Russia remains a dark cloud hanging over the White House, but United States President Donald Trump nevertheless intends to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit (November 5–11), in Da Nang, Vietnam. Investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential elections bring new revelations weekly, but Trump wants to turn that page and focus on the problems of today (Kommersant, November 3). Putin flatly dismisses all allegations of Moscow’s cyber-misbehavior or “befriending” Trump’s campaign, and skillfully positions himself close to the center of the international problems that Trump pays attention to, from North Korea to Venezuela (Vedomosti, November 3). The main thrust of Russia’s policy in all these cases is to oppose and sabotage US problem-solving efforts, but Putin is careful to preserve the Kremlin’s flexibility and signals a readiness to compromise. Therefore, although it would appear that a conversation between the two leaders could make sense, in reality Putin’s obsession with confronting the US is unwavering. Indeed, building up Russia’s military might is for the Kremlin leader the main and the only way to deny Washington options for projecting power (Gazeta.ru, November 3).
North Korea is certain to be the prime theme of discussions throughout Trump’s long Asian tour and during his suddenly announced meeting with Putin. Moscow’s stance on this high-risk problem has been ambivalent, mixing multiple statements on the purported uselessness of sanctions with Moscow’s votes in the United Nations Security Council in support of every new round of sanctions. But Russia’s position that any use of force is unacceptable has remained steadfast (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30). Rhetoric aside, it is clear that in all meaningful measures Moscow has had to follow Beijing’s lead. Nevertheless, well-connected pundits argue that the Kremlin is perfectly positioned to play the role of mediator because the North Korean dictator is rather irritated with his Chinese patrons (Russian Council, November 3). Putin would undoubtedly greatly appreciate an opportunity to appear in the limelight of world diplomacy, where he has so far failed to make any contribution; but he would also likely love to see US forceful pressure end in fiasco, and Trump cannot seem to dissuade him from believing that Washington lacks options for enforcing the desired outcome (RIA Novosti, November 3).
Similar ideas circulate in the Kremlin regarding the situation around Iran, and Putin’s visit to Tehran last week was supposed to prove them true (RBC, November 1). The friendliness and even cheerfulness surrounding his meetings with President Hassan Rouhani and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demonstrated Putin’s resolve to dismiss the White House’s attempts to internationally isolate Iran and to proceed with countering US attempts to cancel the 2015 nuclear agreement (Svoboda.org, November 1). Russo-Iranian economic projects were of secondary importance, but Putin still found it important to confirm that Russia was not entirely marginalized in the grand Chinese One Belt, One Road Initiative. Indeed, Russia has constructed its own transport corridor to Iran (New Times, November 2). Gazprom also seeks to build a useful entry to the Iranian market and to elaborate the far-fetched plan to reach India, even if the margin of profit in these markets is prohibitively low (RBC, November 3).
The Syrian war is the main joint Russian-Iranian enterprise, and both Putin and Rouhani emphasized that there was no disagreement on waging it until a decisive victory (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 1). This accord may not be entirely perfect, and Russia is hardly content with Iranian plans to make Hezbollah a major military force in Syria—which invites airstrikes from Israel (RIA Novosti, November 2). Yet, Moscow is no longer issuing protestations against such strikes, even when they coincide with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Israel (Kommersant, October 17; see EDM, October 19, 24). What brings a stream of invective and accusations from Moscow is the US support for some groups of the Syrian opposition, including Kurdish forces, which had received until recently some low-key political support from Russia (RBC, November 4). The channels of communication between the Russian and US militaries in Syria remain open; but exchanges are too often reduced to recriminations, and the risk of an accidental clash remains poorly managed (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 31). Putin may feel confident he is entering any conversation on Syria from a position of strength, but Trump cannot hope to bargain a deal (as he did at the first meeting with Putin in Hamburg) without a draft of a coherent strategy for the Middle East backed by credible force.
One way for Trump to strengthen his hand in the sparring with Putin is to have a productive meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (Actualcomment.ru, November 3). A major assumption in Russian policymaking is that China and the US are heading toward a geopolitical collision; and rhetoric coming out of the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress about taking on more global power is being interpreted in Moscow as a strong challenge to US dominance (Russiancouncil.ru, October 24). Putin seems happy to see Xi continue to monopolize power in China, which is set to break the tradition of a rotation of leadership in Beijing—a rather unnatural arrangement, from the Kremlin’s point of view (Kommersant, October 30). The Chinese leader, however, is in no rush to confront the US, preferring instead to cooperate in putting pressure on the maverick North Korean regime, thus leaving Russia alone in the deadlock of confrontation with the West (Vedomosti, October 30).
The disadvantages of this isolated position are clear to Putin, who cannot rely on a “patriotic mobilization” of his electorate, which is disheartened by falling incomes and curtailed social benefits. So he has had to resort to purges of the elites and selective punishments of the opposition. Domestic affairs in Russia may be of no interest to Trump, but he cannot promise Putin any relaxation of sanctions, because this matter is essentially out of his hands. Putin’s macro-spoiler game could have succeeded because the two leaders recognize one another as a counterpart with whom political business could be done, but the majority of the US political establishment refuses to play along. Putin has gone too far in turning Russia into a challenger of US values, alliances, strategic goals and forces on the ground, so no amount of skill in manipulating peer relations will pull him out of the predicament of being a subject for tough containment. Sanctions will continue to hurt, but traveling to Tehran is not going to help Putin escape this situation.