Back To Business As Usual: Russian Analysts See Helsinki Meeting As Opening To Normalization

Stylized Russian and U.S. Flags, 200, 1807-2007

(Article ©2018 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Robert Coalson – July 17, 2018 – also appeared at https://www.rferl.org/a/russian-analysts-see-helsinki-meeting-as-opening-to-normalization/29372517.html)

Much of the immediate U.S. reaction to the July 16 Helsinki summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been characterized by some strident adjectives — “disgraceful,” “treasonous,” “imbecilic,” “appeasing,” and the like.

So observers in Russia might be expected to be crowing about their president’s apparently overwhelming win at the summit. Instead, most commentators have highlighted the aspect of the summit that Putin’s people said in advance was their main goal — progress toward reestablishing normal relations after Russia’s years in the international doghouse that began even before Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

In an interview with Russia’s RT television shortly before the summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov set the goalposts for the meeting: “The ideal outcome would be to agree to engage all the channels [of communication] on all divisive issues and also on those issues where we can already usefully cooperate.”

Immediately after the summit, Lavrov was asked what he thought of the meeting and he said it was “better than super.”

Analysts commenting in Russian media emphasized this theme.

“I saw two leaders today who can agree with each other,” Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the International Relations Committee of the Federation Council, said in an appearance on Rossia-1 television.

In comments to Izvestia, Kosachyov was more specific about the bilateral agenda moving forward, emphasizing Helsinki developments that barely attracted notice in the West. “It was announced that they would create an economic working group,” he said. “In addition, there will be a ‘group of wise men’ tasked with coming up with a philosophical approach to perspective relations. There is a concrete selection of proposals and analyses connected with strategic stability and counterterrorism which are being looked at by the American side.”

“And Syria will, most likely, be the test case that will show how serious the American side is to the newly opening perspectives of normalizing our relations,” he concluded.

Yury Rogulyov, professor of American studies at Moscow State University, told the daily that bilateral relations were moving from “megaphone diplomacy to direct negotiations.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia In Global Affairs, told the daily Vedomosti that “Syria, where there are concrete topics, and matters of strategic stability” were the most likely areas for next steps. However, he expressed concern that once Trump returned to Washington critics would “grind him down and accuse him of conspiring with Russia” and, as a result, Trump would back off from further development of bilateral ties.

Therefore, Moscow will make efforts not to give Trump’s domestic critics extra ammunition, analyst Aleksandr Gabuyev told the Associated Press. Officials “will be super-cautious in order not to damage Donald Trump any more than he did himself,” he said.

Vladimir Olenchenko, a political scientist with the Moscow-based Institute of Global Economics and International Relations, expressed “hope that Trump will have enough political will to overcome the resistance and continue dialogue with Russia.”

‘Return To Ritual Of Mutual Suspicion’

Independent political analyst Lilia Shevtsova expressed skepticism about the prospects of relations between the United States and Putin’s government improving, arguing that there were no “interests uniting America and Russia” and they do not share a “common political agenda and a unified strategic vision.” Moreover, she said, one of the cornerstones of Putinism in Russia was the stoked-up fear of the United States as an enemy that causes all the country’s domestic problems.

“The plan to create groups of experts, businessmen, and so on that will restore cooperation looks like a return to a familiar routine,” she wrote. “Such processes in Russian-American relations usually end up in the same way: with the two sides telling each other who should respect whom and why they don’t respect the other. And it turns out there is nothing to discuss because both sides hold differing views even on the topic of what their mutual interests are. You can be sure that in this case as well, things will return to the ritual of mutual suspicion.”

Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, said that the composition of the delegations at the Helsinki lunch revealed the differing agendas of the two sides.

“On the Russian side at that lunch…there was, of course, Lavrov and [U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. They are equals. But further down sat Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov,” Venediktov said during a radio broadcast hosted by journalist Yevgenia Albats.

“Then there was, of course, the ambassador to the United States, [Anatoly] Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko,” he continued. “I would draw attention to the fact that none of these people directly deal with security or global strategy, not counting the foreign minister…. Not one person in the Russian delegation did this work full-time. [Nikolai] Patrushev of the Security Council wasn’t there. The defense minister wasn’t there. The head of the General Staff wasn’t there. No one.”

“Now let’s take the American delegation,” he continued. “If you remove Pompeo and [U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon] Huntsman, then we see that there is the president’s national-security adviser, [John] Bolton, and senior adviser to the national-security adviser on Russia affairs, Fiona Hill. And, and this is important, we see White House Chief of Staff John Kelly…. You can see how these delegations differ. John Bolton is in charge of global security. Fiona Hill is in charge of security issues between Russia and the United States. And John Kelly is in charge of the interference in the [U.S. presidential] election. Domestic politics. That is what John Kelly does. You can see how the delegations are at cross-purposes. Different agendas, differing delegation compositions. On one side, security experts. On the other, people from the Foreign Ministry.”

Venediktov concluded that the delegations showed that the main U.S. concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and the election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.”

“Peskov — that’s public relations,” he concluded. “Peskov is about selling the summit results.”