Are the US and Russia Really Headed Towards a Re-set of Relations?

P 21.05.2019 U Salman Rafi Sheikh

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Some recent developments in US—Russia relations indicate that the end of Mueller inquiry and its undisputed conclusion that there was no Russian interference in the US presidential election whatsoever has led to a potential re-set in their bi-latera relations, moving from previous three years of intense geo-political tussle in the Middle East and an end of an important nuclear treaty to a constructive dialogue and cooperation on a range of issues concerning their bi-lateral ties. Trump’s 90-minute long call to Russia’s Vladimir Putin revealed the new approach to Russia that Donald Trump always wanted to pursue – a fact he unambiguously kept reiterating during his election campaign in 2015-16. Apart from this deeply significant call which was initiated by the White House and not Kremlin – there has been an equally significant visit by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, to Russia where he met his Russian counter-part and Vladimir Putin as well.

Although not enough details of his two meetings have been really revealed, it is obvious that a number of issues were discussed, leading many a people around the world to speculations about a strategic breakthrough between the two super-powers—something that would have wide-ranging implications on a truly global level. But the questions is: will such a breakthrough happen? While a US initiated dialogue with a view to positively engaging with Russia is good omen, there are a number of grey areas that defy a fundamental re-set of bi-lateral relations.

To begin with, Russia, along with China, aims to build a new and multipolar world-order where no single power, namely the US can dominate the system. There is as such a clear Russia-China convergence, which is nothing short of a strategic alliance that exists to challenge the US unilateralism.

Under the Trump administration, the penchant for unilateralism has not died out, even though it has not worked that well for the US as it would have wanted it to. Its current and most obvious manifestation is the way the US has pulled itself out of the nuclear deal with Iran even when the US’ closet ally, the EU, has opposed it and when the IAEA has, on a number of occasions, confirmed Iran’s compliance with the deal.

Most importantly, Russia and China too have opposed US unilateralism on the Iranian case. This crisis, therefore, not only explains global dynamics whereby the US stands on one side of the spectrum and Russia on the other. As such, just when Pompeo was due to visit Moscow, a visit by the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Li, to Moscow took place, and the message sent to the US through this visit was loud and clear: Russia and China stand for a new world order.

The Russian foreign minister said, “In general, Russia-China cooperation is one of the key factors in maintaining the international security and stability, establishing a multipolar world order. . . . Our states cooperate closely in various multilateral organizations, including the UN, G20, SCO, BRICS and RIC…..we are working on aligning the integration potential of the EAEU and the Belt and Road Initiative, with potentially establishing [a] larger Eurasian partnership.”

This strategic partnership obviously extends to all the issues concerning the world today, including Syria, Yemen, Iran, North Kore, Afghanistan and Venezuela. For instance, with regards to North Korea, Lavrov said that the US and North Korea “proceeded in conformity with the road map that we had drafted together with China.” It obviously indicates that the Russia-China duo would not back out of its promise to ensure North Korean security against an increasing US pressure.

While no details about discussion on Iran in Pompeo–Lavrov meeting have been revealed, there is no doubt that Russia strongly opposes any destabilisation in Iran—something that would not only spread havoc in the Middle East but would also become the reason for a highly possible spread of Jihadi groups from the Caspian to the Caucasus. Whereas, within the US administration, there are enough number of people who wish to ‘punish’ Iran; hence, the underlying tension in the US-Russia ties.

This takes to another tension in the US-Russia relations i.e., although the Mueller inquiry could not prove any collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, Russophobia still remains a toxic subject in the US and normalisation with Russia remains a highly sensitive political question.

And then there is also the question of US sanctions on Russia. Significantly enough, these sanctions curb the scope for any meaningful expansion of ties more than any other aspect. For instance, almost all the post-2016 sanctions emanate out of laws passed by the US. Congress and not from the president’s executive orders, thanks to the post-2016 election phobia spread through fears and doubts about Russian interference in the US elections. Russia also understands that any dialogue, howsoever constructive, with the US wouldn’t simply lead to a removal of these sanctions. This is just beyond president Trump’s immediate political capacity, if not political will.

Can, therefore, Russia expect a ground-breaking breakthrough with the US while sanctions effectively remain implemented? It would simply be naïve of us to expect Russia hoping against hope that the US would lift all sanctions to meaningfully engage with Russia.

There are, therefore, a great many and big enough hurdles in the way of a fundamental re-set in the US-Russia relations that defy this re-set, notwithstanding the importance of bi-lateral engagement and dialogue, which, in any case, is a much better option than confrontation and no-dialogue.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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