Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Russia has gone from complaining about not knowing who to call at the US State Department to getting on with the job on its own.
If Vladimir Putin was disappointed that Donald Trump has failed to cozy up to the Kremlin in the months since entering the White House, he’s put it behind him.
Instead, he is now focusing on exploiting Trump’s plodding, glacial grasp of global affairs.
A case in point: In the past 24 hours, the Kremlin has been running rings around the White House’s stumbling protocol, publishing its own cringe-worthy photos of Trump shaking hands with the Russian ambassador to the United States – the man at the center of the Russia scandal.
This debacle taking place the day after Trump sacked the man investigating the Russian connection is hugely embarrassing to the White House. To the outside world Trump appears snow-blinded to his own hubris.
The Russian calculus appears to have caught up with the rest of the world that Trump’s White House is learning on the job – and that gives Russia space to ram through its own agenda.
While Putin says that firing FBI Director James Comey was Trump’s right and not Russia’s business, he’ll be reveling in the political undertone of the FBI chief’s departure: Don’t look too closely at Russia.
Trump wants “America First,” and Putin is only too happy that America is now looking the other way – on Syria, in particular.
President Barack Obama, who failed to act when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed a “red line” in 2013, now looks far more like a hawk than Trump.
John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, was ceaseless in his diplomatic efforts parrying Russia’s pushiness to dictate the Syrian agenda.
Whether face to face or behind the scenes at peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Kerry was there, looking out for US interests, backing the opposition and blocking Russia’s efforts to keep the killer tyrant Assad in power.
For sure, Trump made a huge splash when he fired a salvo of cruise missiles at Assad’s forces following a chemical weapons attack in April. But gone is Kerry’s insistent diplomacy, curbing Russia’s excesses.
In December 2015, Putin supported a UN Security Council resolution, 2254, to end the fighting in Syria and transition Assad out of power within 18 months.
Russia has since proved an unreliable partner, not only refusing to pressure Assad to step down but also doubling down on his attacks on civilians, helping him grab territory such as Aleppo and torpedoing UN peace talks.
All the while, Russia has steadfastly tried to turn Assad’s transition from power into an ambiguous outcome. Kerry, backed by Obama and the United Nations, stood in the way.
Far from enforcing UN Resolution 2254 to establish a new government and remove Assad, Russia wants Assad’s government left in office with a token nod to the idea of an opposition: way short of what Putin first signed up for.
Russia’s seductive sell is that it is trying to bring peace, get a ceasefire and the world only has to unite with it to fight terrorism and all will be well.
To the uneducated undergraduate with an immature grasp of global issues, this might sound reasonable. But to those who follow the everyday pain and suffering of the Syrian conflict, it is a steaming pile of tripe.
America’s acquiescence is all Russia needs to slide its agenda in under the radar to leave Assad’s government in power.
Rex Tillerson, Kerry’s replacement at the State Department, has now met his counterpart and Kerry’s old diplomatic sparring partner, Sergey Lavrov, three times.
Their second meeting, which took place shortly after the chemical attack in Syria, ended with claims from both sides that relations between the two nations had not been this bad since the Cold War.
Yet when they shook hands at the White House, any visible discord was absent.
In the intervening period, Russia has brokered military ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, and in three incredibly short meetings has shoved through another ambiguous plan for Syria’s future.
This one calls for four separate opposition cantons to be surround by unspecified peacekeepers. It’s the first step to the dismemberment of Syria and paves the way to safe havens – a plan Obama steadfastly opposed – and far worse, creating safe havens in which terrorists can hide.
Anyone who doubts that Russia and Assad are capable of morphing this to fit their final agenda hasn’t been paying attention.
Check what happened after Aleppo fell: Civilians and opposition fighters were given safe passage by Assad to Idlib.
The rolling hills and flat plains around the northern Syria town is a massive opposition holdout, until now beyond the reach of Assad’s forces. But it’s also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians. The area is also expected to become a safe zone, or what’s euphemistically called a “de-escalation area.”
One of the challenges of safe zones – and what cautioned Obama against their establishment – was their history of being abused in other conflicts.
Fighters will hide among civilians. Even the best policed, razor wire camps and Russian enclaves will be anything but hermetically sealed sites. They are vast stretches of open countryside and large towns.
Whichever international body or country Russia assigns to manage enclaves may find itself accused of harboring terrorists.
Following his third meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov went on to meet Trump.
According to the White House, these conversations included extensive discussions on Syria, although it didn’t elaborate on any detail. However, the Russians did, and this at face value reveals either apparent American complicity or naivete.
Talking about the United States on the issue of safe zones and de-escalation areas, Lavrov said: “They are particularly interested in stabilizing the situation on the border between Syria, Jordan and Israel, and we stand ready to cooperate on this issue.”
Lavrov also told reporters he believes the United States will play a role in the de-escalation process, even leading efforts to ensure security in the southern so-called safe zone near the Syria-Jordan-Israel border.
But this wasn’t Lavrov’s only bombshell: At the apparently icy meeting last month in Moscow, it was Tillerson, according to Lavrov, who advanced the idea of safe zones.
“We focused on the ideas that were discussed during Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow when he briefed us about his ideas regarding the creation of these security areas, de-escalation areas. That was the idea that was mentioned by President Trump when he talked over the phone with President Putin. Then Rex Tillerson gave more details in Moscow,” he said.
Without Kerry’s foot on the brake, Russia is accelerating to its own desires in Syria.
No senior US diplomat was sent to the Russian-implemented Syria ceasefire talks in Astana, even though the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey were all there. The most senior US representative was a deputy ambassador.
So when UN-brokered peace talks begin again next week in Geneva, Russia will have set the formula for de-escalation and will be in pole position to shape the political outcome, too.
Short of Tillerson or Trump stepping up engagement, Putin will finally be on track to getting his wishes in Syria, an end to the fighting and a client – Assad – in power.