The Hotline: August 2018

By Lincoln Pigman

Although last month’s meeting in Helsinki between presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has led to increased dialogue between Moscow and Washington, it has proven to be short on tangible gains, a situation that has surprised and disappointed the Kremlin. Russian-American relations continue to deteriorate, and the coming months are unlikely to bring reprieve as Washington prepares a variety of new punitive measures.

Throughout August, Moscow struggled to make sense of the fallout from the Helsinki summit. According to a CNN report citing US intelligence sources, the Kremlin has chalked up President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with US President Donald Trump as a win. Apparently, it exceeded Moscow’s initial expectations, even if it proved to be ‘perplex[ingly]’ short on tangible gains.

Indeed, not only did Helsinki fail to produce any concrete agreements – a major if inflated fear of the US foreign policy establishment – it triggered a push for new sanctions in Washington. Since 16 July, Russia has been punished by the US government for doing business with North Korea, delivering Russian oil to it, and poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March. The State Department will likely impose further sanctions in relation to the Skripal affair, since it is doubtful the Kremlin will satisfy US demands that Russia pledge to refrain from using chemical weapons and allow the United Nations to perform onsite inspections, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ongoing efforts to secure Russia’s cooperation. This, on top of the numerous sanctions bills proposed by US senators.

What did Russia get out of Helsinki? In a word, dialogue. First, Republican senator Rand Paul visited Russia in early August, accompanied by two libertarian think tankers, a Texas state senator, and a Texas State Senate hopeful. Then, in late August, National Security Adviser John Bolton met with his Russian counterpart, Security Council Chairman Nikolai Patrushev, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Geneva.

However, neither meeting can be considered a breakthrough in bilateral relations. Paul is a well-known figure in US politics whom Trump trusts enough that he was dispatched to Russia as the president’s personal envoy, but he is on the fringe of his party when it comes to foreign policy. Take, for instance, his votes on CAATSA and Montenegro’s accession to NATO – the latter led the late Republican senator John McCain to accuse Paul of ‘working for Vladimir Putin’. Moscow should not expect Paul’s impassioned appeals to cure Republican ambivalence toward Russia anytime soon, especially as the US’s mid-term elections near and the two major parties’ competition to see who can be tougher on Russia intensifies.

Tellingly, Paul was received by Russian lawmakers and Ryabkov – who do not wield much decision-making authority – but not Putin, even though Paul came bearing a letter from Trump to Putin. That suggests that the Kremlin, which similarly declined to open its doors to a delegation of Republican senators in early July, understands the limits of parliamentary diplomacy as a means of improving Russian-American relations.

In Geneva, Bolton surprised and disappointed Moscow. Despite Bolton’s history of hawkishness toward Russia, the Kremlin has come to see the ‘architect of the White House’s Russia policy’ as open to engagement. After all, Bolton oversaw the organization of the Helsinki Summit, laying the groundwork for it during a visit to Moscow in June. Moscow also views Bolton as more in step with the president Trump than H.R. McMaster, who as National Security Adviser openly challenged Trump’s positions on Russia. Indeed, many of Bolton’s critics reacted to his appointment in March by warning that he would affirm rather than check the president’s instincts and thus weaken internal resistance to Trump’s efforts to reconcile with Putin.

Contrary to Moscow’s expectations, Bolton rejected the Kremlin’s offer to roll back Iranian forces in Syria in exchange for the cancellation of oil sanctions against Tehran. Plus, disagreement over electoral interference – a topic on which Trump has made his opinion clearprevented the two parties from releasing a joint communique in Geneva. Bolton’s commitment to re-imposing sanctions on Iran was no shock – Bolton is Washington’s chief Iran hawk – but his insistence on addressing electoral interference in Geneva puts into question Moscow’s bet on loyalists in the Trump administration.

Moreover, although Geneva was billed as a sequel to Helsinki, where Putin and Trump discussed strategic stability in depth, little progress was made on arms control issues. Bolton openly disapproves of any measures restricting the US’s power projection capabilities and its freedom of action in international affairs, making him an unlikely advocate for, say, New START’s extension.

What Dmitri Suslov calls a state of ‘managed confrontation’, in which both dialogue and containment persist while concrete cooperation remains out of reach, has left Moscow deeply frustrated. The Kremlin has justified setbacks encountered since 16 July as the result of domestic political strife in Washington, and many Russian analysts, including Igor Zevelev and Leonid Radzikhovsky, say Moscow should wait until after the US’s mid-term elections. If Republicans retain control of the House in November, the argument goes, political pressure on Trump and his allies in Congress will subside, leaving them better positioned to forge ahead with the normalization of Russian-American relations.

Many signs, however, point to Republican losses in November, and the growing specter of impeachment does not bode well for Russia, either. The end of the US’s mid-term elections will only offer Moscow brief reprieve. With the next election cycle not too far off, Russia should already be gearing up for a presidential race that is certain to put Trump’s outreach to Putin under the magnifying glass.

Think ‘managed confrontation’ is bad? Just wait.

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