The special investigation in the US into Russian election meddling took new turns, when the President’s former campaign manager faced money laundering charges and a former foreign policy adviser pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians. US-Russia interactions on international issues, however, continued though on a low key.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) expressed indignation over the occupation by US special forces of the premises of the closed Russian Consulate General in San Francisco, since it was property owned by the Russian government. Russia threatened both legal and reciprocal action, but did not go any further.
As required in the July 2017 legislation, tightening sanctions against Russia and putting them under Congressional supervision, the Department of State published a list of Russian defence and intelligence organizations which would be covered under the legislation. Most of these agencies were already under sanctions after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Of greater significance were the details of US sanctions against any foreign entity that entered into “significant” energy cooperation with Russia – this includes pipelines from Russia, projects in the Arctic and shale oil. It was clarified that decision on sanctions would be made on a case-by-case basis and that the interests of allies and partners would be taken into account. Whether by approval or by veto, it gives the US leverage over European countries involved in energy cooperation with Russia. The first test would be whether the undersea pipelines, Nordstream 2 and Turkstream, would be affected. Since major companies from France, Germany, Holland and Austria are involved in these projects, Russia would probably wait for the protests to come from them.
There were regular (at least three) telephone conversations between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Russian read-outs say they discussed (among others) cooperation to ensure better functioning of the de-escalation zones in Syria and to advance the political settlement process; tensions in the Korean peninsula (with FM Lavrov criticizing US “military preparations” in the region); Iran’s compliance with the conditions imposed by the nuclear deal; American actions in Russian diplomatic property; and Ukraine’s effort to move legislation to reintegrate the Donbass region into Ukraine, which Russia (correctly) considers violative of the Minsk agreements. On the last, it appears that the Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, Germany & France) has been overtaken by Russia-US talks on Ukraine. It was reported that the US Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and Russian Presidential Aide, Vladislav Surkov, met in Belgrade on October 7 “for Ukraine negotiations”. It would appear that the US has effectively taken direct control over the process from the Europeans, presumably to improve its negotiating position with the Russians on the other trouble spots (Syria and Afghanistan) where they have differences.
As has been noted in earlier Reviews, even when the Russian establishment has been critical of the Trump Administration’s actions, they have never criticized President Trump. In fact, though MFA drew attention to some US actions in Syria that may have aided the terrorists, President Putin, in an informal discussion in the Valdai Club Forum (an annual event in which he interacts with Russian and international intellectuals and think tank representatives), expressed appreciation for the American role in establishing the de-escalation zones in Syria, saying the Americans “are greatly contributing; even though they are not participating directly in the Astana talks, they are influencing these processes behind the scenes. We maintain stable cooperation with our American partners … even though not without disputes. However, there are more positive than negative elements in our cooperation”. In the same discussion, he went one step further, when an American (apparently of East Asian origin) questioned President Trump’s capacity and asked what advice President Putin had for him. His response was sharp: “I am sorry, but I consider the question inappropriate. Mr Trump was elected by the American people. And for this reason alone, he should be treated with respect, even if you disagree with a position of his … You can argue but you cannot show disrespect. Not just for him personally, but for the people who have voted for him. Secondly, … the President of the United States needs no advice, because to be elected, even without extensive government experience, you have to have talent and go through this crucible. He did just that. And he won. He won fairly”.
Clearly, the Russians have not yet lost hope of a reset with the United States.
October 30, 2017