On Friday, President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka—the first summit between the two leaders since the release of the Mueller report in April.
For the past several years, the Special Counsel’s investigation into whether Trump campaign colluded with Russia has cast a large shadow over U.S.-Russian relations. Now that the Mueller report has found no evidence of conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, could U.S-Russian relations be headed for a reset? The National Interest spoke with several prominent Russian analysts to gauge Moscow’s expectations for the meeting and how it views the current state of U.S.-Russian relations.
Many of Trump’s critics in Washington lambast the forty-fifth president as being overly friendly towards Russia. However, in Moscow there is clear disappointment about the Trump administration’s Russia policy thus far.
Ivan Timofeev, program director at the Russian International Affairs Council, told the National Interest, “If we look at the essence of the documents, Trump’s executive orders, his policies over the past three years, then he does not differ from bipartisan consensus on Russia.” He argued that when it comes to instituting sanctions against Russia, Trump often does more than even Congress requires of him.
There is little hope in Moscow for a breakthrough in U.S.-Russian relations anytime soon. Although Trump touted the Mueller report as a total vindication of himself, the Russian analysts I spoke with view Trump as remaining quite politically vulnerable.
“Democrats still do not regard Trump as the legitimate president of the United States,” said Dmitry Suslov, deputy director at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics.
He added that the Mueller Report’s confirmation of Moscow’s interference during the 2016 election “strengthens the consensus negative perception of Russia.”
Andranik Migranyan, an informal advisor to the Russian presidential administration and a professor at the Moscow Institute of International Relations, stated that Trump’s domestic predicaments lessen Russia’s confidence that it can strike a deal with him.
“There is an understanding that [Trump] is limited in his actions, so Moscow cannot count on Trump to be able to make a decision and bring it to a successful end, at least as far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned,” he said.
Among the Russian experts interviewed, there was a consensus that Trump will not be in a position to push for an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations until at least after the 2020 presidential elections. Even if Trump manages to win reelection, there is little hope that much will change. With this grim outlook, Moscow’s objective going into the Trump-Putin meeting is damage control.
“I unfortunately do not see an issue which could significantly move our relationship forward,” Timofeev said. “That is not the goal now—the goal is to stabilize the situation and prevent a further downward spiral.”
One possible area of cooperation that all the Russian analysts I spoke with emphasized was arms control. In recent months, Trump has also signaled that arms control is a major concern for him. Not long after effectively exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia in February, Trump began pushing for a new arms control deal between Washington and Moscow that would also include Beijing. The Washington Post reported in late April that he directed his staff to begin developing drafts for a potential deal.
Moscow is far from impressed with this idea. Evgeny Buzhinsky, a former Russian lieutenant general, dismissed Trump’s proposal as “unrealistic.” He argued that it would be impossible to get China to join such a treaty without also having other major nuclear powers on board. Buzhinsky also expressed doubt that either China or the United States would agree to eliminate their intermediate-range missiles.
Buzhinsky pointed to extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, an arms control deal concluded between the United States and Russia under the Obama administration, as a more feasible task. However, he stated that he does not expect the Trump administration to renew the deal before its expiration in 2021.
“In Moscow there is pessimism about the future of arms control,” he said. “The system is disintegrating and we are now entering a stage of uncertainty in the area of strategic stability.”
While Buzhinsky stated that Russia had no interest in a new arms race, he also expressed confidence that it was better equipped than the United States to deal with a collapse of the existing arms control framework.
“In this scenario, the Americans will lose more because you have become so accustomed that everything is transparent, and everything is controlled,” he said. Buzhinsky asserted that such an atmosphere of uncertainty “will be more painful for you than for us.”
Suslov explained that many in Moscow suspect that Trump’s arms control proposal was made in bad faith. He explained that the plan is “viewed as an attempt by the United States to find an excuse to not extend the New START Treaty and gain a completely free hand in nuclear policy” because Russia and China would never agree to such a deal.
Iran is another issue which Russia views as a hypothetically possible, but unlikely area of cooperation. Earlier this week, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev discussed Iran at a U.S.-Israel-Russia summit on Syria in Jerusalem.
Migranyan argued that Moscow could use its leverage with Tehran to help the Trump administration get a “face-saving” de-escalation with Iran. Likewise, Suslov stated that Russia could help ease Washington’s concerns about Syria by working to help establish “safe zones” on the border with Israel—which would keep Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias away.
However, Buzhinsky emphasized that the United States and Russia are currently too far apart in Syria to make any significant progress: “To reach a deal on Syria with Putin, [Trump] would have to recognize Assad’s legitimacy and to clarify whether the United States will leave Syria or stay there for a long time.”
Dimitri Alexander Simes is a contributor to the National Interest.