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COMMENTARY

From Russia with love for Pompeo

VLADIMIR Putin and Sergei Lavrov had warm words for Mike Pompeo on Tuesday in his first trip to Russia as US Secretary of State. However, despite Mr Putin's call to "fully restore" ties, in the highest-level US-Russia meetings since he met Donald Trump last year, bilateral relations remain largely frozen.

On the agenda on Tuesday, in what were the first big meetings between Moscow and Washington since the Mueller report was released, was a plethora of issues. This included Venezuela, Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, counter-terrorism, and arms control agreements, including the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which the Trump team has said it is withdrawing from in response to alleged Russian violations.

While both sides spoke about commitments to enhance ties, there were no apparent breakthroughs on any of these issues, although Mr Pompeo indicated that counter-terrorism and combating nuclear non-proliferation are areas going forward where more common ground can be found. Yet, amid disagreements in many other areas, the strategic intent of Mr Trump and Mr Putin to warm relations based, in part, upon what appears to be mutual self regard looks likely to be frustrated - for now at least.

For his part, the US president has given multiple indications, including in Helsinki last year when he met Mr Putin, that he believes Russia is not a serious threat to the United States and that a new era in bilateral ties is needed. He has hinted that he might drop economic sanctions if the country "is helpful", and appears to believe there are multiple common interests over issues such as preventing Iran secure nuclear weapons, and potentially even helping contain China in a new global balance of power.

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Yet, Mr Pompeo (like his predecessor as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) is more sceptical, and Mr Trump's proposed repositioning of relations with Russia looks, at the least, to be on ice, and potentially unrealisable in the short to medium term. This is, in part, because bilateral relations have become frostier during Mr Trump's presidency.

DOMESTIC POLITICAL PRESSURE

Take the example of Syria where Mr Tillerson -- who from the time he served as CEO of Exxon Mobil knows Mr Putin - said in 2017 that "either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent" referring to Moscow's apparent inability to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons, despite a 2013 agreement, under which Russia was a guarantor, to remove these stockpiles from the country. Meanwhile Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that bilateral relations had sunk to being "one step away from war" and "totally ruined" after Mr Trump ordered US bombing in Syria.

Aside from foreign policy disagreements, the Trump team also remains under significant domestic political pressure over its relationship with Russia. For while the Mueller report cleared the president of "collusion" with the Kremlin, it made clear that Moscow made significant and sustained efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and that this threat to US interests is ongoing.

To this end, just prior to Mr Pompeo's trip, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer submitted a hard-hitting letter to the Secretary of State. This urged that he tell Mr Putin and Mr Lavrov that any attempts to interfere with the 2020 presidential and congressional elections will be met with "an immediate and robust approach".

Yet, it was not just publics in the United States and Russia that watched the Pompeo meetings on Tuesday closely, but also in Europe too. Mr Trump is being keenly watched, across the continent, for how any shift in ties with Moscow may impact NATO, having previously described the military alliance as "obsolete", sending chills down the spines of states in Eastern Europe.

Already, uncertainty over Mr Trump's Nato policy is spurring EU nations to seek to reverse around a decade of defence spending cuts, totalling around 10 per cent in real terms. Moreover, a new European Defence Action Plan is being moved forward that will see greater continental military cooperation too.

With Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi having been in Sochi on Monday to meet Mr Lavrov, the Pompeo meeting will also have been closely watched in Beijing which has enjoyed a warming relationship with Moscow under the presidencies of Mr Putin and Xi Jinping.

Indeed, the Chinese president asserted last year that bilateral relations are at "the highest-level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world" and also praised Mr Putin by stating that he "is my best, most intimate friend". The Russian president appears to share this sentiment, underlining how misguided Mr Trump may be if he believes Moscow might any time soon ally with Washington against Beijing.

Perhaps the most cited area of warmer ties is on the political and security front. However, China and Russia also enjoy an extensive economic dialogue which has warmed since Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Russia has for instance announced plans for numerous cooperation projects with China including a new method of inter-bank transfers, and a joint credit agency that seeks to create a shared financial and economic infrastructure that will allow them to function independently of Western-dominated financial institutions. They are also among the states involved in creating alternative fora to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, including the New Development Bank. This will finance infrastructure and other projects in the BRICS states, and a related US$100 billion special currency reserve fund.

STILL ICY

Moreover, in the energy sector, the two states have signed a US$400 billion natural gas supply deal which will see an approximately 2000-mile gas pipeline from eastern Siberia to north-east China. And they have agreed to construct a second major gas pipeline from western Siberia to China's Xinjiang province.

Moscow has also opened parts of its upstream oil and gas sector to direct investment from Beijing. Moreover, Chinese firms have also stepped in to provide Russian counterparts with technology, and Chinese banks have become an important source of loans for Russian businesses, in the wake of Western sanctions.

Take overall, while Mr Pompeo's meetings had warm words, US-Russia rapprochement remains on ice. While both Mr Trump and Mr Putin want significantly better ties, this may prove unobtainable, not least given the growing closeness of Moscow's relationship with Beijing under Mr Xi.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.