On November 2, the Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and CIA Director William Burns met to discuss various issues related to US-Russia ties. Burns’ two-day visit to Moscow with a senior-level delegation follows a series of engagement at various levels between the two countries since the Geneva summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden in June 2021.
The visit also comes weeks after the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in Moscow for discussions with the Russian side, which included meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Presidential Aide Yuri Ushakov and Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Staff Dmitry Kozak (in charge of Ukraine affairs). These visits are an indication of the attempt by both sides to bring about some stability to a relationship that has touched new post-Cold war lows.
Nuland’s visit was made possible after a reciprocal deal that lifted restriction on her entry, in return for Russian arms control expert Konstantin Vorontsov being granted an American visa. The situation had arisen as both sides have placed specific individuals on their respective sanctions list after the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Though no major announcement followed Nuland’s visit, and the embassy staffing issue remains unresolved, both the sides have classified the meetings in a positive light.
There was a ‘frank’ review of US-Russia ties in the Nuland-Ushakov meeting. A ‘productive discussion’ took place between the visiting diplomat and Kozak on “shared interests, along with those of Ukraine, France, and Germany, in full implementation of Minsk agreements.” This follows the Biden-Putin summit, where the two leaders had supported the accords. This reiteration about the Minsk agreements, despite differences over its implementation and opposition from Ukraine, has led to hopes in Russia of Washington persuading Kiev about the process. Nuland and Kozak also agreed to remain in touch over Ukraine, which is a key positive outcome of the meeting.
While cautious optimism reigns on both sides and no turnaround in bilateral ties is expected anytime soon, regular interactions are a welcome development to reduce risks of unintended escalation and to make the relationship predictable. At the same time, the meetings also revealed the amount of work still required to be done to stabilize this bilateral equation. The latest meetings in Moscow failed to resolve the issue of embassy staffing. Russia accuses the US of tightening visa provisions that have limited number of diplomats at its embassy, while proposing a lifting of all restrictions that have been imposed in the past years—believed to include return of two Russian compounds in the US that were closed on charges of being used for intelligence gathering. On the other hand, the US has said that visa and consular services in Russia cannot be carried out due to restrictions on hiring of local staff, and called for parity in diplomatic numbers. For now, it has been decided that expert level talks will take place to discuss the issue further.
Since the June Presidential Summit, two rounds of strategic stability talks have been held, in July and September respectively, after the gap of over a year. Two working groups on ‘principles and objectives for future arms control and capabilities and actions with strategic effects’ were set up after the second round, with a third one planned in the next few months. Although Nuland does not directly deal with this area, it is believed that related matters were discussed.
Alongside the future of arms control and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the two sides have an agenda related to new technologies, artificial intelligence, and space; besides regional security issues including Afghanistan, Iran, Korean peninsula, and Syria. Russia has expressed its reservations about the US looking for basing agreements in Central Asia, even as the situation in Afghanistan continues to unfold following the American withdrawal. Both sides have also begun a conversation at the expert level on cyber security, with focus on ransomware and related information sharing at present. While the most vexed issues in area, including weaponisation of cyberspace remain to be addressed, there are signs of progress as witnessed in both countries co-sponsoring a UN resolution on threats to cyber security alongside 53 countries earlier in October.
These steps over the past months have led President Vladimir Putin to acknowledge that both sides have been able to establish a ‘working and sustainable relationship,’ calling engagement with the current US administration ‘constructive.’ US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the Biden administration wants a ‘predictable, stable relationship’ with Russia. This has also been seen in regular interactions at the level of National Security Advisors (Jake Sullivan and Nikolai Patrushev) and top military echelons (Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff) to discuss critical bilateral and regional security issues. As Russia has ended its engagement with NATO from November 1 over the alliance’s expulsion of eight of its diplomats on charges of spying, the US-Russia interactions will now gain additional significance. Not only has Russia suspended its permanent mission to NATO in Brussels, the alliance’s staff in Moscow also left on the 29th of October, having been stripped off their accreditation.
Meanwhile, the US has turned its focus firmly on China and has demonstrated a willingness to de-escalate on issues that do not form part of its core national interests. While Russia-China relations have grown closer, Moscow would benefit from not being conflated with the latter in American efforts to contain the rising power. This gives both sides an incentive to bring some stability to their bilateral interactions. The progress achieved through these meetings in the past months now needs to be strengthened through deliverables on issues of mutual concern.
The US-Russia relationship is hardly out of the woods, with key differences on critical issues including sanctions, Ukraine, cyber security, arms control, role of NATO and European security, not to mention fundamental divergences over the emerging world order. The US recently hosted a Counter Ransomware Initiative without inviting Russia to join despite the progress on the cyber track in recent months. The fragility of the overall situation can be gauged from the fact that there are already warnings of the risk of ‘further sharpening of tensions.’
This was evident when earlier in the month, leading US Senators wrote to President Joe Biden, calling on him to expel about 300 Russian diplomats unless more visas were issued for American diplomats to bring about parity in numbers in both the countries. Moscow has already said that while it would like to avoid any escalation, an anti-Russian action could lead to a closure of US diplomatic presence in the country.
In other words, there has been a definite improvement in the level of US-Russia engagement following the Geneva summit. While differences remain, specific steps have been taken to ensure regular engagement amongst officials/experts to deal with critical areas of mutual ‘self-interest’ including future of strategic stability and cyber security, as was agreed during the Geneva summit and is evident in the above mentioned joint UN resolution on cyber security. This in itself is a vast improvement following the breakdown of ties after 2014 and has given rise to the hope that the relationship will become more predictable. Whether this dialogue will lead to effective agreements in the course of the coming months remains to be seen and will be the real test of intentions of both Moscow and Washington.