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APD Review | Will a possible Trump-Putin meeting be a turning point in U.S.-Russia relations?

Top News2018-06-06

By APD writer Sun ChenghaoTranslated by Deng XianlaiA big news has recently emerged in U.S. media that the White House has been preparing for a meeting between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The Wall Street Journal first revealed that the White House was preparing for a potential summit between the two presidents, citing people familiar with the efforts as saying that John Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, had returned to Washington to help arrange the meeting. It said consultations that were going on between the two sides were still in an early stage, and that the exact date and place of the meeting had not been confirmed yet.JULY 7, 2017: Melania Trump (L), First Lady of the United States, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of a G20 summit.Although the time and place of the meeting has not been confirmed, what is certain is that the two leaders will focus at least on three main topics when they meet each other -- Syria, Ukraine, and nuclear nonproliferation. By exchanging views on these specific issues, it is possible that Washington and Moscow will, for the first time since Trump’s election, “break the ice” after a failed “restart” of bilateral relations. It must be recognized, however, that it would be very difficult for a qualitative change to happen in the U.S.-Russia ties following this meeting.Historically, every U.S. administration since Bill Clinton’s has wished to improve relations with Russia but has met with obstacles time and again, and the Trump administration is not an exception. Trump has since taking office been advocating that the U.S.-Russia relations should start anew, even expressing via Twitter that he is willing to solve some thorny global issues together with Russia.Whereas, almost one and a half year into his presidency, Trump has seen his hands tied when it comes to Russia, and a “quick restart” of U.S.-Russia relations has been proven failed. There are multiple reasons for the failure.First, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has always seen itself as a winner, and Russia a loser. So its policies toward Russia are often derived from a top-down perspective, with the hope of bringing Russia into a U.S.-led Eurasian strategy. One approach to achieving that end has been to squeeze Russia’s strategic space by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eastward. Russia, by contrast, is unwilling to admit that it is a loser, and, in the face of American assertiveness and failed attempts to integrate itself into the West, has no other options but to adopt a confrontational strategy vis-a-vis Washington.Second, a series of crises in recent years have exacerbated the U.S.-Russia geopolitical confrontation. The hostile attitude between the U.S.-Europe alliance and Russia has been on the rise following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The United States accused Russia of unilaterally changing the post-war European borders, which it said showed Moscow’s ambition to challenge the status quo and sabotage the regional order. Russia, for its part, was irked by U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine. As a result, the two sides’ perceptions of each other had experienced a downward spiral. The Trump administration repeatedly referred to Russia as a revisionist power as well as a strategic competitor, intensifying the strategic mistrust between the two countries.Third, the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 election has vastly hampered Trump’s ability to reconcile with Russia. The Russia investigation has become a new factor that is expected to obstruct a detente, or even development, in U.S.-Russia ties during Trump’s tenure. The investigation has not only made Trump hesitate when making decisions on Russia, but also substantially damaged the tools and methods with which Trump may mend relations with Russia. The U.S. Congress passed a sanctions legislation against Russia last year stipulating that the president should gain congressional approval before lifting those sanctions, a provision expected to render Trump largely incapable of mitigating tensions with Russia personally.Nonetheless, Trump’s unfettered foreign policy style has indeed given the U.S.-Russia relations a glimmer of hope. Both the telephone conversations between the two leaders and the two countries’ limited cooperation in combating terrorism in Syria have, to some extent, ensured that Washington and Moscow will neither touch the bottom of their ties nor go on a path of hard military confrontation.Many U.S. scholars have cast doubt on a third Trump-Putin meeting, saying the United States won’t take any advantage from that. Yet, given the unpredictable nature of the international situation during the Trump era, even if a meeting between U.S. and Russian presidents will not bring about substantial and fundamental improvement in bilateral ties, the meeting per se has already demonstrated a shared willingness of both leaders to break the ice between their countries, and a gradual breakthrough is not outright impossible. Sun Chenghao is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, focusing on American domestic politics and foreign policy. He is also the translator of books including National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council, etc.(ASIA PACIFIC DAILY)

By APD writer Sun Chenghao

Translated by Deng Xianlai

A big news has recently emerged in U.S. media that the White House has been preparing for a meeting between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. 

The Wall Street Journal first revealed that the White House was preparing for a potential summit between the two presidents, citing people familiar with the efforts as saying that John Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, had returned to Washington to help arrange the meeting. It said consultations that were going on between the two sides were still in an early stage, and that the exact date and place of the meeting had not been confirmed yet.

AJLJ.jpg

JULY 7, 2017: Melania Trump (L), First Lady of the United States, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of a G20 summit.

Although the time and place of the meeting has not been confirmed, what is certain is that the two leaders will focus at least on three main topics when they meet each other -- Syria, Ukraine, and nuclear nonproliferation. By exchanging views on these specific issues, it is possible that Washington and Moscow will, for the first time since Trump’s election, “break the ice” after a failed “restart” of bilateral relations. It must be recognized, however, that it would be very difficult for a qualitative change to happen in the U.S.-Russia ties following this meeting.

Historically, every U.S. administration since Bill Clinton’s has wished to improve relations with Russia but has met with obstacles time and again, and the Trump administration is not an exception. Trump has since taking office been advocating that the U.S.-Russia relations should start anew, even expressing via Twitter that he is willing to solve some thorny global issues together with Russia.

Whereas, almost one and a half year into his presidency, Trump has seen his hands tied when it comes to Russia, and a “quick restart” of U.S.-Russia relations has been proven failed. There are multiple reasons for the failure.

First, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has always seen itself as a winner, and Russia a loser. So its policies toward Russia are often derived from a top-down perspective, with the hope of bringing Russia into a U.S.-led Eurasian strategy. One approach to achieving that end has been to squeeze Russia’s strategic space by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eastward. Russia, by contrast, is unwilling to admit that it is a loser, and, in the face of American assertiveness and failed attempts to integrate itself into the West, has no other options but to adopt a confrontational strategy vis-a-vis Washington.

Second, a series of crises in recent years have exacerbated the U.S.-Russia geopolitical confrontation. The hostile attitude between the U.S.-Europe alliance and Russia has been on the rise following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

The United States accused Russia of unilaterally changing the post-war European borders, which it said showed Moscow’s ambition to challenge the status quo and sabotage the regional order. Russia, for its part, was irked by U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine. As a result, the two sides’ perceptions of each other had experienced a downward spiral. The Trump administration repeatedly referred to Russia as a revisionist power as well as a strategic competitor, intensifying the strategic mistrust between the two countries.

Third, the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 election has vastly hampered Trump’s ability to reconcile with Russia. The Russia investigation has become a new factor that is expected to obstruct a detente, or even development, in U.S.-Russia ties during Trump’s tenure. The investigation has not only made Trump hesitate when making decisions on Russia, but also substantially damaged the tools and methods with which Trump may mend relations with Russia. The U.S. Congress passed a sanctions legislation against Russia last year stipulating that the president should gain congressional approval before lifting those sanctions, a provision expected to render Trump largely incapable of mitigating tensions with Russia personally.

Nonetheless, Trump’s unfettered foreign policy style has indeed given the U.S.-Russia relations a glimmer of hope. Both the telephone conversations between the two leaders and the two countries’ limited cooperation in combating terrorism in Syria have, to some extent, ensured that Washington and Moscow will neither touch the bottom of their ties nor go on a path of hard military confrontation.

Many U.S. scholars have cast doubt on a third Trump-Putin meeting, saying the United States won’t take any advantage from that. Yet, given the unpredictable nature of the international situation during the Trump era, even if a meeting between U.S. and Russian presidents will not bring about substantial and fundamental improvement in bilateral ties, the meeting per se has already demonstrated a shared willingness of both leaders to break the ice between their countries, and a gradual breakthrough is not outright impossible. 


Sun Chenghao is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, focusing on American domestic politics and foreign policy. He is also the translator of books including National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council, etc.

(ASIA PACIFIC DAILY)

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