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Walking a Tightrope
Can Putin-Trump meeting improve Russia-U.S. relations?
By An Gang | NO.30 JULY 26, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16 (XINHUA)
In an event that attracted worldwide attention, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first official meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. The two leaders previously met informally during the Group of 20 Summit and the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting last year in Germany and Viet Nam. The meeting, which lasted for about four hours, was of international significance particularly at a time when the strategic relations of the United States, Russia, the EU and China are undergoing profound changes.

Strategic communication

Although both Trump and Putin expected to improve Russia-U.S. relations upon Trump's assumption of office, the agenda has been postponed time and again. Bilateral relations have even worsened due to U.S. allegations of Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the crises in Syria and Ukraine, as well as domestic political issues in the United States. The two sides have penalized each other in the fields of the economy, human rights, diplomacy and hot global issues on a tit-for-tat basis, imposing mutual sanctions and expelling each other's diplomats. This has led to the lowest point of Russia-U.S. relations since the end of the Cold War.

In July 2017, both U.S. houses of Congress passed bills to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In addition to the sanctions themselves, the bills restricted Trump's power to lift them, meaning that his efforts to improve relations with Russia would be frozen.

The Helsinki meeting included a wide range of topics such as nuclear disarmament, the Iran nuclear issue, the Syrian crisis and Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. general election. In the joint press conference after the meeting, Trump claimed that even during the Cold War, the Russia-U.S. relationship "has never been worse than it is now." But he immediately declared, "However, that has changed as of about four hours ago."

Putin said that the meeting with Trump "took place in a frank and businesslike atmosphere," adding, "I think we can call it a success and a very fruitful round of negotiations. The era of acute ideological confrontation of the two countries is a thing of the remote past." He said he hopes the two countries can cooperate to address challenges such as international and regional crises, the creeping threats of terrorism and transnational crime, snowballing economic problems and environmental risks. The two presidents agreed to establish a high-level working group for security cooperation to implement their consensus.

During their meeting, the leaders also discussed the issue of international crude oil prices. Prices have continued to rise and the United States is on the verge of opening crude oil reserves. When asked about the issue at the joint press conference, Putin promised that as two major oil and gas producers, Russia and the United States will not raise oil prices because it will push up the costs of other economic sectors. He added, "We do not want oil prices to decline dramatically. When the prices fall below a certain level, it is hard for crude oil producers to make profits. Shale oil production can be affected by the decreased prices as well."

Although the Helsinki summit was seen as a friendly meeting rather than one of practical progress, it helped formally kickstart the resumption of the Russia-U.S. relationship. "Today's meeting is the beginning of a long-term process, but we have taken the first step toward a bright future," Trump said.

No fundamental changes

Opposing voices in the United States fiercely rejected Trump's optimism, a sign that efforts to improve Russia-U.S. relations will be constrained by U.S. domestic political factors. Trump refused to accuse Russia of interfering in U.S. elections, leading to unanimous criticism from both Democrats and Republicans and further exposing opposition among his national security team and the U.S. intelligence and judicial departments on his view of Russia. On the eve of the Helsinki summit, Robert Muller, who heads the election investigation, sued 12 Russian intelligence officials for their alleged involvement in hacking activities during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Trump's ruling base comes from the most conservative group of the Republican elite, which has little good feeling toward Russia. In the three major security reports issued by the Trump administration since the end of 2017, Russia has been clearly defined as a "strategic competitor" and a "revisionist country." All of this indicates that Trump is more concerned about the gains and losses surrounding specific issues when dealing with Russia and lacks the motivation to improve bilateral relations from a strategic perspective.

The fundamental cause for the systemic confrontation between the United States and Russia is rooted in the contradiction between Washington's unwillingness to relinquish global hegemonic status and Moscow's call for a multipolar world order. Neither can put aside competition in the geostrategic buffer zones of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, which does not help alleviate tensions in Syria and Ukraine.

Given the lack of strategic mutual trust, room for the improvement of bilateral relations is limited. Nevertheless, the current Russia-U.S. relationship is different from that during the Cold War. The policies of both sides are not driven by sharp ideological and economic differences. Thus, the relationship will remain in a stable and lasting state of limited opposition.

Widening transatlantic rift

During the 2018 Group of Seven (G7) Summit in June and the NATO Summit in July, Trump attempted to improve relations with Russia by calling for its reinstatement in the G7 bloc and the abolishment of sanctions against Moscow over its incorporation of Crimea. His statements raised concern among some of the United States' European allies, and these differences in policy toward Russia may widen the transatlantic rift.

Within Europe, there are conflicting voices about improving relations with Russia. The attitude of belittling and opposing Russia has long been widespread within Europe's elite. Central and Eastern European countries, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, have always viewed Russia as a threat and consistently urged greater preparedness and containment.

Putin is attempting to use the growing rift to Russia's advantage. He is looking to find sympathizers for Russian conservatism in Europe, making countries such as Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Hungary his targets, while at the same time seeking to improve relations with France and Germany. EU countries followed the United States' lead and imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia. But U.S.-EU ties may be redefined by recent U.S. actions such as its withdrawal from the Paris agreement, the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal, the punitive tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum products from Europe and China, and the demand for all NATO allies to pay their defense spending bills. Seizing this opportunity, Putin is stressing that Russia is a more reliable partner. Thus projects such as the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipelines with Russia are being promoted by Germany, Austria, France, and the Netherlands. According to EU statistics, imports from Russia in 2017—mainly oil and gas—totaled 145.1 billion euros ($169 billion).

The United States is wary of closer ties between Europe and Russia, pushing Europe to expand its sanctions on Russia and threatening to punish European companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project.

Subtle relations

As a strategic measure to balance the tensions between Russia and the United States, Putin's administration has prioritized Russia's strategic partnership with China. China-Russia relations are at their all-time best. On the eve of the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in June, President Xi Jinping met with Putin and awarded him the first Friendship Medal of the People's Republic of China.

With the escalation of trade tensions between China and the United States, the Trump administration has defined China as a strategic competitor and its policies toward China are undergoing major changes. China will, in response to the changing situation, maintain the momentum of China-Russia and China-EU strategic partnerships and further strengthen coordination with Russia and the EU in the fields of economic and trade relations, energy cooperation, the Belt and Road Initiative, the improvement of the international order, and the safeguarding of the global free trade system.

During the 20th China-EU Leaders' Meeting on July 16, a clear roadmap was drawn up for future China-EU economic and trade cooperation. The meeting demonstrated determination on the part of both sides in promoting trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, resisting protectionism and unilateralism and supporting the rule-based multilateral trading system.

Russia, with its relatively limited national strength and role in the global economic system, is hardly an appropriate partner for China as it looks to resist pressure from the United States. Meanwhile, the EU, despite growing differences with the United States, will not break with the traditions of transatlantic relations and will likely avoid taking sides on trade and other disputes between China and the United States.

Policymakers in the United States believe that compared to challenges from China, Russian challenges are regional and less comprehensive. However, challenges from Russia are more direct and striking while perceived threats from China are incremental. Their reasoning is that measures to contain China and Russia should be taken simultaneously.

In the future, the four-sided game between China, the United States, Russia and the EU will become more complex. Some fields may embody zero-sum characteristics while others will be positive-sum. Against the backdrop of globalization, the four sides share extensive mutual interests and common aspirations for living in harmony and strengthening cooperation. Intense Cold War situations, such as alliances against one country or the confrontation between two alignments, are unlikely to be repeated.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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