Solutions to our geopolitical problems will not come easily, but face-to-face dialogue still matters, says Evgeny Pudovkin.
The G20 summit tomorrow will host the first meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the US leader Donald Trump. Main points on the agenda, according to reports, include Ukraine and Syria. What progress, if any, can the talks achieve?
Where we stand
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has been successful to a point. Moscow has succeeded in giving a lifeline to Bashar Assad’s regime with only minimal resources. That was always the plan: force Western leaders to the negotiating table and exchange peace for securing material (retaining its military base) and political (Syrian statehood) dividends.
Yet bringing the conflict to a political phase is proving a more elusive task than first thought. Damascus and Teheran try to keep the fighting alive. Assad understands: once the peace process begins, he will be a bargaining chip. Iran is also wary. Its relations with Russia haven’t always been smooth. Moscow had tried to ‘sell’ Iran for the sake of improving relations with a third party – in 1995 and 2010.
As Leonid Isaev, an expert on the Middle East from Russia’s Higher School of Economics noted, Iran and Syria will “continue to provoke Washington, forcing the Kremlin to respond and take measures against the US”. Alleged use of chemical weapons by Damascus at Kan Sheikun illustrates this point.
The Trump administration’s main aim in the region, reiterated on numerous occasions, is defeating ISIS. Recent agreement on safe zones helps to achieve this goal by minimising violence between the regime and opposition. Both America’s allies and Russia will concentrate more on battling ISIS. Further, Washington would also like to see Assad gone in the medium term and weaken the Iranian influence in Syria.
Syria may have replaced Ukraine as the main theatre where Russian and Western interests clash. Yet the currently dormant tensions near the EU’s eastern border can be stoked at any moment. As capture of Viktor Ageev – a Russian serviceman – on Ukrainian territory demonstrates, troubles have never gone away.
The crisis remains unresolved. The Minsk-II agreement is as dead as a doornail. The Kremlin won’t abandon attempts to influence rebel-held territories (as stipulated by clauses 9 and 10 of the agreement) unless it has guarantees from the West on Ukrainian neutrality. Kiev, in its turn, will struggle to assign a special constitutional status to the rebel-held regions Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) (clause 11).
Although not formally a part of the Minsk process, developments in Ukraine concern the US. The task before Washington and European capitals is tough. They have to devise a way out of the conflict, whilst not allowing it to be seen as if they are conceding post-USSR space to the Russian sphere of influence.
No quick fix
One thing is evident. Neither the Ukrainian or the Syrian conflict can be solved overnight. No ‘great deals’ are imminent. The path to peace will be painful and ridden with compromises.
Hence, the Hamburg talks won’t be groundbreaking. But while it is crucial not to overestimate the consequences of Trump-Putin meeting, it is no good to dismiss it as inconsequential, either.
Fully-fledged dialogue between the two leaders is a rare and auspicious opportunity. “You can read as many reports or assessments of the situation, read as many reports and briefings as you like, but nothing matters as much as the eye-to-eye dialogue”, Anthony Brenton, a seasoned diplomat and former UK ambassador to Russia told me. “Leaders could see the context in which decisions are made. This opens a door for better understanding and is absolutely essential”.
Improving the overall atmosphere in bilateral relations need not be merely ephemeral. This may bring about concrete benefits.
First, improved trust between the leadership of both countries will smoothen day-to-day diplomatic operations. However negligible these factors may seem, they do matter. This is also the point made by Thomas Graham, George W Bush’s former Russia adviser. US diplomats, he observed, lack access to the top Russian officials. Government-backed media sources, such as Russia Today, put anti-Western vitriolic rhetoric on display. Privacy may help break the ice.
Secondly, improved context and ‘chemistry’ ease the path for implementing incremental steps towards resolving conflicts. Progress over buffer zones has a real chance of bringing the Syrian conflict into a political sphere. With regards to Ukraine, some points from the Minsk agreements can still be fulfilled. Namely, it is arguably possible to hold elections in Luhansk and Donetsk in line with Ukrainian law (point 4).
Third, building trust is essential given how tense and prone to crisis the current environment is. Just recall the case of the US launching Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase and Moscow’s subsequent decision to suspend the de-confliction agreement. The latter ensures Russian and American planes don’t collide in the region’s airspace. More recently, Moscow and Pentagon quarreled over the Syrian plane shot down by the Kurds. It will be easier for Putin and Trump to deal with sudden crises if they know what the man on the other side thinks.
Is the game worth the candle?
In the long haul, substantive progress in bilateral dialogue is conditioned upon Russian and American leadership making domestic compromises.
For Trump, rapprochement with Moscow certainly has its benefits. Closer ties will help alleviate the chance of geopolitical crises. After all, there is Henry Kissinger’s old maxim: keep Russia and China closer to the US than they are to each other.
Reaching out to the Kremlin comes with a political price tag, though. There is no reliable constituency in the US pushing for ‘reset’ with Moscow. Unlike China, Russia doesn’t have close economic relations with the US. Improving bilateral connections is hence not the priority for American businessmen. Politicians are also lukewarm; in Congress, the Rand Paul wing has ceded ground to John McCain’s.
The choice is tough for Russia too. It lacks resources to sustain its military build-up in the medium-term. It also requires Western imports to modernise the economy. The Kremlin’s attempt to turn to the East has not yielded significant results. But is Putin prepared to risk his ‘patriotic’ consensus and narrative of Russia’s revanchism on the global stage to secure a deal with the US?
Only two groups see the new ‘reset’ between the US and Russia to be just around the corner. It is either exuberant journalists, who still see Trump as the ‘Siberian Candidate’. Or the contrarian bores. The elites on both sides don’t share the sentiment. For them, improving relations may actually feel less like riding the wave and more like going against the tide.