No sooner had Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump had their first face-to-face encounter, July 7 at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, than a new Russia-themed scandal engulfed Washington. Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who had met with Donald Trump Jr. on June 9, 2016, may not have been sent by the Kremlin, as some Moscow insiders argue. However, the scrutiny of the meeting limits the Trump administration in its dealings with Russia, presumably affecting agreements reached in Hamburg, including on Syria. To understand why, one must take into account a number of contextual and structural factors in Russian foreign policymaking and current US-Russia relations in general.
Asked what Russia made of the allegations of collusion involving the US president’s campaign and his son, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he had learned about the story from TV reports. “This morning, when I turned on the TV, all the Western TV channels were discussing that. It is amazing how serious people can blow things out of proportion,” he remarked.
Lavrov went on to criticize reporting on the story, stating, “If journalists are ready to work only on the basis of unsubstantiated statements and are not prepared to take into account the fact that there is no hard evidence, then I can’t do anything.”
In Washington, the president was on the defensive, trying to alter the impression that he had been too soft on Putin at their meeting. In an interview with Reuters, Trump claimed that he had been “tough” with Putin, which some Russian reporters interpreted as an “evolution” of his previous statements. Commenting on the situation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “The US president was asking clear and direct questions that were of interest to him, and Putin gave him comprehensive and reassuring answers. I don’t see any ‘evolution’ here.”
Peskov had mentioned earlier that Putin’s confidence in Trump would not be affected by potential US backtracking on establishing a joint cybersecurity program with Russia. “No one promised anything to one another, and there was no such goal. The positive outcome is that the readiness to work in this direction was stated,” Peskov emphasized. A Kremlin insider, however, told Al-Monitor that Washington’s refusal to cooperate on cybersecurity is seen by some Russian decision-makers as a “pretext for massive or occasional cyberattacks, as well as a buildup of its own cyber capabilities.”
The two accounts actually reflect what has become an interesting pattern in Moscow’s public reasoning on the United States’ Russia-related actions and, arguably, broader US foreign policy. The Kremlin is walking a fine line of distinguishing the Trump administration from the rest of the US policymaking establishment, recognizing that the pushback against cooperating with Moscow is sharp, even among various factions in the Trump government and Congress, let alone it natural opponents.
Russia sees the former as pragmatic “Make America Great Again” nationalists with whom a limited, mutually beneficial agenda can be devised. Moscow views the latter, however, as those who believe America, by its political nature, is second to none. This belief virtually denies any reconciliation, let alone recognition, of Russia’s own interests and concerns, which are often portrayed as inherently malignant. In turn, Russia’s perspective is rooted in its own perceptions of US foreign policies and domestic politics.
In the long run, this framing could result in an acute confrontation. Yet at present, the former are seen as potential, even desirable, partners, while the latter are deemed spoilers served by the mainstream media. This picture occasionally leads Russia to expect more of the Trump administration than it can deliver and to fear that the rest of the US establishment is more dangerous than it really is. These are the narrow straits of America’s political waters that Russian policymakers, and others elsewhere, must navigate.
There are signs, however, that Moscow is not willing to build its foreign policy around the potential of a “reset” with Washington. Even if Trump manages to shake off the immediate criticisms, he is unlikely to be able to implement his ideas on how to better engage with Russia. Despite widespread claims of the opposite in the United States, no one in Moscow expects Trump to be able to lift sanctions, recognize Crimea as part of the Russian Federation or agree to let Russia fully have its way in Ukraine and Syria. In this respect, the agreement on Syria and potential dealings on other issues represent a tiny opportunity to drag the two states back from the abyss of a direct collision.
Dmitry Suslov, a program director at the Valdai International Discussion Club, told Al-Monitor, “The Hamburg agreements do not create premises for a quality improvement of US-Russia relations, but Putin and Trump agreed to work on the issues where prospects for a direct military clash are real. In Syria, Moscow and Washington have not yet divided ‘zones of responsibility’ and continue to operate in one space. Similarly, cyberspace is one area that looks particularly tempting to take advantage of to inflict damage on each other — politically, economically, even militarily.”
Suslov added, “Given the current circumstances, this kind of cooperation is the maximum possible. In the coming years, US-Russia relations will be focused on ensuring control over the confrontational interaction, not letting the confrontation loose.”
Unless one opposes US-Russian cooperation, there is little merit in trying to argue who got the best “deal” in Hamburg. The agreements are not meant to fix the fundamental problems dividing the two countries, but they might make for some progress on the issues immediately important to them both.
In the meantime, the Kremlin is waiting to see what new kind of relationship develops. The Kremlin insider said, “What Trump is facing now in terms of opposition from the media is what we have been facing for decades on the international stage: all those stories, fake investigations, etc. The problem is how to adequately respond to this information warfare and not antagonize the administration.”
Indeed, occasionally issues arise that require a strong public reaction from Moscow, but one balanced with its own view of constructing pragmatic and limited cooperation with Washington. Until recently, that issue has been US airstrikes in Syria, but the matter of the seized diplomatic compounds also seems to fall into the category where Russia’s claims cannot go unsatisfied for a long time.
Lavrov has dodged the subject of what exactly Moscow might be up to stating. “We are thinking about particular steps now. I do not believe this should be discussed in public, with all respect for the mass media and your wish to get this information,” he said. The most drastic measures on the table now are believed to be an expulsion of as many as 30 US diplomats as well as freezing a warehouse and a US Embassy house in Moscow. There’s plenty of room for speculation about what might follow if these steps are taken, but certainly they would not improve the relationship.
Against this backdrop, it is even more important now than it was a week ago for the joint work of Russians and Americans in Jordan to succeed, and for Washington and Moscow to observe the conditions designed for a southwest Syrian de-escalation zone. If making progress from the top down is not currently an option, trying it the other way might be worth it. In any case, the ultimate risk is more mutual disappointment and further escalation.