Pompeo in Russia: Problems Remain

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.

Trump’s Reality Show to Be Continued
Andrei Tsygankov
For American politics experts, Donald Trump’s statement about the Mueller investigation being tantamount to a coup attempt is no news. Since before Trump was elected president, mud-slinging and harassment have been the norm in Washington. Trump was, and still is, accused of collusion with Russia, perjury and many other things. Trump, in response, has denied everything.

Democratic countries such as the United States are especially attractive targets for foreign influence operations since their election outcomes can have a great impact on their governments’ foreign policies. States such as Russia will find it hard to resist trying to advance the fortunes of political candidates who the intervenor believes will support policies that benefit the intruding country. Any effort to negotiate limits must also struggle with challenges related to conclusively attributing the source of any intrusion and determining a proportionate response.   Furthermore, even if national governments could agree on rules or norms of proper behavior in this domain, there is no powerful mechanism to enforce them.  

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.

Ukraine, America and the ‘Island of Russia’
Andrei Tsygankov
The presidential election in Ukraine, as well as the no-less-important parliamentary election that will follow it, are very significant in the context of how the rival powers understand them. For the West, which is guided by the logic of the expansion of its sphere of influence, Ukraine serves as the most important means to deter Russia and undermine its sense of pride and independence.

Some of the other exchanges were more promising. Lavrov’s tone on Iran was surprisingly measured, describing Moscow’s goal as moderating tensions rather than defending Iran against the United States. Pompeo singled out Korea as an issue regarding which the two governments have worked well together. Neither party dwelled on the INF Treaty’s demise—confirming my impression that the Russian government no longer wanted this treaty either. The mutual approval of the Russian-US-China “troika” on Afghanistan is interesting—but only briefly discussed in the public session. 

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.

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