In the coming days, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart from the United States, Donald Trump, are scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Đà Nẵng, Vietnam, where they may meet for an informal bilateral summit (see EDM, November 6). Putin’s most influential foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told journalists in Moscow the meeting is being hurriedly prepared and may happen on November 10. But US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has publicly expressed doubt that a full-scale summit may happen or is warranted: Moscow and Washington seem too far apart on too many issues, making a fruitful and consequential bilateral summit a problematic notion. Trump and Putin had their first face-to-face meeting last July, during the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany; and relations have grossly deteriorated since then, from bad to worse (Interfax, November 9).
Despite the misgivings, hopes have been rising in Moscow of a possible breakthrough in Đà Nẵng. The Kremlin-connected mass-circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets quotes anonymous Kremlin sources who imply Putin was considering, just a couple a weeks ago, the idea to skip the APEC summit entirely and instead send his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. The latter had been planning an Asia-Pacific tour anyway and will be representing Russia at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in Manila, scheduled for November 10–14. But, according to Kremlin insiders, when Trump reportedly expressed interest in a meet in Đà Nẵng, Putin changed his plans and decided to go for a lightning one-day round trip, spending more than 20 hours in the air on the way there and back (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 9).
In Đà Nẵng, Putin will have private meetings with the leaders of China, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines; but the possible meeting with Trump is seen as crucial. North Korea, Syria and Ukraine could all be discussed, and an attempt may be made to somehow improve the critically depressed bilateral relations. The Kremlin-linked website Vzglad reports that hopes are reviving in Moscow of a possible “package deal” between Putin and Trump to settle outstanding issues and, in particular, to “exchange [North] Korea for Ukraine.” Moscow could help put more pressure on Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear and missile program and not to oppose additional United Nations sanctions against the reclusive state, while Washington, in turn, will pressure the government in Kyiv to bow to demands to enforce a pro-Russia interpretation of the so-called Minsk accords to settle the Donbas conflict. In Syria, the US has rejected close cooperation with Russian forces and, Vzglad continues, has “lost” much influence in the region. Whereas, Putin’s Russia is victorious in reinforcing the Bashar al-Assad regime and reestablishing itself as a major power in the Middle East. Trump still has an opportunity to make a deal on Ukraine before that unfortunate failed state finally collapses, the outlet asserts. It is believed in Moscow that the government of President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv is a US subsidiary and will do as its American masters command (Vzglad, November 8).
The possible “big package deal” has apparently been on the mind of the Russian ruling elite and the Kremlin since November 2016, after Trump was elected president. Of course, the early post-election euphoria in Moscow and the anticipation of a geopolitical deal with team Trump along the lines of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the 1945 Yalta agreement, both of which redrew spheres of influence in Eurasia, have been replaced by disappointment and frustration. Trump is seen as a weak leader, who has not been able to deliver on any of his election promises related to Russia. According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “Congress and the establishment are preventing Trump from executing his presidential prerogatives.” But there still seems to be some hope that Trump may come through and recognize, tacitly at least, Russian special interests in Ukraine and Syria in exchange for “help” on North Korea (Moskovsky Komsomolets, November 9).
It is the middle of autumn in Russia and Ukraine, but there has been no letup in the fighting in Donbas. Every day brings fresh reports of heavy weapons barrages and casualties on both sides (Liga.net, November 9). Despite much talk of a “freeze” of the Donbas conflict, there does not seem to be any permanent ceasefire at all—just temporary partial lulls soon followed by more exchanges of fire. A permanent “freeze” based on the status quo does not seem to be Russia’s true intent. Moscow maintains a massive standing force of armed pro-Russia separatists backed by Russian regular military personnel in Donbas. And from the Kremlin’s point of view, a permanent solution that may substantially reduce the cost of sustaining these forces might involve a change of political direction and leadership in Kyiv—from pro-Western to neutral or pro-Moscow. But at present, the opposite is happening. A motion has been introduced in the Ukrainian Rada calling for the formal severing of diplomatic relations with Russia, which has a good chance of being adopted. Poroshenko is reportedly opposed, and the proposed amendment gives the government three months to actually sever relations, but Moscow is furious nonetheless (Interfax, November 9).
Russia may need US “help” to put pressure on Kyiv as badly as the United States wants Russian “help” with Pyongyang. The Russian military and the Kremlin traditionally do not see North Korea and its small, primitive nuclear and missile force as a direct threat. Whereas, the Trump administration does not seem overly interested in Ukraine, or in the final outcome of the Syrian conflict outside the immediate target of smashing the Islamic State. The more the US is bogged down in the Pacific and Korea, the more Russia feels it may obtain a free hand in Syria and Ukraine. To Moscow, a possible “big package deal” on defining and separating interests in different confrontation zones seems a natural, logical and highly practical thing to do. But beltway politics in Washington defy and baffle both the Kremlin and Moscow’s pro-Kremlin think tanks. If, from the Western perspective, Russia is an enigma wrapped in mystery, the outlook is identical the other way around.