Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s Visit to Washington

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s December 10 meetings with President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo were billed as a follow-up to Pompeo’s meetings in Sochi last May, and an attempt to set the U.S.-Russia relationship on a more positive course. Increased dialogue between Washington and Moscow is almost certainly needed, and in most respects a good thing. However, Lavrov’s just-completed high-level meetings in Washington in my estimation served more to highlight the deep divisions between the U.S. and Russia on a wide range of issues than to lessen outstanding disagreements or produce actions that would improve relations. 

The positions expressed by Lavrov and Pompeo on a wide range of regional issues – Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, among others – demonstrated that even when there may be broad agreement in principle between the two sides, there is often deep disagreement over important details. For example, while both ministers supported the goal of a non-nuclear Iran, Lavrov spoke specifically in support of the JCPOA, which the U.S. repudiated over a year and half ago. On North Korea, the U.S. calls for Pyongyang to eliminate its nuclear weapons and program, but Lavrov spoke of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the formulation used by DPRK negotiators. On Syria, Moscow and Washington share the aim of eliminating ISIS, and Lavrov specifically referred in positive tones to ongoing deconfliction contacts between Russian and American militaries. However, the joint press conference revealed continuing, sharp differences over key issues such as Russian support for the Assad government or U.S. support for particular opposition forces.

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The most positive notes from the meetings at State and the White House seemed to concern arms control. Lavrov stressed the value of dialogue on strategic stability and arms control, and repeated President Putin’s offer to extend New START without delay or conditions. The U.S. side, judging by both Pompeo’s and Trump’s comments, also favors a dialogue on strategic stability and arms control, but seems unable or unwilling to take yes for an answer. Indeed, Lavrov’s remarks appeared to indicate Russian readiness to address other U.S. concerns, such as new weapons systems, in bilateral talks. However, both Trump and Pompeo referred specifically to a need to include China in arms control talks; Pompeo’s formulation evoked a predictable response from Lavrov to include the French and UK nuclear arsenals. It remains to be seen whether a U.S. desire for a global regime will result in loss of the last remaining structures of bilateral U.S.-Russia arms control. 

The most divisive issues in the relationship are clearly the war in Ukraine and Russian interference in American elections. Pompeo’s and Lavrov’s remarks on Ukraine reflected and echoed the different positions put forward by President Putin and President Zelensky at the previous day’s Normandy format summit. Though both the U.S. and Russia voice support for implementation of the Minsk agreements, they clearly have very different understandings of what that implementation should mean in practice. On election interference, Secretary Pompeo and President Trump each warned against further Russian meddling in U.S. elections, while Lavrov denied everything, asserting there is no proof of Russian involvement.

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There is widespread support for Ukraine and sharp condemnation of Russian actions in Crimea and Donbas among American political and opinion leaders across most of the political spectrum. Similarly, despite deep partisan divisions in the U.S., there is still relatively broad agreement in the U.S. that Russia has been involved in efforts to disrupt domestic politics in the U.S. and a number of its allies. Until and unless this widespread negative attitude toward Russia in the U.S. public is reversed, in particular by more constructive Russian responses and actions in these key areas, it is likely to be very difficult for high level meetings to improve the relationship significantly. This is not an argument against such dialogue, as much as a caution not to expect too much from it in the immediate future.
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