United States National Security Advisor John Bolton came to Moscow at the end of October for a two-day visit to meet with President Vladimir Putin and most other Russian top national security and defense establishment personalities (see EDM, October 25). Bolton’s visit came after President Donald Trump announced the US’s intent to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The potential scrapping of the INF Treaty was certainly discussed in Moscow, but apparently did not dominate the agenda of the visit. At a press conference before leaving the Russian capital, Bolton announced an agreement to hold a Putin-Trump summit in Paris, on November 11, on the sidelines of the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Both presidents plan to travel to France for the ceremony. The announcement of the pending summit was considered in Moscow the “main positive result” of Bolton’s visit (Kommersant, October 24). Putin’s foreign policy aide, Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, described the expected Putin-Bolton encounter as “positive and business-like,” with both sides avoiding mutual accusations and focusing on building relations and continuing contacts. The Kremlin is looking forward to possible further progress “during a summit with Trump in Paris,” Ushakov announced (Militarynews.ru, October 23).
Yet, some two weeks later, on November 5, officials in Moscow and Washington announced that there will be no Trump-Putin summit in Paris after all. According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “Both presidents will apparently have no time, because of the tight schedule of the armistice celebrations, and there will only be a brief encounter to discuss the possibility of another meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina, at the end of November” (Militarynews.ru, November 5). The Moscow daily Kommersant quoted diplomatic sources claiming French President Emmanuel Macron asked both the US and Russia to cancel the Paris summit “because it could overshadow the armistice anniversary celebrations.” Reportedly, both Putin and Trump agreed to cancel (Kommersant, November 6).
Ushakov, during a press briefing in Moscow confirmed the French expressed concern about the Trump-Putin summit detracting from the armistice celebration and that it was mutually agreed to postpone and instead only have a brief face-to-face encounter in Paris. The US and Russian governments both agreed to concentrate on a full-scale summit in Buenos Aires. The exact time and date of the rescheduled summit, as well as the actual agenda, are being worked out with Washington, Ushakov stated. According to the Russian presidential aide, at present there are no written agreements being readied for signing at the coming summit in Buenos Aires (Militarynews.ru, November 7). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also confirmed the Trump-Putin meeting is being prepared to happen during the G20 summit (Interfax, November 8).
The Russian government’s official explanation of the sudden revocation of a previously announced Trump-Putin summit because of an intervention by Macron was received with disbelief in Moscow. The idea that a French president would forbid his Russian and US counterparts to meet incited ridicule. The timing of the canceled Paris summit was apparently important because it would likely have happened before a new—possibly devastating—package of US sanctions against Russia could be imposed.
In August 2018, the US, in accordance with the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, imposed punitive sanctions on Russia (State.gov, August 8). The sanctions were meant to penalize Moscow for allegedly poisoning former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, on March 4, in Salisbury, United Kingdom. The Skripals fell victim to a nerve agent known as “Novichok,” which later also killed a local British woman. UK authorities have openly accused Russia of the chemical attack (see EDM, March 12, 15, September 6). Officially, Moscow fully destroyed its Cold War–era chemical weapons arsenal and has stringently denied any involvement in the Skripal case. Nonetheless, the Trump administration, in accordance with existing regulations, has tightened technology export controls to Russia.
Since the US invoked the chemical weapons monitoring legislation, Russia had 90 days to offer sufficient assurances to the US government that it is not employing chemical weapons; otherwise, additional severe sanctions would be scheduled, which could include downgrading diplomatic relations and even a transport and banking blockade. When that 90-day deadline passed, on Tuesday, November 6, the US State Department notified Congress that it could not certify that Russia had met the conditions (Reuters, November 6). Severe punitive sanctions look to be pending, and the Trump-Putin meeting in Paris could be the last chance to find some compromise. The planned summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30 or December 1, may happen too late: once the punitive sanctions are in place, the atmosphere of the talks could be irreversibly spoiled, if the summit takes place at all (Rosbalt, November 6).
In Moscow, it is widely believed the Trump-Putin Paris summit was effectively canceled by the White House and possibly Trump himself. The main reason may be connected with Trump’s decision to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 7, immediately following the midterm elections. That move may portend upcoming efforts by the White House to swiftly curtail Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. The administration may have considered the optics of a full-scale Trump-Putin summit happening at the same time as the Mueller probe is being terminated as simply too politically damaging; a postponement may thus have been seen as essential.
According to Peskov, there is little hope of a major breakthrough in US-Russian relations, but Moscow is still seeking to establish a dialogue with Trump “on strategic stability and arms control.” At the same time, “we are not interested in getting involved in American internal squabbles,” Peskov told reporters (Interfax, November 7).
The Kremlin is attentively watching what may change in Washington following the midterms. Will Trump manage to neuter the Mueller probe and push it out of the way of any possible future Trump-Putin interaction or effective dialogue? Will an increased GOP Senate majority help endorse, say, a prolongation of the bilateral START nuclear arms control treaty?
Decisive action by Trump in subduing his internal opponents would surely be seen in Moscow as him finally acting like a “real man” (“nastoyashiy muzhik”)—a person worthy of being Putin’s confidante and trusted partner. If the postponement of the summit was indeed done for the above-described reason—Trump taking time to put his own house in order—the Kremlin might fully understand and accept the consequences.