In the face of continued harsh bipartisan criticism, in Congress and large sections of the US media, of the substance and outcome of President Trump’s July 16 summit with Russian President Putin, the Trump administration launched a major “corrective” exercise, impacting on the entire range of the US-Russia relationship.
In an unprecedented action, the entire national security team of the administration – Director of National Intelligence, National Security Advisor, FBI Director, Homeland Security Secretary and Director of the National Security Agency – held a press briefing at the White House (August 2), in which they confirmed the “real, pervasive and continuing threat” from Russia to the integrity of Congressional elections in November and the Presidential elections in 2020. They said Russia (and other foreign actors) tried to hack into and steal information from e-mails of candidates and government officials, and used “numerous ways … to influence, through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire, through proxies …” to undermine US democratic values and to exploit the fault lines in US society. It was asserted that the direct hand of the Kremlin had been detected in all this. They confirmed that a major effort was underway to counter these efforts.
The US Administration announced a new set of sanctions, based on a determination (six months after the event) of Russian involvement in the poisoning, by an alleged nerve agent, of a former Russian secret service agent in England in February (see Review, 2/18). The sanctions included termination of residual technical assistance programmes, ban on supply of defence-related or dual-use goods or technologies to Russia and suspension of all credits and financial assistance. The State Department announcement contained the further requirement that within 90 days, Russia should certify that it is no longer using chemical or biological weapons and will not do so in future and agree to on-site inspection to verify compliance. Failing this, the State Department held out the possibility of further, stiffer, “penalties”. Russian FM Lavrov categorically rejected this invitation to confess guilt, pointing out that there was “no shred of evidence” of Russian involvement in the poisoning.
Separately, a bipartisan legislation was introduced in the US Senate, dubbed “the bill from hell”, to impose stiff new sanctions on Russia and to combat cybercrime. Details of the legislation are still being fleshed out, but it is said to include restrictions on new Russian sovereign debt transactions, energy projects and uranium imports from Russia. Further sanctions are also envisaged on Russian politicians and oligarchs, though they have already been extensively targeted by earlier sanctions.
Though the US and Russian National Security Advisors met in Geneva (August 23), there was no hint of the Helsinki bonhomie. In Israel, just before Geneva, US NSA John Bolton announced that he would be pushing Russia to get Iran to disengage from Syria. The Geneva meeting itself concluded without a joint statement, because (according to Russian NSA Nikolai Patrushev) the Russians rejected the US insistence on a reference to Russian meddling in the US elections; the United States, in turn, predictably rejected a Russian clause on non-interference in the internal affairs of countries. In Kiev, immediately after Geneva, NSA Bolton told media that US sanctions for the Russian annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine would remain in force “until there is a required change in Russian behaviour”. Very little else has emerged from either side on the content of the five-hour Geneva meeting.
Official reports of the two sides of a telephone conversation between Secretary of State Pompeo and Foreign Minister Lavrov (August 23) read almost like records of two different conversations. The State Department read-out said that Secretary Pompeo had urged Russia to immediately release all Ukrainian prisoners, expressed concern at impending Syrian military actions in Idlib (Syria) and asked FM Lavrov to support efforts “to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons”. The Russian MFA’s account had FM Lavrov stressing that “Washington’s destructive policy undermining Russian-US relations” was preventing the two countries from addressing global challenges together. While making a passing reference to the US demarche on a Ukrainian political prisoner, it said FM Lavrov had urged the immediate end to the persecution in the US of a Russian woman accused of being a “foreign agent” (Review, 7/18) and the “illegal” incarceration in the US of a number of other Russian citizens. The Russian MFA subsequently denied that Secretary Pompeo had made any request on the Syrian use of chemical weapons.
Added to these elements were US allegations that Russia was violating UN sanctions on North Korea, followed by US sanctions on Russian ship owners alleged to have been involved in petroleum trade with North Korea. Russia naturally denied the allegation and condemned the sanctions. The US also effectively blocked progress on Russian initiatives in both Syria and Afghanistan (see following sections).
Notwithstanding backpedaling from Helsinki and angry Russian reactions to US allegations and sanctions, some Russian statements expressed continued hope of improvement in relations. Asked for comment on President Trump’s remark that the US could reconsider sanctions if Russia cooperated on Syria and Ukraine, President Putin’s official spokesman said Russia would be willing to discuss this, if it gets specific details of cooperation required. Russian Deputy FM Ryabkov said that despite US sanctions, Russia is willing to hold a dialogue with the US on all “matters of mutual interest”. President Putin also put a positive gloss on the Helsinki outcome, attributing subsequent reverses to the American “deep state” and expressing the hope that things would improve. Significantly, the Russian version of the Pompeo-Lavrov conversation of August 23 said that the two leaders had discussed “the schedule of upcoming contacts” – a point which was conspicuously missing in the State Department read-out.
August 30, 2018