Russia-US Relations: Slow Steps with Timid Zigzags

The second full-fledged Russian-American summit meeting is postponed until 2019. It is unlikely to be held in January or February – everything will depend on the still poorly predictable dynamics of the domestic political situation in the United States. Anyway, as the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov optimistically noted recently, even before the end of the year Trump and Putin could meet on the sidelines of various multilateral international events: celebration of the end of the World War I in France (November 11), East Asian Summit in Singapore (November 14 – 15) and the G20 summit in Argentina (November 30 – December 1).

The White House has already reported that Trump will surely not come to Singapore, while he is still going to be in Paris and Buenos Aires. Both events will take place after the midterm elections to the US Congress (November 6), which should establish a new balance of political forces in Washington. In any case, a Russian-American summit before the elections does not make sense: Trump and his team would get no dividends from a meeting with his Russian counterpart, but would surely get another noisy scandal at home.

The results of the November elections will even more untie or, on the contrary, bind the hands of the American president in many spheres, including relations with Moscow. It is already clear today that the Democrats will not succeed in winning by “knockout,” getting a majority in both chambers (as it happened, for example, in 2006 under G. W. Bush); in the Senate, the positions of Republicans and Trump personally are most likely to strengthen even more. But the Democrats are quite capable of seizing control of the House of Representatives; such a victory “on points” can further shift the balance of powers in the US foreign policy from the White House to the Capitol with all the negative consequences for Russian-American relations. Moreover, there is no need to predict that all those dissatisfied with the elections outcome will easily find the universal scapegoat – an insidious and omnipresent Russia.

Thus, the political background for intermediate Russian-American meetings “on the sidelines” does not look very encouraging. And the Washington political establishment did not have positive impressions of the recent summit in Helsinki. Remember that in the next two-three months additional reasons for mutual discontent are quite possible: a new round of sanctions, US military actions in Syria, increased American pressure on Iran, aggravation of the situation in the east of Ukraine, etc. All of that does not give grounds for optimism.

However, it is the deplorable state of bilateral relations that increases the value of any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the United States – whether they happen on the sidelines, in the corridor, at breakfast, during coffee breaks or even on the run. Today is not a time when one can afford making a spectacular pause, expecting that the interlocutor will lose their nerves. Every intermediate meeting is not supposed to lead to immediate concrete results, or to be accompanied by a press conference or other public appearances. In the current situation, even a frank exchange of views on acute issues would already look as a great achievement.

Apparently, after the November elections in the United States the issue of the Russian interference will lose some of its sharpness in Washington, which will allow to focus on less toxic issues, including strategic arms control, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, combating international terrorism, cooperation in regional crises like Syria, North Korea and even Afghanistan. An indicative agenda of possible meetings “on the sidelines” began to emerge during the Geneva consultations between John Bolton and Nikolai Patrushev on August 23, but only in the most general form.

It is very important that any meeting “on the sidelines” should become a step to the next full-fledged Russian-American summit. The second summit should not be a repetition of the first – both sides expect concrete results from the forthcoming summit, unlike anything that happens during talks “on the sidelines.”

A lot will depend on how intense the Russian-American dialogue will be in the coming months or even weeks, on the level of the two presidents’ trusted representatives, as well as at lower levels, despite the increased nervousness, which inevitably accompanies any election campaign in the United States. Even unconstrained improvisations and impromptu “on the sidelines” of multilateral events in Paris or Buenos Aires would require careful preliminary preparations. In general, to quote Leo Martov, a Russian revolutionary, who is almost forgotten today, “with a slow step, timid zigzagging, without getting carried away, adapting, if possible, carefully, quietly forward...” But still forward, not backward.

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