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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Russia and the World

Jan. 6, 2017

Tensions between the US and Russia are on the rise and some say it's a sign that Russia is moving toward becoming a global power. What role will Russian diplomacy play in shaping international relations in 2017?

The civil war in Syria has been going on for more than 5 years now, and has has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Last month, President Bashar al-Assad's forces retook the entire city of Aleppo, which used to be a stronghold of the anti-government movement.

With Assad's forces gaining momentum, their supporter Russia began stepping up diplomatic moves. Russia approached Turkey, which backs the opposition and on Dec. 29, it was announced that Moscow and Ankara had brokered a ceasefire agreement.

Russia hopes to end the conflict in a manner that's favorable for Moscow.

"We have just received a message stating that this morning, several hours ago, the event that we've been waiting for, for a long time, and that we've worked hard for, has taken effect," said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also in December, Putin arrived in Japan for his first visit as president in 11 years. He met for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the 2 agreed on various economic cooperation deals.

But neither of them changed their position over a dispute involving 4 islands off northern Japan -- the Northern Territories. Russia controls the islands. Japan claims them. The Japanese government maintains the islands are an inherent part of Japan’s territory. It says the islands were illegally occupied after World War Two.

Meanwhile, Russian relations with the United States have plunged to the worst levels since the Cold War.

In Ukraine, fighting escalated between government forces and pro-Russian separatists. Following the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, the United States played a leading role in bringing economic sanctions on Russia by the Group of 7 industrialized countries.

Last June, during the US presidential election campaign, Democratic Party computer servers were hacked, resulting in the leaks of emails of party executives. The US government says the cyber-attack was conducted by Russia, which aimed to influence the outcome of the November election.

"We have said and will confirm that this happened at the highest level of the Russian government," said US President Barack Obama. "Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin."

"Is there actually anyone who seriously believes that Russia can affect the choice made by American citizens? Isn't America a great country?" said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a retaliatory move, the US government shut down 2 Russian-affiliated facilities in the US, and ordered the deportation of 35 Russian diplomats. Putin responded in a statement, saying Moscow would not retaliate, while it would retain the right to do so.

US president-elect Donald Trump, who is set to take office on Jan. 20, posted a message about the issue on Twitter. He praised Putin, saying "Great move. I always knew he was very smart." Trump earlier indicated that he would work to improve ties with Russia.

Taisuke Abiru, a specialist in Russian affairs with the Tokyo Foundation think tank, joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: We just received breaking news that Russian troops are starting to withdraw from Syria. What do you think this could mean?

Abiru: From Russia's standpoint, maintaining a large military presence in Syria for long period of time isn't in its interest. So, it doesn't come as a surprise that Moscow would pull its troops out at this point. Another thing is the pull out could put pressure on the Assad regime.

Beppu: What do you mean by that?

Abiru: As you know, Russia brokered a ceasefire with Turkey that supports the opposition forces. The key is whether Assad will continue to honor the ceasefire deal. Naturally, his ambition is to expand his regime's control beyond Aleppo, to all of Syria. Russia wants stop that and it's likely that Moscow is sending a warning.

Beppu: Could the move be seen as a reflection of Russia's commitment to peace?

Abiru: In September 2016, Russia and the US failed to implement a ceasefire and peace negotiations on Syria. After that, Moscow changed course and began cooperating with Iran and Turkey, both of which are major powers in the Middle East. Anyway, Russia intends to establish a stable Syria under the Assad regime. This will allow Russia to maintain influence in Syria and the region.

Shibuya: US intelligence suggests that Russian hackers interfered with last year's US presidential election. What is your take on this?

Abiru: I think the Obama administration’s decision to impose sanctions in response to the alleged hacking was intended to send a strong message, but not only to Russia. I think the message was also intended for President-Elect Trump, who has spoken openly about his wish to improve US-Russia relations. Aware of Trump’s position on Russia, that could explain why President Putin did not retaliate against the sanctions.

Shibuya: What do you think will happen when President-Elect Trump takes office?

Abiru: Russia hopes that its relationship with the US will improve under the incoming president, who seems likely to change the course on US policy to favor Russia. However, I don't think it's so simple. A key test will be whether the US Congress approves Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, whom the president-elect has nominated to be the next secretary of state.

Beppu: Do you think the US and Russia could eventually work together to fight the Islamic State militant group?

Abiru: I think President-Elect Trump regards IS as a major threat to US security. If the Trump administration decides to participate in a ceasefire agreement and peace negotiations on Syria, Russia is likely to welcome its support. That will increase the likelihood of the two countries working together to fight IS in the future.

Beppu: If US-Russia relations improve, what effect will that have on the close relationship that Russia has with China?

Abiru: Cooperation in the Middle East alone won’t be enough to thaw relations between the US and Russia. That's because there is still the tension over Ukraine. I think the Ukraine issue is a bigger obstacle to overcome since many people in Washington feel strongly about it. Meanwhile, the relationship between China and Russia has rapidly improved since the Ukraine crisis. But if Russia and the US make a deal over Ukraine, that would neutralize the Russia-China relationship to a certain extent.

Beppu: Finally, in conclusion, what are your prospects for Japan-Russia relations this year?

Abiru: I want to pay attention to where the deal about starting negotiation regarding joint economic activities in the Northern Territories goes. If all goes well, there's no doubt it will boost Japan-Russia relations. But we will have to wait and see if there are some achievements this year.