Going From Cool to Cold Relations
Published: September 11, 2013 (Issue # 1777)
The good news is that at the Group of 20 summit last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin found 20 or 30 minutes to speak with each other between sessions. What's more, they smiled for the cameras and avoided exchanging barbs.
It could have been much worse. In an interview shortly before the summit, Putin directly accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of lying in his testimony to Congress by denying the influence of al-Qaida on the Syrian rebels. In fact, Kerry's point, which Putin apparently missed, was that moderate forces among the rebels were gaining in strength — far from being a lie. But Kerry was offended by Putin's remark and did not attend the St. Petersburg summit.
Soon afterward, the Foreign Ministry responded to Washington's legitimate "wanted list" of Russian criminals located outside of Russia whom it wants extradited to the U.S. by issuing a warning to all Russians to avoid traveling to any of the hundred or so countries that have extradition agreements with Washington. The U.S. responded in kind when the Pentagon chief announced that he had information showing that Russia provided components used by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the production of chemical weapons.
Syria dominated the unofficial agenda of the summit. When asked if Russia would help the Assad regime in the event of a U.S. military intervention in Syria, he answered in the affirmative. Putin did not spell out exactly what form that aid would take, but Russia is already providing Syria with weapons and is prepared to expand economic and humanitarian cooperation as well. For his part, Obama said he did not see this as a potential military conflict pitting the U.S. against Russia. That is somewhat reassuring, but whenever world leaders speak openly about even the hypothetical possibility of a military conflict, relations are pretty bad.
Russia has already deployed several warships to the Mediterranean Sea. But Washington analysts believe that if things get really nasty between the two countries, the only likely attack against the U.S. would be a cyberattack.
The problem is that this situation could escalate rapidly and unpredictably. If the U.S. does strike Syria, just how limited would those actions be? Would war spread to other countries in the region? To what extent would the crisis involve the Middle East as a whole?
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