Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month in Washington. Because Russia-US relations have been deteriorating for a long time, Lavrov’s visit drew considerable attention.
The meetings between Russia and the US mainly had two purposes.
First, they provided an opportunity for the two countries to exchange ideas on several global issues, such as the Ukrainian crisis. On the day before the Russia-US meetings, Kiev and Moscow agreed on a ceasefire at a summit in Paris mediated by France and Germany. Thus, unavoidably, the US and Russia discussed the Ukraine standoff during Lavrov’s visit. In addition, certain regional hot spots including the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis and the Afghanistan situation were also on the talks table. Because Russia is an international power to reckon with, the US cannot ignore the fact that Russia plays a crucial role in many global issues. The US needs Russia’s help in many ways. Additionally, because the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty stands dissolved, the two countries should mull whether to extend the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) that will expire in 2021.
Second, currently Russia-US relations have dived to new lows akin to those during the Cold War. The meetings just held between the two powers indicate that both sides hope relations can improve. After all, communication through bilateral meetings will play a positive role in bilateral relations.
Russia-Ukraine conflict was one of the main topics of discussion in the Russia-US meetings. When it comes to the Ukrainian crisis, there are many tough questions. For example, how to deal with the chaos in eastern Ukraine and how to handle Russia-Ukraine ties under such difficult circumstances? The US is concerned about these issues because it intends to meddle in affairs in Russia’s periphery to strengthen its own influence in the region. Although the US did not participate in the Paris summit on Dec 9, it still utilised the meetings with Lavrov to put pressure on Russia.
During their meeting, Pompeo and Lavrov called for an improvement in Russia-US relations. Russia plays a crucial role in global stability. If Russia and the US can cooperate on maintaining global stability, it will create a favourable external environment for the US 2020 general election.
No detente sign
Based on the current situation, even though the Russia-US meetings seemed going well, there is still no sign of detente because numerous ingrained and structural problems remain unsolved. The meetings can be seen only as a sign that not all is lost and the two countries can still communicate.
Improving Russia-US relations needs efforts from both sides, but ultimately it is the US which has the final say. Trump himself might have favourable views of Russia, but US policies toward its Cold War rival are still restrained by its domestic politics. How much room is left to be manoeuvred for Russia-US relations mainly depends on the US attitude. If the US starts to warm up to Russia, relations can improve.
Russia has been suffering from Western economic sanctions for quite a long time and it needs foreign investment and technical support from the West. Therefore if there is a chance to improve relations, Russia will not let it pass.