Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Russia earlier this week helped clarify the differences between the Russian and U.S. governments. We saw wide-ranging discussions focusing on arms control and regional security issues. Yet, there was no breakthrough in their strained ties. There were no new agreements or even an indication that either side changed its positions on any of the many issues dividing them.
Despite President Vladimir Putin or Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements, the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report have not ended the dispute over Russian intervention in U.S. elections. The report concludes that the Russian government tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential ballot even if there was not much evidence of direct collusion between candidate Trump and Russian officials. The Pompeo-Lavrov exchanges exposed the gulf in the participants’ perspectives concerning interference in domestic affairs. As Lavrov noted, this question has affected Russian-U.S. relations for almost a century.
I also do not expect much progress on the expert or economic dialogues proposed by Minister Lavrov. His suggestion "to create a nongovernmental expert council of famous political analysts, ex-military and diplomats, specialists for bilateral relations’” that could offer “a fresh take” on the relationship seems superfluous given the existence of the Valdai Discussion Group and other bodies that are good at diagnosing disagreements but whose recommendations to resolve them are typically never executed.
Regarding the proposed business council, the paucity of discussion about Ukraine was worrisome given its resolution is required to relax many U.S. economic sanctions, which will block realization of proposals to achieve a major expansion in economic ties. Pompeo correctly urged Moscow to reach out to the new government in Kyiv to break the existing impasse. Simply insisting that the Ukrainian government adhere to the Minsk agreements is insufficient—Moscow needs to entice the new Ukrainian leadership by compromising on Crimea, Donbas, and other issues.
It looks like Trump and Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan next month; the growing Sino-U.S. dispute will lead to interesting trilateral personal dynamics.