Image Credit: Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

US Vice-President Mike Pence started an important Eastern European tour yesterday that will last until tomorrow. The visit, whose subtext is that of the future of United States-Russia relations under US President Donald Trump, will see stops in Estonia, Georgia and Montenegro, and comes in the wake of the US Senate and House of Representatives’ landmark votes to impose new sanctions on Moscow, which has already drawn Russian retaliation.

Key agenda items in Pence’s tricky trip include a visit to see US and Georgian troops participating in the Noble Partner Nato-related exercise, which also features troops from the United Kingdom, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Armenia, and Slovenia. And the US vice-president will also participate, in Montenegro, with leaders across the Western Balkans in the Adriatic Charter Summit.

The immediate backdrop for Pence’s visit is the continuing controversy over Russia and the Trump team. The US Senate and House voted overwhelmingly in recent days to impose sanctions on Moscow, and Trump now has to sign it into law or, in what would be a remarkable move, veto it. The legislation, whose restrictions would include on oil-and-gas projects in Russia, has been condemned by the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, who asserts it would plant a “dangerous mine” under bilateral relations that could explode in coming months. Already, Moscow has retaliated to the congressional votes by ordering US diplomatic staff out of Russia and seizing two US diplomatic properties in the country.

The bill, which would also impose sanctions on North Korea and Iran, puts Trump in an awkward position, given his apparent pro-Moscow leanings. The president, who already has congressional and FBI investigations underway into his team’s alleged ties with Russia, has only vowed at this stage to “study” the legislation, but is under strong pressure to sign it into law.

Trump’s decision on this issue will be watched closely, not just in Moscow, but across Eastern Europe where Pence is visiting. Part of the nervousness that key US allies in Europe have about the Trump’s positioning on Russia is what it potentially may mean for US commitments in the region and Nato. Trump has flip-flopped on this issue, describing the military alliance last year as “obsolete”, and then this year as “not obsolete”, sowing the seeds of confusion over what his true beliefs are.

Already, uncertainty over Trump’s Nato policy is spurring the European Union to seek to reverse around a decade of defence spending cuts, totalling around 10 per cent in real terms. Moreover, a new European Defence Action Plan was agreed earlier this year by the EU, which will see greater continental military cooperation too.

For Trump, the key strategic question now on Russia is whether recent developments have destroyed the window of opportunity that may have existed for a warming of relations between Washington and Moscow. The US president has previously given multiple indications that he believes Russia is not a serious threat to America, hinting in January that he could even drop existing economic sanctions if the country “is helpful”. Specifically, he appears to believe there were multiple common interests over issues such as preventing Iran from securing nuclear weapons, and combating terrorism.

Trump’s proposed repositioning of relations with Russia now looks, at the least, to have been put on ice. Here it is not only the fact that any new US sanctions will make relations frostier, but also that the Trump team is under significant pressure over the congressional and FBI investigations, and this issue has already claimed the scalp of national security adviser Michael Flynn.

‘Complicit’ or ‘incompetent’

Should Trump be forced to sign the sanctions legislation, it will reassure the allies in Eastern Europe that Pence is visiting. However, it will complicate US foreign policy in other theatres, including potentially the Middle East, where Russian relations are relevant.

Already this year, there were tensions between Moscow and Washington here, which saw US missile strikes targeted at Syria, following an earlier poison gas attack on citizens in a rebel-held town allegedly by the Damascus regime, which killed at least 80 people, including around two dozen children. Russia — highly implausibly, given the nature of the chemicals involved — asserted that they were released inadvertently when Syrian planes struck a terrorist laboratory.

The ratcheting up of tensions has widened differences between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the future of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad after they had seemed to be getting closer to an agreement to potentially bring an end to Syria’s six-year civil war that has left half a million people dead and triggered floods of refugees, while letting Al Assad stay in power. Rhetorically, at least, Trump appeared to move away from the latter and called for the Syrian president to be ousted, and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the Trump administration was ready to take further military steps in the country if needed.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were also forceful in their criticism of Moscow. For instance, Tillerson said that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” in Syria, referring to Moscow’s apparent inability to prevent the Al Assad regime from using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement under which Russia was a guarantor, to remove these stockpiles from the country.

The spike in Washington-Moscow tensions over Syria even saw Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev saying the two countries were “one step away from war” and had “totally ruined” relations. Signs of rising tensions include Moscow’s suspension of an agreement with Washington to share communications about US and Russian aircraft conducting missions over Syria. The Admiral Grigorovich, the frigate warship was dispatched from Crimea to the Syrian port of Tartus.

Taken overall, as Pence undertakes his trip to reassure Eastern European allies, Trump now finds himself in a big bind over Russia. Despite his desire for warming of relations between Washington and Moscow, the window of opportunity for that may be narrowing significantly and this could have implications across the world, including in Syria.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.