The Trump Administration launched a fresh initiative to resume summit-level discussions with Russia on bilateral and international issues. The stage for this was set by the conclusions of the Mueller Report on Russian Interference in the US Presidential Elections in 2016 which, while confirming Russian disinformation and social media operations and hackings of the Democratic Party emails, did not (according to the US Attorney General) find collusion of the Trump Campaign with the Russian government or obstruction of the investigation by the President.
President Trump set the ball rolling on May 3, with a telephone conversation with President Putin, which he described as “a very good talk”, particularly on Venezuela. He contradicted his Administration’s line by asserting that President Putin was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen”. In contrast, the Kremlin readout of the conversation said President Putin emphasized the right of Venezuelans to determine their own future, without external influences for regime change. Russia said this again publicly, while receiving President Maduro’s Foreign Minister in Moscow just a couple of days after the telephone conversation.
President Trump said they discussed a new arms control treaty to replace the current START (which lapses in 2021), in which China could also be included. He added that the Chinese were “quite excited” about this suggestion, when he put it to them – again a surprising assertion. In subsequent remarks, Administration officials said a new agreement should include “a broader range of weapon systems” and incorporate “an incentive system” that would encourage compliance by all parties. Russian official statements talk only of bilateral discussions on “strategic stability”. The Russian attitude is, as mentioned in some media reports, that if the Americans want to draw China into such a deal, it is for them to do the running for it.
President Trump said they discussed increasing bilateral trade, as also confirmed in the Kremlin readout. This subject had figured in their meeting in Helsinki in July 2018, when they had agreed to set up a joint working group of captains of business to generate initiatives to enhance economic cooperation. This was again mentioned in a Lavrov-Pompeo press conference. If it was a curious decision a year ago, it is even more so now, as the sanctions regime has become harsher since then.
The Presidential conversation was followed up by meetings of the two Foreign Ministers in Finland, on the margins of a Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, and in Sochi, where Secretary Pompeo also met with President Putin. The joint press conference of the two Foreign Ministers in Sochi brought out the difference between the Russian and American positions on the range of international issues, without becoming combative.
An example was FM Lavrov’s comments on the alleged Russian interference in the US Presidential elections. He revealed that from October 2016, when allegations of Russian cyber interference gathered momentum, and January 2017, when President Trump assumed office, there was a regular exchange of communications between the two countries (presumably through their intelligence agencies) on “cyberspace” issues. At the height of the furore in the US over Russian interference in the elections, the Russians had apparently wanted to make these exchanges public, to dispel “fabrications”, but the US Administration had not consented.
FM Lavrov also drew attention to a provision in America’s Ukraine Freedom Support Act (2014), which encroaches on Russian domestic affairs. It directs the US Secretary of State, directly or through organizations, to improve democratic governance in Russia and to strengthen its democratic institutions, with an annual allocation of US$ 20 million for this purpose.
Secretary Pompeo chose not to respond on these issues, but their raising did not seem to mar the good humour in which the press conference was conducted.
Meanwhile, mutual public recriminations continued in other forums. Secretary Pompeo and senior US Administration officials continued harsh criticism of Russian military presence in Venezuela, humanitarian impact of military operations in Syria’s Idlib province, violations of the Minsk agreements in Ukraine and Russia’s aggressive behaviour in the Arctic (seeking to control maritime traffic on the northern sea route). Russia’s Foreign Minister and its MFA criticised the Trump Administration’s regime change efforts in Venezuela and its actions threatening the territorial integrity of Syria.
Under cover of these hostile public exchanges, dialogue and cooperation were being quietly developed. The trilateral US-Russia-China dialogue of Special Envoys on Afghanistan appears to have been institutionalized (see Review, 4/19). The US State Department has confirmed that US-Russia consultations on North Korea have intensified. Russian FM Lavrov hinted at a potential Russian role in easing US-Iran tensions, including over the nuclear deal. Cooperation of counter-terrorism agencies on terrorist threats in both countries have apparently yielded concrete results in pre-empting terrorist activities.
The most significant indication of the US desire to resume dialogue was an unannounced visit (perhaps even more than one) of a senior Director of the US National Security Council to Moscow, where she met counterparts in the Russian NSC and a senior foreign policy aide to President Putin, triggering unconfirmed rumours of an impending “deal” on Ukraine and Venezuela.
The stage is thus set for the next meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, on the margins of the G20 summit in Osaka in end-June, provided no new controversy erupts. On the last occasion, President Trump had called off their scheduled meeting on the margins of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in November 2018, because of a skirmish between Russian and Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch strait that erupted just before the planned Summit (see Review, 11/18).
May 30, 2019