“Hard Security” or “Small Steps”: Where Can We Find the Potential for Improving Russian-American Relations?
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On Monday, July 1, the Valdai Discussion Club hosted an expert discussion featuring Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Ryabkov. It was dedicated to the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump on the margins of the G20 summit in Osaka. However, the discussion went beyond the planned topic and touched upon the entire spectrum of Russian-American relations.

On Monday, July 1, an expert discussion was held at the Valdai Club which featured Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov; it was dedicated to the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on the margins of the G20 summit in Osaka. However, the discussion went beyond the initial topic, as the panel addressed the entire spectrum of Russian-American relations. The meeting consisted of two parts: one of them was open to the media, and the other featured only the panel of experts. During the first part, the Deputy Foreign Minister shared his impressions of the meeting between the two presidents in Osaka and outlined the current state of Russian-American relations and prospects for improvement. For the time being, the relationship remains mired in a crisis which has several aspects. According to Sergey Ryabkov, in the decades following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia and the United States had set about establishing a framework for cooperation, especially on matters related to ​​hard security. However, in recent years, the US administration has begun to take bricks out of this building, putting the arms control mechanism at risk. According to the diplomat, strategic stability was one of the subjects where a considerable understanding was reached between the parties in Osaka. “In the near future, we are going to focus on resuming the relevant dialogue at the expert level,” he said.

The second topic on which a significant mutual understanding was reached between Russia and the United States was trade and economic relations. Despite the restrictive measures which the US has put in place, there has been a revival of trade between the two countries. American companies have shown a growing interest in the Russian market. “The exchange of replies on $ 25 billion of turnover in Osaka is, in fact, nothing for states with such great potential, also speaks in favour of the firm’s will”. However, weak economic cooperation has always been a problem in Russian-American relations. According to Sergey Ryabkov, for a long time, experts have been saying that they do not have an economic basis. Nevertheless, there is a superstructure of top officials’ contacts: it formed an inverted pyramid that was difficult to keep balanced.

Putin-Trump Meeting in Osaka: A Course Towards Stabilisation
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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.

For the time being, Washington’s sanctions policy, which has become its major weapon in trade wars, affects Russia-US trade and economic cooperation. According to Ryabkov, this means it is intimidating and blackmailing both rivals and allies. In the long term, it will cause problems for the United States, he said. Here, the point is not only that the possibilities of American companies in the Russian market have diminished, but also that the world has started to reject such abuses. Russia, the Deputy Foreign Minister stated, should be as tough as possible regarding the sanctions policy and eschew any discussions with the United States about the criteria for lifting the sanctions. “If we start doing this, all reports, both closed governmental and those on political studies will say that the Russians have trembled, which is the first sign of that the US sanctions policy works.” We have to show that we reject such measures as completely illegitimate, Ryabkov emphasized.

What makes building contacts between the two countries more difficult is that the White House does not have any coherent strategy with regard to Russia. The loss of systemic work skills towards Russia began under Barack Obama with the dismantling of the presidential commission, which was giving recommendations on political decisions, Ryabkov said. Today, the schizophrenia of the White House’s policy towards Russia has become more obvious than ever. For Moscow, a question arises: does it need a comprehensive strategy, or will it remain content with situational approaches?

In this regard, it is rather difficult to judge the long-term results of the Osaka meeting between the two leaders. The conversation’s mood was constructive and good-natured, Sergey Ryabkov said. There were signs that the two countries have demonstrated a greater interest in mutual interaction than before. According to the Deputy Foreign Minister, this allows one to show certain optimism with regard to the future. However, the forthcoming US election campaign offers scant hope for an improvement in these relations. We could only hope, he said, that such factors as rumoured Russian “meddling” in the elections will come to naught in the American domestic political discourse.

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The pair called for “constructive dialogue” without revealing any concrete results from the talks, other than plans for aides to follow up. They did hint at progress toward an understanding over Syria, presumably involving mutual acceptance of continuance of the Assad regime and Russian restraints on Iran, which Trump indicated would be packaged for domestic consumption as protection of Israel. There was only glancing reference to that summit staple, nuclear arms control, and clear evidence of continued disagreement over Iran and Ukraine (though not over North Korea).

Russia is not seeking confrontation at all, and it is ready to go of the way to bring bilateral relations out of a dead-end, Ryabkov stressed. However, the United States does not demonstrate any willingness to act within a wide perspective. Under these conditions, Russia has proposed “small steps” tactics. “Let’s begin with something that does not require dramatic, far-reaching decisions from the political point of view,” the diplomat said. “We shall try to move at least in something, and then the positive effect of possible results may turn out to be considerable.”

As an example of such steps, he referred to the release or exchange of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who remains arrested in the United States, the return of diplomatic property seized in violation of the Vienna Convention, and the simplification of the procedure for obtaining US visas. Russia is ready to cooperate, Sergey Ryabkov indicated, and now everything depends on the American leadership.