Media focus in the United States moved from the Congressional hearings and Special Counsel investigations to new Russia-related controversies. These flowed from the Trump-Putin meeting on the side-lines of the G20 Summit, their one-to-one meeting at the official dinner, new revelations of a meeting of Trump Jr. with a Russian lawyer during the campaign and, finally, the Congressional legislation on sanctions against Russia (along with Iran and North Korea), which provoked a Russian retaliation.
White House and Kremlin spokespersons both described the two and a quarter hour Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg on July 7 as substantive and focussed on moving the relationship forward. There was a broad convergence in both the accounts of the meeting. There was extensive discussion on Syria – about cooperation in expanding safe zones and fighting ISIS, as well as in the political process in post-ISIS Syria. Secretary of State Tillerson asserted that the United States and Russia have the same interests in Syria - a stable and united country in which a political discussion would determine the country’s future and that of its leadership.
Discussions on Ukraine were followed by the US appointment of a Special Representative (a former US Ambassador to NATO), who would liaise with Russia and other members of the Normandy Four (France, Germany and Ukraine) for resolution of issues.
Secretary of State Tillerson said the discussions on North Korea revealed that, though the Russians see the problem “a little differently” from the Americans, there was scope for further discussions, since both countries converge in wanting a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
The trickiest part of the discussions – and that which attracted the maximum media attention – was on the Russian “meddling” in the US Presidential elections. Secretary Tillerson said President Trump raised it upfront and repeatedly with President Putin, who had denied any such interference. President Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said much the same in media comments, though adding their assessment that President Trump had accepted this denial. The tepidity of US official rebuttal of this Russian assessment was highlighted by the media. Secretary Tillerson said elliptically that the two leaders “acknowledged the challenges of ….. interference in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries” and agreed to cooperate “to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats” of interference in the internal affairs of countries, disrupting infrastructure and promoting terrorism. The two leaders agreed to set up a working group “to explore a framework agreement around the cyber issue and this issue of non-interference” (Tillerson). Pressed on this subject by the media, Secretary Tillerson eventually said that the two countries will probably never reach an “agreed-upon” resolution of this question, but the relationship is too important to let this difference hinder its forward movement.
Meanwhile, the progression through Congress of legislation, seeking to significantly widen the scope of US sanctions against Russia and restrict executive freedom to revoke them, sustained pressure on the Administration against any concessions to Russia. The meeting on July 17-18 of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov and US Under Secretary of State Shannon failed to make progress on return of Russian diplomatic properties seized by the Obama Administration in the end of 2016.
However, some bilateral dialogue has commenced. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Morgulov held discussions with his US counterparts in Washington (July 6) on the Korean Peninsula, the situation in the Asian-Pacific region, regional economic integration and bilateral cooperation in APEC, East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Following the Ryabkov-Shannon meeting, the US State Department announced that the two sides would recommence strategic stability talks and resume Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) meetings on the implementation of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. All these dialogue mechanisms had been suspended by the US in 2014.
The new Russia sanctions legislation completed its Congressional passage on July 27. President Trump “reluctantly” signed it into law on August 3, though describing it as “seriously flawed” and “unconstitutional”. The bill passed through both chambers with overwhelming majorities, making it veto-proof. The Act denies the President any discretionary authority: sanctions bills normally include some “national security” waivers, enabling the Executive to invoke special circumstances to override Congressional review.
Russia responded (July 28) by asking the US to reduce its diplomatic and technical staff in its diplomatic, trade and consular missions in Russia to the same number as that of Russia in the US. This translates to a cut of 755 personnel from the present strength of US missions in Russia. However, unlike the Obama Administration’s deadline of 72 hours for withdrawal of 35 Russian diplomats from the US in December 2016, the Americans were given until September 1 to implement the cut. The Russians also “suspended” the use of two US diplomatic properties in Russia.
President Putin’s adopted a “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger” tone in explaining the Russian action, saying he had hoped it would not come to this and adding that he had decided not to take other measures just yet. Foreign Minister Lavrov telephoned Secretary Tillerson to explain that Russia had done all it could to improve relations, but “Russophobic” forces in US politics had forced its hands. He reiterated that Russia “still stands ready” to normalise bilateral relations and cooperate on major international issues, “on the basis of equality, mutual respect and a balance of interests”. It is clear that Russia continues to harbour expectations of better rapport with the Trump Administration.
One speculation is that Russia took these measures, so that there could be symmetry in the mutual reversal of the decisions, whenever it happens. American Congresspersons have recently opposed return of Russian diplomatic properties “without getting something in return”.
July 30, 2017