Putin-Trump Meeting in Osaka: A Course Towards Stabilisation

The Osaka meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States served as a cautious, but significant contribution in the normalisation of bilateral relations between the two countries. Moscow and Washington contradict fundamentally on a number of issues, and their rivalry has become systemic. The presidents’ brief meeting is unlikely to result in a divergence from the beaten track, but from a tactical point of view, the conversation between the two leaders remains of great importance.

Since the beginning of 2019, Russian-American relations have remained mired in a divisive impasse. However, the established propensity of their animosity to sink to newer lows, which has typified relations during the last several years, has decelerated. This stabilisation is due to several factors.

First, in the United States, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has completed his investigation, though its results have hardly put an end to the controversy surrounding alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Each camp has used the investigation to serve its own interests. Donald Trump’s opponents hae suggested that the results had confirmed their theories, while his supporters see it as a definite victory for the Trump administration. The report hasn’t solved the problem of meddling in general, because Robert Mueller confirmed the fact of Russian meddling through the alleged actions of hackers and social media “trolls”. However, the situation has become much more definite.

Before the publication of the report, its results were only subject to obscure speculations, but today, they are clear and the problem has been established. American diplomacy obtained a little more room to manoeuvre in its contacts with Russia. In Osaka, the presidents addressed this topic of meddling in a rather ironic and sarcastic tone. Donald Trump has already suffered from the expected criticism for such an approach from his opponents, but in comparison with the Helsinki summit, now it is much more difficult to accuse him. In addition to solving the Muller report problem, the US President took a number of steps to counteract possible interferences in the elections. On September 12 last year, he signed Executive Decree 13848 on applying sanctions in the event of interference. Thus, the line of defence of the current president has become more solid, and it’s more difficult to insist that his administration hasn’t done anything. By the way, contrary to expectations, no interference in the midterm Congress elections has been recorded, which has helped stabilise the situation.

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Secondly, Russia and the United States have managed to avoid an aggravation of tensions on a number of important regional issues. Contrary to expectations, the parties avoided a serious confrontation in Venezuela. Russia worked cautiously with the advisers on military-technical cooperation and didn’t take any divisive action. At the same time, Moscow upheld its point of view about the unacceptability of political interventions from the outside. There was also a lull with regard to Ukraine, which remains a significant irritant in Russia’s diplomatic dealings. The country successfully and peacefully outlived the transfer of power and the Americans took all the credit for this. The new government is not going to aggravate the situation, either in the Donbas or in the Kerch Strait. Relations with Kiev could become hostile in the future, but for the time being, the impasse does little to hind a serious dialogue between Russia and the US. In the Middle East, the positions of Americans and Russians also diverge, but there haven’t been any dangerous incidents. However, given the escalation of the US-Iran conflict, Moscow is acting cautiously.
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Thirdly, the issue of sanctions seems to have become more stable as well. The US hasn’t launched any “Draconian sanctions” yet. New bills on sanctions against Russia are constantly proposed in US Congress, but they don’t obtain enough support to gain traction. Sanctions against Rusal, Russia’s top aluminium company, demonstrated the consequences that these tough measures have when applied to a large global company. The measures don’t just hurt Russians, but foreign players as well. “Draconian sanctions” against banks or sovereign debt obligations would cause more severe global consequences. For Moscow, they would most likely lead to a declaration of war. Hence, their implementation could lead to serious new risks, and the prospect of obtaining at least some concessions from Russia is hardly worth it. The Americans hold the option of “draconian sanctions” as a signal of determination to take harsh measures. However, their introduction may be considered a “nuclear” measure, which is advisable only if there is a serious irritant. The guns are uncovered, but are not being used yet.
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Fourth, we can point out a kind of stabilisation with regard to digital security. Along with Robert Mueller’s investigation, the American public was riled up by dubious ‘Russian hacker’ stories. Last year there was much speculation about the infiltration of Russians into US energy networks. This year, the American media proudly reported that the US intelligence services have already infiltrated Russia’s power supply networks, without the knowledge of Donald Trump. The prior year’s stories turned out to be unconfirmed, and the country’s leadership, in fact, disavowed the journalists’ fantasies. It is doubtless that there is a fierce competition between Russia and the United States in the digital space, but the politicisation of the issue has so far stopped.
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Fifth, the emphasis of the United States on other foreign policy issues, such as the conflict with Iran, trade war with China and politics in Venezuela has played its part as well. It is hardly worth underestimating American diplomacy, because it can act effectively in many directions simultaneously. However, the concentration on Russia has diminished, lending to more stable bilateral relations.

Finally, a certain progress has been achieved in the dialogue on arms control. The collapse of the INF Treaty was a major step backwards. The United States claimed that Russia had violated the CTBT arms control regime. The situation was somewhat mitigated by the position of the CTBT itself, which found no violations and expressed a very sceptical attitude towards the accusations, including those made by American experts. There are signs of progress on the INF’s extension. In the US Congress, there are some loud voices in favour of its extension. In his recent interview with the Financial Times, Putin expressed a cautious, but positive attitude towards the dialogue on strategic weapons.

The Osaka meeting is unlikely to lead to any global breakthroughs. However, it established a trend towards stabilisation, which is important after several years of rapid deterioration. The tactical pause should be used to reduce costs associated with the rivalry and normalise cooperation in spheres of mutual interest.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.