The prospect of a thaw in US-Russia relations emerged with the visit to Moscow of US National Security Advisor John Bolton, his meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Putin, and the subsequent announcement of a Trump-Putin bilateral meeting in Helsinki on July 16.
President Trump had already dropped a hint of his thinking, when he queried at the G7 Summit in early June why Russia was excluded from the event. US Secretary of State Pompeo telephoned Russian FM Lavrov on June 18 to discuss (according to a Russian release) Syria, Korea and “the schedule of political contacts”. The US and Russian Chiefs of General Staff had met earlier at Helsinki to discuss Syria and other areas of international security.
In brief press comments, President Trump indicated he would discuss Syria and Ukraine with President Putin, but asserted that it was pointless to take up Crimea, since President Obama had already given it up. NSA Bolton told the press in Moscow that a “full range of issues” would be covered, including alleged Russian meddling in the US elections, Ukraine and Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reported to have told a US Senate committee that some trade-offs could be expected to readmit Russia into G7.
US and Russian behaviour in past months has, in fact, indicated that both sides are collecting bargaining chips in their various confrontations, to be used for appropriate “trade-offs” at a suitable bilateral occasion. There were two further examples in June. One was the tussle for position in a trilaterally agreed (US-Russia-Jordan) “de-escalation zone” near the Syrian-Jordan border – the Russian and US foreign ministries traded allegations about violation of ceasefire agreements. The other was a move, spearheaded by the UK at the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to vest its Technical Secretariat with the powers to assign responsibility for the use of chemical weapons. Russia claimed this was beyond the mandate of the OPCW. The British resolution found majority support (82 for, 23 against – of which India was one), but the decision needs confirmation at the regular session of the Conference of Parties to the CWC in November 2018.
The range of issues, which have bedevilled relations, is extraordinarily large: alleged Russian meddling in US elections, enhanced tensions in eastern Ukraine, face-off across the Euphrates in Syria, mutual recriminations on support for terrorists (Taliban and ISIS) in Afghanistan, alleged violations of the INF Treaty and poisoning of a former Soviet spy in England, among others.
Given the extent of the divide and the political dynamics in the US, it may be unrealistic to expect major outcomes from the Summit, though of course both sides will declare success. However, the resumption of high-level dialogue is itself a major achievement, which may blunt some of the sharper edges of bilateral disagreements.
American media has been commenting that this sudden Trump decision might alarm European allies. NSA Bolton pertinently pointed out in response that the leaders of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Greece, Finland, Austria, Belgium, and Italy have all had bilateral meetings recently with President Putin. Indeed (though NSA Bolton obviously would not say it), many of these countries have been arguing for resumption of political dialogue with Russia. It is nevertheless true that European allies not among the countries listed above list may join with opponents in the US of a “re-set” with Russia, to try to limit the extent of such “re-set”. Some indication of US Congress’ reactions may come from the visit of a US Congressional delegation to Russia, scheduled for early July.
June 30, 2018