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.
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.