For reasons of self-interest, the G7 foreign ministers refused to back UK Foreign Secretary Johnson’s proposed further sanctions against Russia for its complicity in the gas attack on innocent civilians last week in Syria. They have therefore denied the US Sec of State an important weapon with which to threaten the thug Putin on his mission today to Moscow. 

While Tillerson’s behind the scenes talks with Russian foreign minister Lavrov will no doubt be tough, the threat of added sanctions to an economy which is already under severe strain would have been crucial. In 2015 Russia was isolated with its economy in tatters. While a subsequent economic collapse was avoided, and oil prices rebounded somewhat, short term forecasts for the Russian economy remain dire. The ongoing Eastern Ukraine conflict and Western sanctions can only make the current economic situation worse. 

Unless oil prices plunge again, the IMF has forecast a return to growth. However, with oil and gas in 2015 accounting for some 44% of government revenues, the commodity price slump has hit hard with high inflation hurting families and government coffers taking a hit. The World Bank predicted that poverty rates were set to return to 2007 levels, threatening nearly ten years of gains.

According to The Times, Russia’s Reserve Fund had shrunk by two thirds since 2014 and was expected to run out by this year unless there was a ‘significant’ rise in oil prices. Once these reserves are fully drawn, the Russian government indicated that it may have to start drawing down from the National Wealth Fund to cover budget shortfalls. But this fund is meant to finance future pensions and investment projects.

It is apparent therefore that Putin can ill afford further stresses to his pro-market economic policies. Importantly, he has so far been able to avoid social unrest but this will not last forever. According to outside sources, nearly half of young people in Russia now look to the net and foreign reports for their daily dose of real news, not the fake stuff churned out by the Putin-controlled media.

As we all know, the West’s past policies in both Iraq and Libya can only be described as disastrous. So far our record in Syria has been far from inspiring. There is little doubt that the alternative to the Syrian tyrant Assad, as things now stand, is a radical Islamist regime. As unpalatable as it sounds, we may need to keep Assad on for the short term as his immediate overthrow would not be in anyone’s interest.

To avoid this chaotic scenario, let us hope that Tillerson tonight will manage to somehow engage Putin’s cooperation towards adopting a strategy on Syria which will at least lower the current bellicosity between the great powers. We might even dare to hope for something more. Could there still be a place for the old-fashioned stick AND carrot approach in international diplomacy?


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