the question was, ‘Tell me what’s good about it?’”

Even so, some in Washington had worried since Trump’s inauguration that the new president might strike a “grand bargain” with Russia, trading actions Putin covets – lifting of US sanctions on Russia, for example, or recognition of Russia’s “right” to Crimea – for Russian promises to act against ISIS and other terrorists.

That kind of deal suddenly seems less likely, some analysts say, at least in the near term.

“In many ways, Trump’s hands are now tied,” says Julianne Smith, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “There are so many questions about his relations with Russia, about the people around him, their relations with Russia,” she adds, “that it would be very hard for the president to proceed with a full-on ‘grand bargain’ at this point.”

Trump might still try to “move the needle here and there,” she says, “but the Comey firing makes a tough situation for him that much more difficult.”

Downside to US turmoil

Like Sestanovich, Ms. Smith says the Russians have little to offer the US when it comes to Syria. “What I’m hoping is that Tillerson is whispering in the president’s ear that the Russians aren’t in a place to be very helpful on countering terrorism in Syria, they aren’t very active and conducting air strikes in the areas where ISIS is strongest,” she says.

But she also cautions that no one should be tempted to consider the uproar in Washington over relations with Russia a positive, even if it does put off actions by Trump that many analysts would view negatively.

“There’s a real downside to so much turmoil in our own political system, and it plays right into both the image the Russians want to portray of our democratic system and the way they want us act towards them,” she says.

“The Russians want us to keep quiet about the shortcomings of their political system, they don’t want to hear from us about their lack of respect for human rights,” Smith says. “So it’s unfortunate to have something like the Comey firing occur while Lavrov’s here, because it allows them to say, ‘How can you talk to us about political shortcomings when you are in such disarray?’”

But at least there were discussions between the two capitals. With the cloud over bilateral relations suddenly darkening again, Putin might decide there’s little to be gained with the US, and that could be bad for diplomacy.

Sestanovich says the Russians are convinced that “cold-war thinking still rules in the US” and that “if US-Russia relations are bad, it’s because the US has hostile intentions towards Russia.”

Americans might consider that a “mistaken inclination,” he says, but he adds that Russians are no doubt going to see the latest crescendo of attention to Russia as fulfillment of their “outlook” – and that is going to put off further any glimmer of progress for the bilateral relationship.

Moscow dismissive of impact

Yet as incomprehensible as it may be to Putin, the fact is that the issue of Russian interference in the US elections, already troubling to a wide range of US leaders, has galvanized an increasingly bipartisan set of stakeholders in the wake of the Comey firing.

A number of Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues in calling the dismissal “troubling,” while many conservative news commentators and analysts underscored the questions the president’s action raised about his and his campaign’s relations with Russia.

“First president ever investigated by FBI for collusion with hostile foreign power,” tweeted conservative foreign-policy analyst Max Boot. “First president fired FBI director in charge of probe.”

Russian officials may find that kind of commentary perplexing – just as they appeared to dismiss the potential for Trump’s firing of the FBI director to affect US-Russian relations.

When reporters asked Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov how Comey’s firing might affect US-Russia relations, Mr. Peskov said, “We hope that it will not affect them at all. That’s the United States’ internal affair. That’s the US president’s independent decision, which has nothing to do and should have nothing to do with Russia.”

He should be right, of course. But under the circumstances, US-Russia relations are likely to remain under a cloud for the foreseeable future, and some issues that normally would be strictly domestic affairs will continue to roil the bilateral relationship.