Summary: The following text is an approximate translation of an article by Fyodor Lukyanov1 which originally appeared in Rossiyskaya Gazeta on 27 June 2017. In it, Lukyanov discusses the forthcoming meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. Contra the anxieties of some observers (including, reportedly, some of Trump’s own aides) regarding the political optics of this meeting, Lukyanov holds out little hope of it resulting in substantive progress for the US-Russian relations. Specifically, Lukyanov suggests that the ongoing Russiagate phenomenon, the presence of ostensibly Russophobic ‘Cold Warrior’ holdovers within the current administration, and the present “inertia” of the Tillerson State Department, makes a diplomatic breakthrough in Hamburg “impossible in principle”.
Relations between Washington and Moscow increasingly resemble a phantasmagoria. The presidents of Russia and the United States are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit, but, scandalously, there has been no communication and no preparation. If one believes the leaks, the staging in the White House is not unlike that of a fairy tale: Trump is reportedly tugging on the leash for a sit-down conversation with Putin, though his advisors and comrades-in-arms are either against the idea entirely, or have proposed holding a short rendezvous behind closed doors.
The latter proposal is quite strange. Considering the fact that Donald Trump’s opponents already accuse him of engaging in secret collusion with the Kremlin, arranging backstage talks and concealing their contents would only lend credence to such claims. Even if the meeting were to take place in a more customary environment, it is impossible in principle to expect much in the way of results.
Inside Washington, the Trump administration is bound hand and foot by a power struggle in which Russia has been used as a principal instrument. But, then again, it would have been difficult to predict the scenario for such a meeting even had it been held under different circumstances. As has been noted repeatedly, Trump’s team is a coalition of right-wing, Republican national security officials and representatives of various nationalistic business groupings. As such, there is little prospect of improved relations.
The majority of American right-wing conservatives during the Cold War were staunchly anti-Soviet and anti-communist; for them, Russia today represents a continuation of the USSR. Such people also existed in the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush, but at that time Moscow was mainly perceived in terms of its earlier defeat. For figures like Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, there was no clear need to pay attention to the defeated power, which needed to know its place.
Today the alignment of forces has changed, as Russia, having demonstrated some capacity over the past several years, is now seen as a military rival. This attitude was expressed around the time of the 2012 presidential campaign when Republican candidate Mitt Romney cited Russia as being the chief geopolitical antagonist of the United States. At the time, this sentiment raised eyebrows, whereas today it is met only with the objection that Russia constitutes but one of many threats facing the United States.
For career generals like Pentagon chief James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Russia poses a military and political threat; for the “socially conservative” Vice President Mike Pence, Russia is an immoral country because it does not recognize the moral and political dominance of the United States.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson somewhat stands somewhat apart. The Democratic Party also wrote Tillerson off at first as a Kremlin agent, only for Tillerson to prove himself to be quite the opposite through his use of tough-as-nails rhetoric (though he should be inclined towards pragmatism, given the nature of his previous work with Exxon Mobil). However, in his case the problem is different. The extent to which the US State Department actually influence the Trump White House’s foreign policy is unclear, as is the question of whether Tillerson’s statements reflect the actual White House line (assuming that such a line even exists).
This confusion is made worse by the fact that the State Department happens to be operating under abnormal conditions, as a number of vacant positions have yet to be filled, while those employees who still remain are poised to leave. Certainly, mid-level work continues, and for this one must pay tribute to the bureaucratic strength of the State Department. But this indicates that inertia will, by and large, determine the day-to-day course of its foreign relations; in Russia’s case, this inertia is of a negative character.
As for the other half of Trump’s team – viz., nationally-inclined business elites seeking to change the rules of world trade in America’s favor – they, alas, simply have no interest in Russia. Russia is not a major player in this sphere, and no changes in the global economic arena will result from an adjustment of relations or provoking conflict with it. In this sense, China and the European Union are regarded as being more important; for this reason, more attention is paid to them, as well as to changes in tradecraft more generally.
Trump and those like him are inspired by classical approaches involving bilateral agreements, each one being conducted on an individual basis. These are the very “deals” that the US President loves to speak about.
If the present power struggle in Washington subsides (and it seems that even some of the President’s fiercest opponents are hesitating, lest their fight against him causes excessive damage to America as a whole), then the Trump Administration may be able to take a deep breath and attempt to achieve something of substance with Russia. In any event, Tillerson’s State Department is seeking to keep some space open for maneuver, while at the same time attempting to avoid drawing a sharp rebuke from the US Congress. But the damage has already been done, as the notion of Russian meddling in America’s internal affairs has been introduced into the public consciousness, and will remain there.
Moreover, the composition of interests around Trump will not contribute to any great shift in US policy towards Russia. As it was under Obama, the range for potential interaction is restricted to “selective engagement” on issues that matter to Washington – nothing more, nothing less. This did not work before, and it will not work now.
Does Donald Trump want friendly relations with Russia or not? More likely than not, yes, yes he does; he certainly sees Russia as being of some use in resolving certain issues, while Putin obviously interests him to no end. But this is not important, as there exist no objective foundations for meaningful change.
1. Fyodor Alexandrovich Lukyanov serves as editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics. In addition to this role, Lukyanov heads the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and is Director of Research for the Valdai International Discussion Club.