Russia and the United States: Dialogue Without Commitments

On the eve of a possible meeting between the presidents of Russia and the United States on the sidelines of the November 11 celebrations in Paris, the wisdom of such encounters is again under question. In recent years, the number of those who are sceptical about normalization and improvement of bilateral relations has increased significantly both in Russia and the United States.

There is a widespread belief in the United States that it is difficult to expect any concessions from Russia. John Huntsman, US Ambassador to Russia, recently complained about the “intractability” of Russians. There is a consolidated position that it is impossible to come to an agreement with President Putin, because the image of America as an enemy is a necessary booster of stability for the “weakening regime” in Moscow.

In Russia, they say that any attempts to normalize relations and mere dialogue with the United States only lead to new sanctions and exacerbations. Therefore, one should wait before America sorts out its internal problems and a sane and negotiable foreign policy subject emerges. This opinion is widespread in the expert-political community.

Russia and the United States Don’t Need New Summits
Deeply rooted domestic political processes in the US (the clash between old and new elites, the fierce opposition of the establishment and bureaucracy, bordering on sabotage, to any attempt to deviate from the foreign policy mainstream, and the use of Russia as a pawn in this conflict) as well as global trends (Washington's reluctance and inability to accept the reality of a multipolar world and Russia as an independent global centre), which in the near future will only get worse – all this guarantees that the confrontation between Moscow and Washington will continue for at least several more years. In fact, the worst is yet to come.
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The problem, of course, is not in the meetings between Putin and Trump. Russia and the United States urgently need to discuss issues of nuclear balance, cyber security measures, influence on each other’s political situation, future of global energy, sanctions etc.

The recommendation to wait and see, given the potential importance of meetings and the growing escalation of tensions in the world, is misleading. Waiting, amid the ongoing destabilization of the world order, will not contribute to the resolution of emerging crises at all. Moreover, today the nuclear issue has been added to the long list of unresolved problems in relations between the two countries because of the upcoming US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, which can cause a new nuclear arms race in Europe and Asia-Pacific. Today, the probability of a nuclear war is extremely high again.

The problem is not in the meetings and dialogue, but in the fact that contacts at the highest and other levels are not accompanied by the parties’ readiness to make important commitments.

The United States is not ready for such obligations because it is guided by the misunderstood right of the powerful. 

Trump’s trademark style — press ahead “until they begin to understand” — was or is already practiced with regard to North Korea, China, Iran, Europe, and Latin America. This practice may lead to considerable costs in the future, but the White House believes in dialogue from a position of strength

Russia is not an exception in the list of those who must obey the United States. Through sanctions and political pressure Washington wants the Kremlin to take for granted America’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty and strengthening of the US military positions in Europe and Ukraine, to downgrade its ties with China and Iran, to make concessions on Syria, energy markets and other issues.

However, even if one assumes that Trump could offer Putin a sound “deal,” it would most likely be immediately “tweaked” by Congress. Congress has become a subject of active foreign policy, undermining the president’s initiatives. The deal would be presented as betrayal of the US interests, proving Trump’s “collusion” with Putin.

The domestic situation in Russia is more stable. Putin fully controls the nation’s foreign policy. But taking any obligations without concessions from Washington is perceived in the Kremlin as an unjustified risk. First, it is fraught with the weakening of the already asymmetrical international positions of Russia. Second, as the Russian economic situation continues to deteriorate, attempts to cooperate with the United States can be presented as weakening of the Kremlin’s internal political positions. Third, there is considerable risk that the American side will not even consider fulfilling its part of obligations. The Russians want to normalize relations, but not on the terms of Washington.

Here lies the dilemma of distrust described by international experts, which in case of Russian-American relations is aggravated by divergence of interests and the huge burden of negative emotions accumulated over the past two decades.

Both sides understand the danger of the situation and continue to meet with each other. However, awareness of the importance of meetings did not lead to the realization of the need to take into account the interests and find a mutually acceptable compromise. The United States and Russia do not demonstrate willingness to negotiate, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of each other’s concerns. Both sides are “in denial” regarding interference in the internal affairs of each other, violations of the INF Treaty, the situation in Syria, Ukraine, and much more. Both countries’ leaders do not set aside their hopes to convince each other that they are right, without sacrificing anything. No compromise is possible. Bargaining, even on the edge of the abyss, is still appropriate even though it does not produce results yet. Degradation of the relationship continues.

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