July 13, 2017

Russia taking stock after Hamburg

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The July 7 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, was so intensely anticipated and so poorly prepared in terms of the agenda that its outcome remains broadly open to interpretation.

The Kremlin judged it a success beyond expectations, particularly since it lasted 135 minutes instead of the scheduled 35 minutes (Carnegie.ru, July 7). Sensing Mr. Putin’s satisfaction, Russian commentators were eager to elaborate on the “positive chemistry” between the two presidents and to hail a “breakthrough” in bilateral relations based on trust and respect (RIA Novosti, July 7).

For the Trump administration, the huge amount of media attention was in itself a major achievement, and the supposed acceptance of Mr. Putin’s reassurances that Russia had not deliberately interfered in the U.S. elections presumably would fit a need to turn over that embarrassing page (Newsru.com, July 7). The preference for focusing on the future makes perfect political sense; but in fact, few steps in this direction were taken.

It is remarkable, for that matter, that Messrs. Trump and Putin mostly ignored the broader G-20 summit agenda set by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The controversial issue of climate change, which triggered violent protests in the streets of Hamburg, was clearly of no interest to either leader. Trade was also ignored; and the difficult question of sanctions, currently being deliberated in the U.S. Congress against Mr. Trump’s wishes, was bracketed out. Mr. Putin only briefly mentioned the sticking point of the Russian diplomatic “dachas” on U.S. soil that have been off limits since last December (RBC, July 3).

It seems the potentially hugely important problem of Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Congress is also examining, was left unaddressed, so that the future of arms control remains in limbo (Kommersant, July 7). North Korea’s arrogant nuclear behavior also apparently was not discussed. Mr. Trump probably understands that Mr. Putin has little to say on this topic, except for following the line drawn by Chinese President Xi Jinping (New Times, July 5).

One problem that had generated much tension in bilateral relations, but was treated by the two leaders efficiently and productively, was Syria. The ease with which the agreement on a ceasefire in the southwestern corner of the wartorn country was reached can be explained by the long and well-hidden negotiations in Amman, Jordan, where the talks had been narrowly focused on that area of the conflict (Gazeta.ru, July 7).

Washington may still harbor suspicions about the Russia-led Astana negotiation format, in which Turkey and Iran are also participants, but it seeks to ensure Moscow’s support in keeping the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime away from the key battleground around Raqqa, where the Islamic State is set to suffer a major defeat (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 8).

Russia keeps using Syria as a testing ground for its new weapons systems, including recently the air-launched X-101 cruise missile, but the prospect of deploying ground forces in order to enforce ceasefires remains far from appealing in Moscow (RBC, July 6). Nonetheless, Russia feels increasingly dependent upon cooperation with Iran, which is deeply embroiled in the badly mismanaged conflict around Qatar, and Moscow cannot take a meaningful position on this regional crisis (Kommersant, July 7).

Another problem to which the two presidents devoted their attention on the sidelines of the G-20 summit was Ukraine. But here, no prospect for anything resembling a deal is in sight. Before coming to Hamburg, Mr. Trump visited Warsaw, Poland, and delivered to mass plaudits a speech with a strong warning to Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine,” which was duly noted in the Kremlin (Newsru.com, July 7).

Mr. Putin was not particularly alarmed by that rhetoric and decided to frame the U.S.’s appointment of Kurt Volker as a special representative for Ukraine as a positive development (RBC, July 7). Ambassador Volker is not known for particular sympathy toward Russia and has vast international experience, but the Kremlin still hopes to play him against the Europeans in the deadlocked Minsk process, which has not advanced an inch since Mr. Putin’s meetings with Chancellor Merkel and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron (RIA Novosti, July 8). By showing zero flexibility on its aggression in Donbas, Moscow expects to convince the West, as Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov conveyed, to put more pressure on Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 8).

One theme Mr. Trump did not find opportune to raise was the human rights situation in Russia, despite the present existence of many disturbing issues, including the mass execution of homosexuals in Chechnya (Novaya Gazeta, July 9). On the day of the Hamburg handshake, Mr. Putin’s prime domestic political opponent, Alexei Navalny, stepped out of prison after serving a sentence linked to the protest march he organized on June 12 (Navalny.com, July 7). Mr. Navalny found his regional headquarters ransacked and hundreds of activists beaten and detained in his absence (Moscow Echo, July 8). This brutal pressure marks the start of Mr. Putin’s presidential campaign, which is yet to be announced but is certain to see the mobilization of every police and propaganda resource (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 7).

Mr. Trump may not see any connection between these domestic affairs and the “Russia file” that keeps bedeviling his presidency; yet the link is direct and strong. Mr. Navalny’s main cause is the struggle against corruption, which has severely deformed every mechanism of the Russian state (Svoboda.org, July 5). And it is exactly the export of Russian corruption that poisoned the U.S. election last year, while cyberattacks were only a means to an end of undermining the next incoming U.S. administration (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 6).

Mr. Trump may claim that his meeting with Mr. Putin was “tremendous,” and Mr. Putin may have reason to think that he scored an important victory. But in fact, neither leader will likely find it beneficial or even possible to build on the beginning of the rapport they established. Mr. Trump’s receptiveness to Mr. Putin’s denials will have no impact on the multiple investigations into Russian “connections” and only strengthens the resolve of the U.S. Congress to punish Moscow for every transgression of norms of responsible behavior.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is almost certain to find that his efforts at cultivating a “beautiful friendship” with Mr. Trump are not helpful for resolving the practical matters of sanctions and do not fit with the habitual exploitation of anti-Americanism in the official propaganda. Mr. Putin is a believer in high-level bargaining and corruption, but he trusts even more in personal power projection, whereas, his Western counterparts are wary of the former and quite fed up with the latter.

The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.

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