US President Donald Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shaking hands after the Helsinki Summit, July 16, 2018
There was a time when President Trump’s personalised diplomacy seemed a hydra-headed phenomenon with tentacles reaching far and wide. He engaged such diverse politicians — from Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong-Un to Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, from Mohammed bin Salman and Recep Erdogan to Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. But as time passed, the circle began shrinking and the scope for personalised diplomacy altogether diminished as coronavirus epidemic spread and countries turned inward, including the US.
Today, Trump is left largely with Putin’s company – although they have had only one formal summit in Helsinki on July 16, 2018 – to whom he keeps going back with an extraordinary frequency. Trump and Putin have held at least seven calls since March 30, amid the coronavirus pandemic. On July 23, Trump again spoke with Putin. He hasn’t spoken to any other foreign politician so frequently this year. And the paradox is that while Trump is famous for his pursuit of transactional relationships, there is very little transaction taking place between the US and Russia.
The Kremlin often describes these Putin-Trump phone conversations as ‘constructive and substantive’, although we hardly see any concrete results. The two leaders strove to create and atmospherics but failed to create content in the relationship — foreplay without consummation. The leading think tanker at Moscow Carnegie and author, Dmitry Trenin tweeted after yesterday’s Putin-Trump conversation that they ‘appear as a parallel universe with no connection to real Russia-US relations. Weird.’
Indeed, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had said only a fortnight ago that the Russian-American relations have touched their lowest point. But since then, Trump and Putin spoke with each other twice!
After yesterday’s conversation, the Kremlin readout said the two politicians once again ‘thoroughly discussed’ arms control and strategic stability, as well as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (which is due for renewal by February). They agreed on ‘the great importance of Russia’s initiative’ to hold a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Russia’s keen interest in the renewal of the START is well-known. On this issue, a rare bilateral consensus exists in the US, which Trump could easily have exploited to issue an executive order to renew the pact. But Trump held back and would now like Putin to visit the US for a crowning ceremony over START renewal. Trump seems to link the Putin visit to a summit meeting of the P-5 in September. (See my blog Putin had a dream to reset the world order, July 14, 2020)
Unsurprisingly, Trump is desperately keen to display a foreign-policy trophy before the November election. But there are insurmountable obstacles. Russia is a very toxic subject in America and a ‘stand alone’ visit by the Kremlin leader is simply unthinkable. The latest controversy over alleged Russian bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan puts the Kremlin in a very bad light.
Furthermore, the British government, which has fallen in line with Trump’s wish to roll back ties with China, will expect a quid pro quo from Washington — keep Russia out in the cold. In fact, the UK government just released a dossier on Russia’s interference in British politics.
Over and above, this is not an opportune moment to hold a P5 summit on American soil — when Washington and Beijing are sparring with growing fury. Why should the Chinese Communist Party move a little finger to boost Trump’s re-election prospects?
The Kremlin readout said Putin and Trump ‘touched on’ the Iranian nuclear programme. It added, ‘Both sides emphasised the need for a collective effort to maintain regional stability and the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.’ This seems implies a tacit understanding that Washington will not make any precipitate moves to kill the JCPOA, but in turn, expects Russia also to exercise restraint in supplying advanced weaponry to Iran even after the UN embargo expires in October so that ‘regional stability’ is maintained.
In the past also, Moscow refrained from arming Iran in deference to American and Israeli requests. Interestingly, Moscow is lately putting some distance between itself and Tehran. Although Iran’s Foreign Minister claimed to have had a hour-long phone conversation with Putin in Moscow on Tuesday to reach a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ agreement between the two countries, the Kremlin remains silent.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin-linked think tank Valdai Club featured a commentary on Wednesday (after Zarif’s visit to Moscow) highlighting differences between the two countries on key issues. The commentary, entitled Strategic Mavericks: Russia and Iran in a Post-Covid Middle East, says:
“Moscow has maintained a tactical alliance with Tehran in the Syrian conflict… It is not often that differences between Moscow and Tehran.. are mentioned outside the expert community. But the important thing for politicians is to keep these differences from spilling over to neighbouring regions or problem areas, let alone allow them to ruin the spirit of cooperation that both countries have worked hard to create in recent years.. Reforming the Syrian security system is possibly one of the most difficult items on the bilateral agenda, but it is certainly one of key importance.”
Moscow is weighing options in a regional scenario where the presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins in the November election and succeeds Trump in the White House, and thereupon proceeds to revive the JCPOA (2015 Iran nuclear deal, which is an Obama legacy), and directly engages with Tehran.
In such an eventuality, the situation around Iran may radically change and Iran’s integration into the West cannot be ruled out during a Biden presidency, which would of course badly isolate Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Moscow’s predicament is rather acute since Biden may also adopt a tough line on ‘revanchist Russia’.
Suffice to say, as Trump’s first term is about to end, the Kremlin feels frustrated that he could do nothing to salvage the US-Russia relations which have been in free fall. The Kremlin’s calculations in putting all the Russian eggs in Trump’s basket turned out to be counterproductive, as Moscow became the punchbag for the anti-Trump forces in the US. Evidently, Trump has tried hard to give a positive spin to the US-Russia relations. But time has run out.
Trump lacked a ‘big picture’ — and even if he had one, he had no cohesive team and he himself lacked the tenacity and discipline to command his administration officials and ensure that they carried out his directives and wishes. His choices for key cabinet posts were appalling for such a successful businessman of his repute.
Ironically, in the contemporary world politics, Putin and Xi would have been Trump’s most cooperative and helpful allies on the campaign trail as he bids for a second term in November. But his administration officials have inflicted such serious damage to the US’ relationships with both China and Russia that it is a moot point now.
In the case of the deterioration of the US’ relationship with China, Trump himself was complicit. But in comparison, Trump seemed helpless as his detractors contrived to cast Russia as an enemy country. As for Putin, he empathises with Trump but lacks the means to help him out in his current plight. Nonetheless, as the November election in the US approaches, Trump’s victory still remains Moscow’s best hope.