While there is little hope that relations between Washington and Moscow will warm up, the fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is meeting with his US counterpart Mike Pompeo suggests they haven’t frozen over quite yet.
If unnamed diplomatic sources sharing insider information with news agencies are to be believed, Lavrov and Pompeo will discuss Ukraine, Syria, arms control and “other issues” between the US and Russia when they meet on Tuesday.
The last time Lavrov visited Washington, in May 2017, Pompeo was head of the CIA and US President Donald Trump had just fired FBI Director James Comey, setting off an avalanche of criticism among the media and Democrats that it was all related to the ‘Russiagate’ conspiracy theory – which was eventually debunked by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation this spring.
To deal with ‘Russiagate,’ however, Trump has pursued a hard-line policy towards Moscow, expelling Russian diplomats, closing consulates, approving sanctions, and siding with allies such as the UK in their “highly likely” claims – but no evidence – against Russia. That has done nothing to appease or mollify his critics, however, while making any sort of cooperation with Russia on international security issues, counter-terrorism or nuclear disarmament that much more difficult.
The semi-official agenda for the Lavrov-Pompeo meeting is not terribly informative. What could they possibly discuss about Ukraine, when the two countries can’t even settle on basic facts? Russia maintains that it has no troops in the Donbass and that Crimea rejoined its motherland voluntarily, after a US-backed coup in Kiev. Meanwhile, Washington insists Russia “invaded and occupied” Crimea and the Donbass after freedom and democracy came to “Kyiv” with Victoria Nuland’s pastries.
Russia sent an expeditionary force to Syria at the invitation of Damascus, and has been fighting terrorists ranging from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) to rebranded Al-Qaeda, and everything in between. The US, whose troops are in Syria without legal invitation, has recently redeployed them to occupy oil wells and deny them to the government – which it never gave up on overthrowing.
Intractable as those two issues may be, they are not an existential threat to the planet. Nuclear weapons are. Right now, the US and Russia are both observing a treaty, known as New START or SNV-III respectively. It is set to expire by February 2021, however, and there have been few signs that the US is willing to extend it by another five years – much less negotiate a new one.
Over the past three years, the Trump administration has updated the US nuclear posture to reflect a growing obsession with Russia – pointedly refusing to disavow a first strike. Washington has also spelled out that it “will not accept any limitation or constraint on the development or deployment of missile defense capabilities.”
While Trump has talked about a new nuclear treaty with Russia and maybe even China, the actual people who would have to be involved say that nothing has been done to make it happen.
“It’s already obvious that with the time that is left… we will not be able to work out a full-fledged replacement document,” is how Vladimir Leontyev, deputy director at the Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), put it last month.
Even if some kind of deal gets struck, there are no guarantees that Washington won’t simply tear it up – just like Trump did last year with the Iran nuclear pact, negotiated under his predecessor in 2015, or the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, shredded earlier this year.
While Washington officially accused Russia of violating the treaty – offering no evidence to the public beyond media reports – just last week, Trump spoke of the INF as “unfair” and an “obsolete deal anyway,” covering “things that frankly didn’t matter anymore.”
Meanwhile, the specter of ‘Russiagate’ continues to haunt American politics. Even though the accusations of Russian “meddling” in US elections and Trump’s “Kremlin ties” were launched by his critics in the media and intelligence communities, they seem to have poisoned the well to the point where the Trump administration itself rejected the Russian proposal of a mutual guarantee not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
With all that in mind, it’s difficult to fathom what Lavrov may expect to actually accomplish in Washington.
By Nebojsa Malic, senior writer at RT