Did Trump offer to normalize relations? It would be complicated — and Congress gets a vote.
Russia is all set to warm up military-to-military relations with the United States, pursuant to the agreement reached Monday between the countries’ presidents. That’s what a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday — surprising officials at the Pentagon, who were still waiting to hear what came out of the closed-door meeting; and in Congress, which banned U.S.-Russian military coordination four years ago.
The Russian military is prepared to “to intensify contacts with its American colleagues through the General Staff and other available channels of communication,” on a range of issues, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Tuesday.
What was said during the two-hour meeting in Helsinki remains unknown; President Trump brought no American except an interpreter, and no known recording exists in U.S. hands. On Tuesday, Trump did not bring up the topic of resuming military-to-military relations during a brief photo-op with reporters. But later in the day, Reuters reported that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was open to new talks with his Russian counterpart.
“The Helsinki summit was the beginning of a process between the United States and Russia to reduce tensions and advance areas of cooperation in our mutual interest,” a National Security Council spokesperson told Defense One on Tuesday. “We are reviewing the discussion between President Trump and President Putin, considering possible next steps, and have nothing further to announce at this time.”
A Defense Department spokesman said Pentagon officials were aware of the Russian statement and were waiting on guidance from the White House.
“Sorry I don't have anything for you on that right now, but will let you know if anything changes,” the spokesman said.
About a decade ago, there was hope that the U.S. and Russian militaries would be able to work more closely together. But Congress suspended military cooperation with Russia after Putin annexed Crimea and sent troops to invade Ukraine. A measure in the 2014 defense authorization bill severely limits U.S.-to-Russia military interactions — for example, forbidding coordinated actions like joint patrols with U.S. troops or setting up a larger semi-permanent combined mission, known in military parlance as a task force.
“Our provisions prohibit military-to-military cooperation, not military-to-military communication. And there’s a waiver for the secretary of defense,” said one House Armed Services Committee aide.
It’s unclear what interactions Trump or Putin would seek that could justify that national-security waiver. The bill allows the entire ban to be lifted only when “the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, provides a certification to appropriate congressional committees relating to certain actions by Russia,” referring to the question of Ukraine, and likely, Russia’s adherence to the Minsk agreements.
Today, the best-known contact between the militaries is probably the deconfliction hotline set up to smooth their operations in Syria. It’s a telephone line that the U.S. uses to call the Russian military to make sure that they don’t bump into one another when carrying out operations, especially air sorties and strikes. Senior U.S. military commanders often say the line has worked as intended, helping to avoid any direct military confrontations between their officials forces in Syria for several years. And it’s not the only point-of-contact; commanders have communicated at other levels more directly about Syria, from Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Dunford to battlefield and air operations. But U.S. military commanders have long cautioned that they aren’t working with Russian forces.
At Monday’s press conference, Putin called the deconfliction line a model for future military “coordination,” and an example of the “useful experience of coordination of [U.S. and Russian military] action.”
One senior U.S. military officials pointed to earlier examples of U.S.-Russian military cooperation. In 2009, the U.S. and Russia established a joint military working group to explore areas of cooperation. In 2012, the U.S., Norwegian, and Russian navies held a combined maritime exercise called Northern Eagle in the Norwegian Sea. That same year, Russian paratroopers visited the United States for a joint drill, a historic first. In Europe, American and Russian militaries were working together in field and staff training exercises. In all, there were about 50 engagements in 2011 and nearly 70 in 2012, according to the officer in charge of military exercises in Europe at the time. And Russia was allowing American war supplies to pass through its borders into Afghanistan and coordinating counter-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa.
Today, the two countries share information and intelligence on Syria operations to avoid striking one another accidentally, but they do not share targeting information, as the U.S. does with allies. In January 2017, when Russian defense officials claimed that the U.S. had participated in a strike with Russian counterparts by providing targeting intelligence, a Defense Department official denied it.
In June, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford met with his counterpart, also in Helsinki, and they two had a follow up phone call the following week.
On Tuesday morning, Russia issued its latest offer. A Moscow correspondent for NPR reported on Twitter: “Russian MoD says it's ‘ready to activate contacts with US colleagues via general staffs and other existing communication channels to discuss extending Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, cooperation in Syria, other current issues of ensuring military security.’”
Russia soon put out its own statement: “Russian Defense Ministry is ready to implement the agreements on the international security, reached by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump during the Helsinki summit yesterday,” Konashenkov said.
On Monday, Putin said he wants to continue nuclear disarmament talks. “We believe it necessary to work together further to interact on the disarmament agenda, military, and technical cooperation.” He mentioned the New START and INF treaties, which would be handled by the State Department, and which would not require new military coordination. But he also mentioned activities in space, which might involve the Pentagon.
Putin also seemed to indicate Russia and the U.S. may venture into “joint” action in Syria, including in the Golan Heights area near Israel. Such a proposition likely would be rejected by the Pentagon.
“As far as Syria is concerned, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of this successful joint work. Russia and the United States apparently can act proactively and take — assume the leadership on this issue, and organize the interaction to overcome humanitarian crisis, and help Syrian refugees to go back to their homes,” Putin said.
“Also, crushing terrorists in the southwest of Syria — the south of Syria — should be brought to the full compliance with the Treaty of 1974 about the separation of forces — about separation of forces of Israel and Syria. This will bring peace to Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also to provide security of the state of Israel,” he said.
Gen. Joseph Votel, top U.S. commander for the Central Command region that oversees troops in Syria, is to hold a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday morning.
NPR’s Lucian Kim has pointed out that the Russian defense ministry used a word that could be interpreted as either “agreements” or “understandings” — one being, of course, more formal than the other.