The Kremlin continues to cling to hopes that it can build a rapport with the Donald Trump administration; those expectations copiously developed at the start of the year, only to succumb to one cold shower after another since then. Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin’s long-serving foreign policy aide, recently asserted that the “difficult legacy” left by the Barack Obama administration was gradually sorted out despite the resistance of “certain forces in the American establishment” (RIA Novosti, May 12). Yet, he could not refrain from warning about the “limits of Russia’s patience” regarding the diplomatic property “confiscated” by the United States in December 2016 (RBC, May 12). This bitter complaint reflects the depth of frustration in Moscow caused by the accumulation of new complications in Washington that block Putin’s plan for cultivating a beautiful friendship with the inexperienced but open-minded President Trump. This frustration results in Moscow pushing too hard for every opening in the frozen relations and in spoiling the few opportunities that come up.
Small gestures often matter a lot in a high-level diplomatic dance. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was obviously elated when his meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was followed by a meeting with Trump in the White House (Kommersant, May 10). But the Russians’ release of the photo of Trump and Lavrov smiling together at the Oval Office with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak was definitely a mistake (Newsru.com, May 11). Kislyak is implicated in several scandals involving key members of Trump’s election team, and investigations into these connections by the US Congress inevitably generate demands to punish Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11). Trump’s abrupt firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey overshadowed the moderately positive effect of Lavrov’s talks and was invariably interpreted in Moscow as triggered by the investigations of Russia’s interference in the elections (Novaya Gazeta, May 11). Mainstream commentators argue that the US president has launched a counter-offensive against “Russophobes” in his own administration, but some also point to his sensitivity to “image risks” related to Russia (RIA Novosti, May 12).
The theme Moscow seeks to establish as the central avenue for possible cooperation is the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Russia is trying to sell the US on its recent initiative to establish four “de-escalation zones” in Syria (see EDM, May 4). The plan is being presented as a step forward in bringing the disastrous civil war to an end, but it would ensure the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (Kommersant, May 6). Israel has already firmly rejected the Syrian de-escalation zones idea: it has asserted its intention to strike Hezbollah in every location where it poses a threat (Rosbalt.ru, May 11). For the Trump administration, meanwhile, the value of this Russian initiative for achieving Washington’s priority goal of defeating the IS in Raqqa is far from obvious (Gazeta.ru, May 12). The main problem is in fact Turkey, which is adamantly against supplying heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG), which are leading the offensive on Raqqa (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 12). Moscow is spinning its own intrigue with the Kurds (see EDM, February 17, 2016; February 15, 2017; April 25, 2017) but gives greater priority to restoring strategic relations with Ankara (Carnegie.ru, May 2). Nonetheless, Lavrov’s enticements are undercut by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s firm statement on confronting Russia’s “disruptive behavior” in Syria (Moskovsky Komsomolets, May 12).
McMaster, who is unequivocally defined in Moscow as an adversary, was actually speaking not only about Syria, but about Ukraine as well. On this latter issue, scant common ground can be found. Immediately after Lavrov’s visit, Trump met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin and called for making peace; the Kremlin refused to comment on the White House’s appeal (RBC, May 12). Lavrov and Dmitri Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, seek to downplay the disagreements with the US regarding sanctions and the implementation of the Minsk commitments on Ukraine (RIA Novosti, May 11). This bracketing-out of the core problem can take the US-Russian rapprochement only so far, particularly as Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has called for increasing pressure on Russia to overcome the deadlock in Donbas (Newsru.com, May 12). As if a reminder about Moscow’s tough stance on the Ukraine conflict was needed, a US Navy P-8A Poseidon was aggressively intercepted by a Russian Su-30 fighter over the Black Sea, on May 9 (RIA Novosti, May 12).
An opportunity to prove that Russia could be a valuable partner for the US opened with the escalation of the North Korean crisis—but was inexplicably missed (see EDM, March 28). Russia was taken aback by the swift establishment of US-China cooperation, which became the main channel for managing this crisis. Moscow now hopes that the election of a more détente-leaning president in Seoul will deny Washington the means for applying military pressure on Pyongyang (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11). Putin traveled to Beijing on May 14–15 to partake in the “One Belt One Road” forum with the hope that a short meeting with President Xi Jinping would re-energize the strategic partnership and remind China about Russia’s unwavering support (Kommersant, May 12). His speech about building a broad Eurasian partnership as a “civilizational project” omitted any mention of the US, while effusively praising Chinese contributions (Kremlin.ru, May 14). It is unclear how his appeal to abandon “militant rhetoric” and refrain from “mutual recrimination” might help in responding to yet another missile test by North Korea, alarmingly close to Vladivostok (Gazeta.ru, May 14).
Putin is clearly investing effort in upholding his international profile, meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But the yield on these investments is low and cannot compensate for such a major setback as the defeat of Russia’s favored candidate in the French presidential elections. His inability to make even a minor difference in the Korean crisis and his dependence upon the “brotherhood in arms” with Iran in the Syrian war will hardly contribute anything positive to Putin’s upcoming meeting with Trump, scheduled for the July G20 summit, in Hamburg. By then, the investigations into Russia’s interference in the US elections could take many new turns, and Putin may run out of diplomatic maneuvers designed to compensate for the damning evidence. Hopes to take advantage of Trump’s lack of experience and principles might finally dissipate and turn into anxiety that Washington will seek to punish Moscow.