By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel*
(RFE/RL) — On March 30, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by telephone, the first of five calls between the two over the next five weeks, a flurry of communication unprecedented during Trump’s 3 1/2 years in office.
“We had a great call,” Trump later told reporters. The Kremlin described the call as “lengthy” and said the two leaders “expressed serious concern regarding the scope of the spread of the coronavirus” and “discussed closer cooperation.”
Meanwhile, the two countries’ diplomats have spoken at least three times over that same period, which also coincided with an unusual shipment of Russian coronavirus-related humanitarian aid to the United States.
For many Russia watchers, the flurry of behind-the-scenes phone calls and other communications are a clear indication that something’s going on.
After years of animosity rivaling the depths of the Cold War, are Washington and Moscow moving to “reset” relations?
“It’s an unusual amount of communication, but these are unusual times,” said Dmitry Suslov, a professor and foreign affairs expert at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “This explains more the intensive interaction” between Washington and Moscow.
“In no way could it result in any sort of reset,” he said.
“What kind of reset can we talk about if there is a strong consensus, in both countries, that we are adversaries,” he said.
Neither the Kremlin nor the White House responded to requests to comment for this story.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked specifically about the conversations between Trump and Putin in an interview on Russian state television on April 11
“The two presidents are able at the proper time to step back from strategic disagreements and to tactically engage in constructive dialogue,” Peskov said. “They absolutely understand each other. They understand there is no alternative to some kind of joint action, joint understanding. And this is fully demonstrated in the last two telephone conversations.”
‘A Kind Of Opportunity’
Along with the coronavirus pandemic, the collapse of global oil prices, which has hammered the U.S. shale-oil industry and clouded Russia’s otherwise strong fiscal picture, has reinvigorated some sort of dialogue, experts in Washington and Moscow said.
“It’s a kind of opportunity, maybe not a big one, to improve U.S.-Russian relations on the level of mutual understanding and mutual trust,” Ivan Kurilla, a professor of international relations at the European University at St. Petersburg, told a panel discussion on April 21.
Oksana Antonenko, a director of global risk analysis at the London-based company Control Risks, said she doubted there would be any major transformation in the relationship between the two countries.
However, she said, both the Trump and Putin administrations have been critical of how international organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization have responded to the coronavirus.
That may open the door for some sort of understanding on specific areas of agreement, she said.
“It is an opportunity to move the relationship forward, but there is also an opportunity for this relationship to deteriorate again,” she said during the Wilson Center discussion.
Reset Vs. Overload
Efforts to “reset” Russian-American relations date back to the period after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency in 2008. Ties between Moscow and Washington had been fractured by the war in Georgia, which ended with Russian forces occupying swaths of Georgian territory and recognizing them as independent countries.
After Obama’s election, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed up an effort to engage with Moscow, an effort that appeared hexed from the outset by a mistranslated symbolic “reset” button.
By the time Trump succeeded Obama in the White House in 2017, however, that reset effort had failed. Relations had been soured by Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012 and, in 2014, by Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatist formations in eastern Ukraine.
Even before Trump took office, his administration was shadowed by allegations that Russia conspired to sway the 2016 election in his favor.
That conclusion, which was bolstered earlier this month by the most recent bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, has hobbled Trump and his repeated calls for the United States and Russia to work more closely together on international crises.
Cloud Of Suspicion
Dmitry Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, said a reset has been a long-standing objective for the Kremlin, but it’s been impossible given the cloud of Russia suspicion hanging over the White House and political pressure from congressional Democrats.
“When a major crisis occurs that affects both countries and indeed the world as a whole, the Kremlin seeks to reach out to the White House with the idea of joining forces to fight a common threat,” he said during panel discussion hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C. on April 20.
“The new coronavirus pandemic is just another opportunity that Moscow is using to engage Washington,” he said.
“There’s nothing inherently bad in phone calls between our two leaders,” Eugene Rumer, who served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council during the Obama administration, said during the Carnegie discussion. “It’s what transpires oftentimes in the history of U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Soviet relations, this sort of the dialogue between two top leaders, to get the bureaucratic processes engaged.”
But, he said, “we need a serious dialogue. Presidential phone calls don’t just happen. There has to be an agenda that has to happen.”
Initially, the collapse of global oil prices was due to the collapse of a six-year agreement between Moscow and the OPEC oil cartel. That flooded markets just as world demand dropped off a cliff due to the economic shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus.
The price collapse hurt not only Russian and Saudi producers, but also U.S. shale-oil producers, which is why Trump was spurred to help broker a dialogue between Moscow and Riyadh, experts said.
“We worked out a deal on oil,” Trump said at a White House briefing on April 18.
“I worked with Putin and with the king on that,” he said referring to Saudi King Salman. “And President Putin was a total gentleman, and it was very important to get that done.”
Two weeks earlier, Russia dispatched a planeload of medical supplies ostensibly aimed at helping the United States in its struggle with COVID-19.
While the gesture appeared benevolent, the load, which arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on April 1, involved two companies subject to sanctions imposed by the United States in response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Moreover, there were conflicting statements about whether the shipment was paid for and by whom.
The Treasury Department later told RFE/RL that the exporter of the shipment did not appear to fall under U.S. sanctions.
“To the extent that such sanctions apply, Treasury has authority to license U.S. persons to engage in transactions that are consistent with U.S. foreign policy and national-security interests,” a spokesman said.
Critics of the White House said it was more of a propaganda victory for Moscow, which has long sought to persuade the White House to roll back the sanctions.
In a call with reporters on April 22, John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, defended the shipment, while also signaling that the U.S. administration was not considering easing sanctions and seeming to group Putin’s Russia among the world’s “authoritarian regimes.”
“U.S. sanctions do not inhibit humanitarian assistance,” Sullivan said. “The answer to humanitarian assistance challenges what we are seeing now with COVID-19 is not sanctions relief, because sanctions relief will not convince authoritarian regimes to reverse course and prioritize the well-being of their people.”
Adding further tension to any potential reconciliation: a U.S. State Department agency has reportedly concluded that Russia, and China, are conducting a coronavirus disinformation campaign against the United States.
New START, Old START
The Kremlin has made clear that its other pressing priority is the looming expiration of the New START nuclear arms treaty. The pact, which will expire in February unless Moscow and Washington agree to extend it for another five years, is the only U.S.-Russia arms control treaty still in effect.
The Trump administration, already distrustful of Russia over another now-defunct Cold War arms treaty, initially gave mixed signals about extending New START. More recently, U.S. officials have said they want to broaden the treaty to include China, although Beijing has rejected the idea of trilateral negotiations.
Without an extension, the treaty will collapse, and further fuel a new arms race, analysts have warned.
“We completely agree with the Trump administration, that arms control as it exists today is outdated,” Suslov told RFE/RL. “We want time to elaborate the system, to expand it. But it is impossible to do it now.”
In their most recent phone call on April 17, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, discussed this exact question, the State Department said in a statement.
The same day of that call, the State Department released its report on how other countries were complying with major arms control treaties. Though Moscow is complying with New START, the administration has not yet made a decision on whether to renew the treaty.
“The administration is seeking arms control that can deliver real security to the United States and its allies and partners and has not yet made a decision on whether and how extension of the New START treaty will be an element of that effort,” the report said.
Longest War In Europe Since WWII
Five days after the arrival of the Russian aid shipment in New York, three former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine published an opinion piece saying the coronavirus pandemic presented an opportunity to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine.
Now in its sixth year, the conflict, which pits Ukrainian government forces against Russia-backed militias, has killed more than 13,200 and displaced more than 1 million people.
“As the spreading coronavirus and collapsing oil prices weigh increasingly on the Kremlin, the United States and its allies should offer to lift international sanctions against Russia if Putin will end his military incursions into Ukraine,” the three diplomats wrote.
That’s wishful thinking, Suslov told RFE/RL: Ukraine is too important for the Kremlin now and making concessions would prompt questions from Russian hawks: why did the country suffer through years of economic sanctions only to give in to Western pressure?
“There’s no way that coronavirus or falling oil prices can change the Kremlin position” on Ukraine, he said. “It does not change prevailing trends in international affairs.”
“I don’t really see the kind of cooperation building, and I don’t see it replicating itself in [the] U.S.-Russian relationship,” said Rajan Menon, a professor of international politics at City College of New York.
“Will the pressure exerted from the COVID virus make the Russians even more eager to get out from under sanctions and if so, how far will their position move on Ukraine?” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Prague.