Trump administration U.S. – Russia relations 2019

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Trump administration U.S. – Russia relations 2017-18
Jamestown Foundation: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Putin and Lavrov Rebuff Pompeo’s Overtures in Sochi
(Eurasia Daily Monitor) The US is in a trade war with China and a standoff with Iran, which may escalate into possible military clashes with Iranian or pro-Iranian proxy forces. The Venezuelan crisis may deteriorate into armed violence that could require a US military response. If the Venezuelan and Iranian crises begin to escalate simultaneously, the US and its military would be torn between two conflicts putting strain on Washington’s ability to act decisively. In these circumstances, attempting to make a deal with Russia looks logical: Moscow may terminate its support for Nicolás Maduro in Caracas and also put pressure on Havana to do the same. A swift collapse of the Maduro regime could then theoretically begin a period of democratic reconstruction and recovery of the Venezuelan oil industry, which, in turn, might help balance the global oil market if armed skirmishes break out in the Gulf and disrupt the flow of this strategic energy resource to international customers. In Syria, pro-Iranian proxies may attack US or allied forces, and the reaction of locally deployed Russian forces, or lack thereof, would also be of critical strategic importance. To facilitate a possible US-Russian deal, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo recently went into shuttle diplomacy mode, first meeting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 6, in Finland, and then traveling to Sochi, Russia, on May 14 for more talks with his counterpart. Even more importantly, Pompeo’s visit to Russia’s “southern capital” held hope for direct engagement with Putin to figure out the likelihood of a deal and the possibility of a future Trump-Putin summit (Kommersant, May 13).
Moscow will resist by all means any attempts to oust Maduro or US efforts to strangulate Iran by sanctions or military pressure. Russia will also resist US intentions to drive a “wedge” between Moscow and Beijing on key issues. Indeed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Sochi a day before Pompeo to meet with Putin and Lavrov. Both parties used the occasion to jointly denounce Washington and its policies (Kommersant, May 14). Russia will do its best to humiliate the United States and undermine the latter country’s credibility in order to further strain Western alliances and isolate the US as much as possible. In the future, as Putin has indicated, the time may come for substantive negotiations, when the US is already significantly weakened and after Russia has increased its military power by deploying new superweapons (see EDM, March 8, 15, 2018).

14 May
Pompeo came to Putin seeking to reset U.S. ties. They could only agree that many issues stand in the way.
“There are places that our two countries can find where we can be cooperative, we can be productive, we can be accumulative, we can work together to make each of our two peoples more successful and frankly the world more successful, too,” Pompeo told Putin at the start of their meeting. “President Trump wants to do everything we can.”
On Iran, Venezuela, and Russian interference in U.S. elections, Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced sharp disagreement at a joint news conference. Still, Pompeo’s first trip to Russia as secretary of state represented a remarkable new attempt by the Trump administration to find fresh footing in its most politically treacherous international relationship.
With global tensions rising over Iran — a Russian ally — Lavrov said Russia was prepared to do what it could to avoid “a war scenario.” The United States has warned of an increasing threat from Iran and has dispatched additional forces to the region.
Some commentators and politicians in Moscow have voiced hope that with the end of the Mueller investigation, Trump may be in a better position to make good on his stated desire to improve relations with Russia. But others caution that even if Trump were to have more room to maneuver at home, the interests of the two countries continue to diverge around the world.
“The domestic political atmosphere in the United States might seem to have become more favorable,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian international affairs analyst who has advised the Kremlin. “But in terms of foreign policy, things just keep getting worse.” (Trump orders staff to prepare arms-control push with Russia and China 25 April)

5 May
Putin Is Ready to Give Up Venezuela for the Right Price
Sergei Lavrov and Mike Pompeo will soon meet in Helsinki to discuss Venezuela’s future.
By Vladimir Frolov
(Moscow Times) Last week, Russia and Cuba may have thwarted a U.S. backed plot to engineer a peaceful transfer of power from Nicolas Maduro to a transitional government led by interim president Juan Guaido and Venezuela’s top officials, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno.
On May 3, U.S. President Donald Trump called Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to flag American concerns over Russia’s “disruptive role” in Venezuela and stress his country’s determination to ensure Venezuela’s return to democratic rule.
But, as common in his personal interactions with Putin, Trump quickly lost the initiative, allowing the discussion on Venezuela to drift towards the softer subject of humanitarian aid.
Putin expressed Russia’s displeasure with U.S interference in Venezuela while convincing Trump that he “was not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela”.
…the U.S.-Russia geopolitical stand-off in Venezuela now threatens to derail the few remaining cooperative lanes in the relationship. White House national security advisor John Bolton made it clear on May 1: “This is our hemisphere — it’s not where the Russians ought to be interfering”. Three weeks ago, the same point, in even more forceful terms, was privately made by Fiona Hill, NSC Senior Director for Europe, Russia and Eurasia during her visit to Moscow
The Kremlin was struck by Hill’s prioritization of Venezuela as the most important issue in the relationship due to its direct impact on U.S. politics and the 2020 presidential race in Florida. Moscow concluded then it found an issue it could use to force the U.S. to grant concession elsewhere, most notably in Ukraine.
For Moscow, a deal of equals on Venezuela where Russia helps the U.S. diffuse the crisis by engineering a constitutional transition, should involve an equally significant concession by the U.S. (on a par with JFK-Khrushchev deal to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba and Turkey) to pressure Kiev into fully implementing the Minsk-2 agreements that would truncate Ukraine’s sovereignty and allow Moscow to retain some degree of control over Kiev’s security policies.

Russia Claims Trump Reached Out to Putin for Lengthy Friday Call
By Matt Stieb
(New York) On Sunday, the Russian Embassy stated on Facebook that the hour and a half conversation between the two leaders was initiated by President Trump, who called to discuss “a shared commitment to step up dialogue in various areas, including on issues of strategic ability.” That diplomatic pablum breaks down to a conversation in which foreign-policy expert Donald Trump took the advice of traditional American ally Vladimir Putin on the crises of North Korea and Venezuela.
Assuming the Russian Embassy’s information is true, it now appears that the president is actively seeking out the advice of Putin, preferring the word of the autocrat to that of his own intelligence community and their briefs that he doesn’t read.

21 February
Putin to U.S.: I’m ready for another Cuban Missile-style crisis if you want one
(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is militarily ready for a Cuban Missile-style crisis if the United States wanted one and threatened to place hypersonic nuclear missiles on ships or submarines near U.S. territorial waters.
… tensions are rising again over Russian fears that the United States might deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, as a landmark Cold War-era arms-control treaty unravels.
Putin’s comments, made to Russian media late on Wednesday, follow his warning that Moscow will match any U.S. move to deploy new missiles closer to Russia by stationing its own missiles closer to the United States or by deploying faster missiles or both.
Putin detailed his warning for the first time, saying Russia could deploy hypersonic missiles on ships and submarines which could lurk outside U.S. territorial waters if Washington now moved to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
The INF pact bans Russia and the United States from stationing short- and intermediate-range land-based missiles in Europe. Washington announced on Feb. 1 it will withdraw from the treaty in six months unless Moscow ends its alleged violations.
Analyst Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association think tank said Putin may be seeking to signal that Russia can keep up with the United States, to distract from its internal problems or to deflect blame for the parlous state of the INF treaty.

 

The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State
By Masha Gessen
(The New Yorker) It’s been a strange two and a half years. From the first allegations, in July, 2016, of Russian meddling in the U.S. election campaign to the arrest of President Donald Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone last week, many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.
I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. … What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.
The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes”. In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. … he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”
Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction: he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine; he has failed to support NATO; and he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total. At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.
By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. (31 January 2019)

27 January
Treasury Dept. Lifts Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Companies
(NYT) The Treasury Department had announced the sanctions against Mr. Deripaska, six other oligarchs and their companies in April as retaliation for Russia’s “malign activity” around the world.
Most of the sanctions went into effect, including against Mr. Deripaska personally. But their implementation was repeatedly delayed against Mr. Deripaska’s giant aluminum company, Rusal, as well as two linked firms, including EN+, the holding company that owned much of Rusal. The companies financed a sophisticated legal and lobbying campaign arguing that the sanctions would disrupt the aluminum market and damage companies in the United States and allied countries.

15 January
Republicans Break Ranks Over Move to Lift Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Firms

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