The first full-fledged summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump held in late July has not improved and, indeed, could not have improved the general atmosphere of Russia-US relations. And it has nothing to do with the US president’s indiscreet words about mistrusting his own intelligence agencies or seeing no reason to mistrust Moscow regarding its alleged meddling in the 2016 election, which made Russia even more of a domestic political football in the United States and further eroded the ability of the White House to pursue any policy toward the Kremlin other than confrontation.
Deeply rooted domestic political processes in the US (the clash between old and new elites, the fierce opposition of the establishment and bureaucracy, bordering on sabotage, to any attempt to deviate from the foreign policy mainstream, and the use of Russia as a pawn in this conflict) as well as global trends (Washington’s reluctance and inability to accept the reality of a multipolar world and Russia as an independent global centre), which in the near future will only get worse – all this guarantees that the confrontation between Moscow and Washington will continue for at least several more years. In fact, the worst is yet to come.
And yet, there are positive results from the Helsinki summit. The bilateral dialogue between the executive branches of Russia and the United States, which had been withering away over the past several years and especially the past 18 months, has gradually begun to recover. The format of dialogue between the heads of national security agencies (Patrushev-Bolton) has become operational. An agreement was reached to improve dialogue between defence departments and to take it beyond the framework of operational and tactical cooperation to prevent direct military collisions in Syria. The parties appear to be starting a dialogue on strategic stability and cyber security. Although very modest and sporadic, contacts between the legislative branches have also resumed. As a result, the Russia-US confrontation has become slightly more manageable than before, and the threat of uncontrolled escalation has declined.
Given the current circumstances, managed confrontation between Russia and the United States is as good as it will get. Even this is extremely fragile and unstable, and already in the coming months, or even weeks, relations between Moscow and Washington could again relapse into uncontrolled confrontation. This is due to the fact that Russia-US relations will run into an entire set of new challenges within the next six months or so.
Above all, the political mayhem in the US promises to increase in the run-up to, and especially after, the midterm elections to Congress, following which the House of Representatives will most likely come under the control of the Democrats. No doubt, Russia will again be accused of interfering. Since the goal of Russia’s intervention is framed by the US political mainstream (both Democrats and Republicans) as an effort to destabilize and eventually destroy the US political system and undermine trust in democratic institutions, the fact that Moscow has no one to support in these elections due to the lack of conventionally pro-Russian (or, rather, less anti-Russian) candidates, is considered irrelevant. Whoever wins – even if it’s the most rabid critics of Moscow – the opponents will claim Russian “interference” again. Even more stringent sanctions will follow from Congress and the Trump administration, which will have to exonerate itself and demonstrate that it doesn’t cut Russia any slack.
Before that, in October, the second volley of Skripal-related sanctions promised by the United States will take effect. And there’s no doubt that these sanctions will be enacted after London’s accusation of two alleged GRU operatives.
In parallel, the situation in Syria promises to deteriorate, both in the province of Idlib and with regard to the political settlement in general, thus raising the overall degree of Russia-US tensions. If an offensive operation by government forces begins in Idlib, new missile strikes by the United States and its allies on Syria, which, of course, will be preceded by more provocations or staged incidents involving chemical weapons, will be unavoidable. Washington will simply have to go forward with them as a show of force and impunity and, most importantly, to make clear that the victory of Damascus and Moscow is not complete, and that the US remains a significant factor in Syria. At the same time, the US military presence in the Kurdish regions of the country will expand.
Finally, within the next few months, the situation in Donbass may escalate further, which will be objectively good for President Poroshenko ahead of the presidential elections and for the Kiev regime in general. Given current domestic political circumstances, Washington will be forced to react to the latest flare-up of hostilities and possible assistance from Russia to the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics much more harshly than the Obama administration during Debaltsevo and Ilovaysk in 2014−2015. Moreover, given US military assistance to Ukraine and the modernization of its army, the next round of escalation will inevitably lead to an intensification of hostilities and, perhaps, greater involvement of Russia (which Kiev is actually counting on).
Given this, a new Russian-American summit before the midterm elections to Congress on November 6 (it would be simply inconceivable before that), or even afterwards, appears not only politically impractical, but even counterproductive and harmful.
First, considering the possibility that the Democrats will retake control of the House of Representatives in January 2019, the Trump administration’s ability to function in the sphere of foreign policy in general and with respect to Russia, in particular, will be further constrained. The Democrats will go on the political offensive and will not relent until the 2020 presidential election. As such, it will be difficult to agree on anything or even maintain a normal dialogue with the US president.
Impeachment is highly unlikely, but charges of Trump and his team’s “collusion” with Moscow will come back with a vengeance, amplified by allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2018 election. As you may remember, the Democrats did not agree with the findings of the congressional investigation, led by the Republican majority, into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 elections, which found that Russia did interfere but there was no collusion between Russia and Trump. If they take back the majority, the Democrats will most likely reopen the investigation, whereas the Republicans, if they lose, will most likely initiate an investigation into Moscow’s interference in the 2018 midterm elections. Against this backdrop, the Trump administration will be forced to take a hard line on Russia and impose more of its own anti-Russian sanctions.
Second, the unprecedented political and administrative chaos in Washington, with current administration staff openly, albeit anonymously, declaring themselves the “internal resistance” and affirming that there is a coordinated system of sabotaging presidential orders, calls into question the expediency of even maintaining a dialogue with the US president. An anonymous op-ed in The New York Times proved what Moscow has always known: America’s real Russia policy is not set by the incumbent president, whose plans are being thwarted and his instructions sabotaged. Most likely, the objective of the author(s) was to convince the international community not to attach much importance to direct talks with Trump, to isolate him politically and to maintain real dialogue at the level of senior officials. However, the fact remains: the current president is more constrained in his ability to set and implement policy on Russia than any of his predecessors.
Third, there’s still not enough of an agenda for a new full-fledged summit, and this will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future. Mere declarations to step up the working dialogue will not work a second time. And any agreements on key concrete issues on the Russian-American agenda (Ukraine, Syria, strategic stability, Iran, etc.) are unlikely in the coming months.
For example, Washington’s rejection of Russia’s proposal on the geographical boundaries of Iran’s military presence in Syria showed that depriving Russia of a political victory is no less important to the Unites States in that country than weakening Tehran’s position. What this means in practical terms is making sure that the political settlement and economic reconstruction projects promoted by Moscow fail and that Russia suffers a political and strategic defeat, despite having achieved a military victory, in Syria. Most likely, Washington will simply wait and block Russia’s political and economic initiatives in Syria, which precludes the possibility of any cooperation.
Narrowing the gaps in the countries’ positions on Ukraine is also very unlikely. The US goal is still for Kiev to regain control over Donbass without making any political concessions, including those stipulated in the Minsk Agreements, and with the unconditional preservation of Ukraine’s unambiguously pro-Western and anti-Russian policy. Importantly, the goal of preventing any political concession from Kiev clearly takes precedence over restoring its sovereignty over Donbass.
In terms of strategic stability, the Trump administration has yet to articulate its priorities and is not ready for serious talks with Moscow on nuclear weapons, cyber security or other spheres that affect strategic stability.
All this suggests that Russia-US confrontation will continue to escalate. It will most likely peak during the 2020 election campaign in the United States, when the incumbent president will have to show at least as much toughness toward Moscow as the rabidly anti-Russian Democrats who by that time will be on the political offensive.
The main goal under these circumstances is for the confrontation not to spiral out of control and for the United States to remain at least a relatively functional (to the extent possible given the current circumstances) counterparty. Holding new full-scale summits is unlikely to help achieve that goal. At most, brief bilateral meetings can be arranged on the sidelines of multilateral forums, without much ado or subsequent new conferences, combined with regular telephone conversations.
Based on the currently available schedules of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, they are most likely to see each other during celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I in France on November 11 and then at the G20 summit in Argentina on November 30−December 1. (The White House has already announced that Donald Trump will not attend the East Asian summit in Singapore on November 14−15, which was announced shortly after Vladimir Putin’s participation was confirmed). The bilateral meeting of the presidents in Argentina will be more than enough for now. Its focus should be on crisis management in Syria and Ukraine, as well as comparing notes on strategic stability issues, if Russia-US talks on this topic do take place.
The main emphasis should be on maintaining and, to the extent possible, bolstering working cooperation between foreign and defense ministries and security councils, again, with as little publicity as possible, and also on ramping up dialogue on the “second” (i.e., expert) and “one and a half” tracks. It would be preferable for their focus to be on developing a new philosophy of strategic stability and new principles and rules on arms control, including cyber security, preventing direct clashes between Russia and the United States in Syria and preventing full-scale escalation in Ukraine. This is the most that can be expected of Russia-US relations before 2020.