Though Russia withdrew some of its military forces from Syria this week — a development many Western officials welcomed — Moscow shouldn’t expect any relief from U.S. sanctions, according to America’s top diplomat to Europe.
The United States will maintain economic pressure on the Kremlin until it fully withdraws weapons and troops close to the Ukrainian border, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
“We continue to look at the Syria theater and at the Ukraine theater as two separate places,” she said. “We will judge the Ukraine action based on what is done in Ukraine, and as you know, the sanctions are linked to Ukraine. So from our perspective, what is done in Syria should not impact choices about Ukraine.”
Nuland’s remarks follow Monday’s announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that “the main part of our military groups will begin their withdrawal” from Syria as U.N.-brokered peace talks begin in Geneva between Damascus and opposition groups.
In recent months, a repeated barrage of Russian airstrikes allowed the Syrian government to consolidate gains in the country’s west while knocking rebel groups — including some backed by the United States — off balance. Russian support has also allowed Syrian forces to regroup and resupply after five years of intense fighting. The Kremlin has made clear it will maintain its new air base in Latakia and naval refueling station in Tartus.
It’s unclear how Russia’s pullout might influence Syria’s civil war. But Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, Valeriy Chaly, praised Nuland for drawing a clear line about the U.S. posture toward each conflict. He said he hopes pressure will remain on Moscow — even if the Kremlin becomes more helpful to the West in resolving the conflict in Syria.
“I appreciate what Victoria Nuland said, because it demonstrated the firm U.S. support for Ukraine,” Chaly told Foreign Policy on the sidelines of the Senate hearing.
“There’s a chance that some Russian troops might withdraw from Syria and come back to Ukraine,” he added. “We’re afraid that could be the next step from Russia.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Russia did not give the U.S. “direct advance notice of this decision” about withdrawing forces from Syria. He declined to speculate about what it could mean for the wider effort to forge a diplomatic solution.
“The impact of this decision will depend a little bit on the way the Russians follow through with the implementation of this decision,” Earnest said. “There are a lot of variables here.”
Earnest also said the U.S. is “heartened” by Moscow’s statement Monday that it is committed to pursuing a diplomatic resolution in Syria. But, he said, actions would speak louder than words.
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