In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Pompeo and Putin

“I am here because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the start of his May 14 talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and, later that day, with President Vladimir Putin. Though the atmosphere in the seaside Russian resort town of Sochi was upbeat and conciliatory, it nonetheless could not hide all the many differences between Moscow and Washington. The visit, as noted by the Financial Times, “comes amid speculation over the potential for new U.S. sanctions against Russia, clashes between the two countries over the crisis in Venezuela and moves by the U.S. to isolate Iran, an ally of Moscow.” Putin’s talks with Pompeo—who was making his first trip to Russia as secretary of state—focused mostly on international issues, including Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran and Venezuela, as well as strategic stability and nonproliferation, according to the Russian president’s aide Yuri Ushakov. Election interference also came up, and Pompeo and Lavrov's meeting covered similar ground. Prior to the talks, a senior State Department official had told reporters that the two foreign ministers would be having a “very candid conversation” about concerns in the bilateral relationship.

Below you will find key comments related to the meetings made by Pompeo, Putin, Lavrov and other officials, as well as some analysis and recent developments that add important context.

This post was originally published May 14, 2019, and has been updated since then.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • Before the Sochi meetings, a senior State Department official had told reporters that the two sides had had constructive discussions on efforts to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. That's occurred, he said, “even though we don't agree with Russia about all the details of how to achieve this goal.” (RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
  • Russian officials told Pompeo that Moscow "is open to cooperation with all interested parties with the aim of creating a stable security mechanism in Northeast Asia. We stressed that it is very important in this context to provide international security guarantees to North Korea in response to its steps on denuclearization," Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said after Pompeo’s talks with Putin. He added that Moscow thinks Pyongyang will not give in to "any type of pressure" and that both countries’ leadership has been happy with the contacts between Russian and U.S. representatives for North Korea. (TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov, after his meeting with Pompeo, said that Russia does support negotiations over nuclear disarmament with North Korea. Although Putin met with the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, last month, Lavrov offered no suggestion that the stalemate in nuclear talks would break anytime soon. “We are ready to support that dialogue,” he said. (New York Times, 05.14.19)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • A day after the Pompeo meeting Putin said Moscow was sorry to see Iran’s nuclear deal falling apart but stressed that “Russia is not a fire brigade” and “cannot rescue everything that does not fully depend on us. We’ve played our part.” He urged Iran not to quit the 2015 agreement but also said that after Washington’s withdrawal Europe could do “nothing” to salvage the deal. Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov called Putin and Pompeo’s discussion of the Iran nuclear deal brief and “interesting,” specifying that Russia is “critical of the recent actions of the US administration.” (Al Arabiya, 05.15.19, TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Prior to the Sochi meetings Pompeo had been scheduled to spend a day in Moscow to meet Americans based in Russia and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but he canceled that leg of the trip and met instead with European counterparts in Brussels, who have been worried about a potential U.S. military conflict with Iran. State Department special representative for Iran Brian Hook told reporters following the May 13 meetings that Pompeo had "shared information and intelligence with allies and discussed the multiple plot vectors emerging from Iran.” Pompeo held bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, as well as with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. He did not speak to the media, but the European officials said they had urged restraint upon Washington, fearing accidental escalation that could lead to conflict with Iran. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.13.19, New York Times, 05.13.19)
  • After their meeting, Pompeo said he and Lavrov "spoke a bit" about the situation in the Middle East, particularly Iran. "I made clear that the United States will continue to apply pressure to the regime in Tehran until its leadership is prepared to return to the ranks of responsible nations that do not threaten their neighbors and do not spread instability or terror," he said, adding, “We fundamentally do not seek war with Iran.” Pompeo's remarks came in response to a question about additional U.S. forces that have been deployed to the Middle East to counter what U.S. officials have said is a rising threat from Iran. “We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked we will most certainly respond in the appropriate fashion.” At a meeting of Trump’s top national security aides on May 9, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said. The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said. This week in the Persian Gulf region mysterious attacks have been reported on oil tankers and a pipeline of Iran’s great rival, Saudi Arabia, raising fears of coming violence. (CNN, 05.14.19, The Washington Post, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.13.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • “We will try to make sure that the situation doesn’t devolve into a war scenario,” Lavrov said at the news conference with Pompeo. “How to do it is the diplomats’ business. I got the feeling that the American side is also interested in a political solution.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters May 15 that there had been “no assurances [about Iran] from Pompeo.” (The Washington Post, 05.14.19, Al Arabiya, 05.15.19)
  • Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, also told reporters before the Sochi meetings that Iran would be on the agenda in the context of Syria as well: “We know that it is in Russia's interest to stabilize Syria and as long as Iran is using Syria as a missile platform to advance its foreign policy objectives, it will not be stable,” he said. (CNN, 05.13.19)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • According to current and former U.S. officials familiar with internal State Department deliberations, Pompeo’s office recently directed the department to quash a harshly worded statement condemning a “Russian-backed coup attempt” in Montenegro ahead of the Balkan nation’s entry into NATO. The officials suggested his had been done because the secretary wanted to soften combative tones with Moscow ahead of his visit to Russia. (Foreign Policy, 05.10.19)

Nuclear arms control:

  • Ahead of Pompeo’s trip, a senior State Department official told reporters that an arms control agreement would be at the top of the agenda. Earlier this month, Trump said that in a phone call with Putin he had discussed the potential for a new, three-way deal on nuclear arms that would include China. Pompeo and Lavrov were also expected to discuss prospects for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty, which both sides have stepped away from over a compliance dispute, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, also known as New START, which will soon expire. (New York Times, 05.14.19, TASS, 05.14.19)
  • “We will gather together teams that will work not only on New START and its potential extension but on a broader range of arms-control initiatives,” Pompeo said at the news conference following his meeting with Lavrov. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo also said that Trump remains interested in bringing other countries, including China, into an arms-control framework—an idea that has drawn skepticism in Moscow. "[The] president wants serious arms control that delivers real security to the American people," Pompeo said. "To achieve these goals, we'll have to work together and it would be important, that if it's possible, we get China involved as well." (The Washington Post, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • In a striking bit of counterprogramming, Putin examined a new hypersonic, nuclear-capable missile system at a southern Russian defense plant before his meeting with Pompeo. The Kremlin insisted that the visit was coincidental. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)

Counterterrorism:

  • A senior State Department official noted last week that there are areas where the U.S. is working jointly with Russia, such as the Afghan peace process and counterterrorism. (CNN, 05.13.19)
  • Russia and the United States should cooperate more actively on a peace settlement in Afghanistan, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters after Pompeo’s talks with Putin. He said Putin had noted the “rather good cooperation between specialists of our countries” but had also pointed out that the Taliban is getting stronger, “so we need to step up cooperation and try to achieve the balance of power in this country,” Ushakov said. Russia, China and the U.S. held a trilateral meeting in Moscow on the situation in Afghanistan on April 25, after which they called on the Taliban to join talks with Afghan authorities as soon as possible. (TASS, 05.14.19)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Describing Putin and Pompeo’s talks on Syria, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said they "discussed the importance of jointly fighting against international terrorism and noted that it is very important to finally launch the Syrian constitutional committee." Ushakov noted that "the discussion was business-like and constructive, and it revealed many aspects on which we have similar positions." Ushakov added that Russia favors “a peaceful negotiations process under the auspices of the U.N. with participation of all constructive forces” and that Putin stressed the importance of respecting Syria’s sovereignty and “preserving its territorial integrity.” (TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo said he was “excited” about the Syria part of the conversation with Putin, hinting that some agreement was found on “how to move the political process forward,” specifically on getting various Syrian factions together to discuss forming a non-sectarian government in line with a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution. But both Putin and Trump have limited influence on that process, and Pompeo admitted, “I’m not sure we have all the capacity of that.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.19)
  • Pompeo and Lavrov discussed the escalation of violence in Idlib, Syria. (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • See also “Iran’s nuclear program and related issues” above.

Elections interference:

  • Putin told Pompeo that Russia has never interfered in U.S. elections and praised the Mueller report as "objective." "Despite all the exotic work of Mr. Mueller's commission, I have to give him his due: On the whole, he conducted an objective investigation and confirmed the absence of any traces of a conspiracy between Russia and the current administration," Putin told Pompeo at Bocharov Ruchey, his summer residence outside Sochi. Putin said allegations of meddling had hurt U.S.-Russia relations, but "I'm hoping today the situation is changing." (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, ABC News, 05.14.19)
  • At a news conference following three hours of meetings with Lavrov and other diplomats, Pompeo said he had warned his counterpart against any “unacceptable” Russian meddling in U.S. elections and had told Lavrov that any such action by the Russians in the 2020 elections “would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been.” “There are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that those kinds of activities are a thing of the past,” Pompeo said. “Our elections are important and sacred and they must be kept free and fair and with no outside country interfering in those elections.” (AP, 05.14.19, The Washington Post, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the United States of funding Russian nongovernmental organizations with the intent of interfering in Russia's elections. He dismissed the election allegations again as "complete fiction," before giving a length discourse on historical occasions when the U.S. and Russia have accused one another of interference or pledged to avoid it, including in the 1930s. (Pompeo tried to smooth over the dispute with humor, saying, "You can see we have some disagreements on this issue. I promise not to go back to the early '30s.") Lavrov also said he expected the recent publication of the Mueller report to clear the way for Russian-American cooperation. “Passions will subside,” he said. (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, ABC News, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • A day after Pompeo’s meetings, House Democrats restarted the debate over additional Russia sanctions as punishment for the 2016 election meddling: Draft legislation that would target Russia’s sovereign debt, energy sector and financial institutions was added to the agenda for a May 15 House Financial Services subcommittee hearing on the use of sanctions to address national security challenges. The bill has not been formally introduced in the House, and there is no current timeline to bring it to the floor for a vote. The purpose of the bill is to gather ideas and hear from experts about how to more effectively implement sanctions, according to a person familiar with the committee’s plans. (Bloomberg, 05.15.19)

Energy exports:

  • Putin, speaking ahead of talks with Pompeo, said the two had something to talk about when it came to stability on global energy markets. (Reuters, 05.14.19)

Other bilateral issues:

  • “I am here because President Trump is committed to improving this relationship,” Pompeo said at the start of talks with Lavrov. “Each of our countries will protect its own interests,” Pompeo said. “But it is not destined that we are adversaries on every issue. I hope we can find places where we have a set of overlapping interests and can truly begin to build out strong relationships at least on those particular issues,” he said, citing arms control, nuclear weapons and security co-operation. “I hope this good faith effort … will stabilize the relationship and put it back on a trajectory that will be good not only for our two countries and each of our peoples but the world as well.” (Financial Times, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo reiterated these sentiments sitting across from Putin later in the day: "We'll protect our nation's interests but there are places that our two countries can find where we can be cooperative, we can be productive, we can be accumulative, we can work together to make our two peoples more, and frankly the world, more successful too," he said in brief remarks prior to his meeting with Putin. "President Trump wants to do everything we can and he asked me to travel here to communicate that." (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Putin told Pompeo he hoped to "fully restore" ties between Moscow and Washington and thought that Trump genuinely wanted to do the same. "As you know, just recently, a few days ago, I had the pleasure of talking with the president of the United States over the phone. I got the impression that the president intends to restore Russian-American relations, contacts, and solve issues that are of mutual interest to us together," Putin said. "We, for our part, have repeatedly said that we would also like to fully restore relations, I hope that now the necessary conditions are being created for this." (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov told Pompeo ahead of their meeting: “I hope that today we will be able to try to work out concrete proposals aimed at bringing Russian-American relations out of the present sad state in which they ended up due to various objective and subjective reasons… We understand that a lot of suspicion and prejudice has accumulated on both sides. But neither you nor we will gain anything from it,” he added, in remarks broadcast by television channels. “On the contrary, mutual distrust increases the risks for our and your security and causes concern to the entire world community.” (Financial Times, 05.14.19)
  • In Sochi Pompeo and Lavrov appeared at ease with other, with Lavrov referring to Pompeo as “Mike” throughout. Lavrov said both countries are overdue to dispel “suspicions and prejudices” and to “start building a new constructive framework” of how Russia and the U.S see each other. However, both described their discussion as “frank,” often diplomat-speak to describe disagreements verging on testy. “It is clear that our relations have seen better times,” Lavrov said. (ABC News, 05.14.19, AP, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Russia continues to hold U.S. citizens, including Paul Whelan and Michael Calvey, in detention, where they have been denied adequate consular services, according to U.S. officials. Pompeo said he raised the issue during his meetings. He was also scheduled to meet with members of the U.S. business community, which has been rattled by the arrests, but it was not clear at the time of this writing whether the meetings have taken or would take place. (CNN, 05.13.19, CNN, 05.14.19, RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
  • Pompeo’s trip comes amid a flurry of new talks between Moscow and Washington. Lavrov and Pompeo previously met in Finland earlier this month, and Trump and Putin recently spoke by phone for more than an hour. “Considering we have met two times in the last two weeks, that’s a reason for optimism,” Lavrov told Pompeo at the start of their meeting. (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)
  • Trump said May 13 that he would meet Putin in person at the Group of 20 summit in Japan in June. A Kremlin spokesman, however, said May 14 that no formal request for such a meeting had arrived yet and noted that Trump had canceled a meeting between the two presidents at the last minute in December. “We of course heard President Trump's statement that he expects to hold a meeting with President Putin,” Lavrov said at the news conference. “If such a proposal officially arrives, then we will of course respond to it affirmatively.” (The Washington Post, 05.14.19)
  • Days before the Sochi meetings, both Trump and Putin took care to show their swagger. Trump set the stage for Pompeo's first diplomatic trip to Russia by saying: "I think the message is that there's never been anybody that's been so tough on Russia." Meanwhile, the Kremlin released video of Putin's presidential plane landing at a weapons-testing center, escorted by six fighter jets. (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • The West tends to blame tensions with Russia on Moscow’s attempts to destabilize its rivals, undermine democracies and alliances and expand its influence. Last week a senior State Department official told reporters: “The starting point we have to have when we discuss our policy toward Russia … is to acknowledge frankly that Russia has taken a series of aggressive and destabilizing actions on the global stage,” the official said. “This trip is an opportunity to make those points clear to the Russian government and what our expectations are and [to] see how to forge a path forward.” (New York Times, 05.14.19, RFE/RL, 05.10.19)
  • Lavrov had a simpler explanation for the poor state of relations with Washington: the “anti-Russian sentiment” of the Obama administration, though things have not noticeably improved in more than two years under President Trump. “There is a potential for mutually beneficial better cooperation, and that remains untapped,” he said in Sochi. “I think the basic understanding for this exists, which was discussed by our presidents at their meeting last year at the summit in Helsinki and then several times by phone.” (New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky writes that Pompeo’s visit to Sochi and his meetings with Putin and Lavrov have only confirmed that the U.S. and Russia “still have nothing substantive on which to agree. … This is a new normal that probably can only be changed, for better or for worse, by some momentous event like the dismantling of the Putin regime. … The bizarre, and by now familiar, ritual of touching on a well-known list of issues without making any reportable progress on any of them was repeated during Pompeo’s visit.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.19)

II. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • Putin told Pompeo that any U.S. steps that provoke a civil war in Venezuela are unacceptable, according to a Kremlin aide. The sides had "a rather frank discussion" on Venezuela at the talks, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said. "We stressed that different parties in the conflict should start a dialogue and noted that any attempts to oust the current president with the help of outside pressure are, first of all, counterproductive, and secondly, they may have disastrous consequences for the situation in the region," he added. Ushakov also noted that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's future was not discussed at the meeting. (Reuters, 05.14.19, TASS, 05.14.19)
  • Lavrov, after meeting with Pompeo, defended Russia’s position on Venezuela and said the threats received by President Nicolas Maduro’s government from U.S. administration officials, coupled with opposition leader Juan Guaido’s seeming support for a foreign military intervention, “bear no relation to democracy.” Lavrov likened Washington's push for a new government in Venezuela to the U.S. war in Iraq and the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. “Russia is in favor of the people of this country determining its future,” he said. (AP, 05.14.19, RFE/RL, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo said that Maduro has “brought nothing but misery to the Venezuelan people. We hope that Russia's support for Maduro will end. But despite our disagreements, we’ll keep talking.” (RFE/RL, 05.14.19, New York Times, 05.14.19)
  • Earlier this month Pompeo and Lavrov discussed Venezuela, among other issues, on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Finland. “We want the Cubans out, we want the Iranians out, Russia’s military out,” Pompeo told reporters at the time. “We started to talk about how our interests might be able to find a way forward. I don’t know that we’ll get to the right place, but we’ll have further conversations.” During a failed April 30 coup attempt in Venezuela, Pompeo and Lavrov had a testy phone call, which the Russian foreign minister later dismissed as ineffectual: "I think Mike Pompeo called me just to then publicly say he did." (New York Times, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • In a recent analysis for the Kennan Institute, Colombia-based political scientist Vladimir Rouvinski wrote: “Three key aspects of interaction between Moscow and Caracas are essential to understand Russia’s policy toward the region and Venezuela in particular”; first is Russia’s “return” to Latin America in the late 1990s “and subsequent events leading to the present challenges”; second is the role of political priorities, not business interests, in guiding Russian involvement in key sectors of Venezuela’s economy such as oil and gas; “[t]hird, is the Russian view (among an important part of Russian political elites) that the current crisis in Venezuela stems from U.S.-backed efforts of sabotage and not the disastrous economic policies of the Bolivarian government”; finally, “the evidence suggests that Venezuela has become a kind of a suitcase without a handle for Putin: hard to carry but difficult to throw away.” (Kennan Institute, February 2019)

China:

  • Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with Putin and Lavrov in Sochi on May 13, the day before Pompeo’s visit. Wang said China-Russia relations “are not vulnerable to obstruction or outside interference” and set an example “beyond compare,” while the world was “in chaos and disorder” with “unilateralism run[ning] rampant”—a thinly veiled criticism of U.S. policy. Wang’s comment came after Beijing and Washington had dramatically escalated their tit-for-tat trade war. (South China Morning Post, 05.14.19)
  • See “Nuclear arms control” section above.

Ukraine:

  • Pompeo said after the talks with Lavrov that he had told Moscow to free a group of detained Ukrainian sailors and to work with Ukraine’s new president to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. However, asked later whether it was still a precondition that Russia must release the Ukrainian sailors before Trump would meet with Putin—as they are expected to do at the G20 Summit in June—Pompeo did not answer. (Reuters, 05.14.19, CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Pompeo also reasserted that the Trump administration does not recognize Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 -- something the Russian government insists is no longer open for discussion. (CNN, 05.14.19)
  • Putin and Pompeo did not discuss Ukraine "at all," according to Putin's aide Yuri Ushakov. (Russia Matters, 05.15.19)

Photo from Kremlin.ru.

Russian passports
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decree to make it easier for residents of some separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine to get Russian citizenship has drawn criticism not only from Kiev but from key partners of the Ukrainian government, such as the U.S., EU and individual EU states. His subsequent statement that this liberalization may be extended to all citizens of Ukraine drew even greater fire, with both the Ukrainian government and its partners accusing the Russian leadership of seeking to assault Ukraine’s territorial integrity, test its newly elected leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy and even engage in banal trolling. The first two of these accusations are not groundless, but they ignore what I think could be the most important among the many factors that have shaped Putin’s decision: Russia needs more working hands and the best way to get them, in the Russian leader’s view, short of an instant demographic miracle would be to stimulate labor migration from countries where workers are (a) skilled, (b) speak Russian and (c) are culturally close enough that Russian authorities and companies do not have to spend undue money and time trying to train or integrate them. Ukrainians fit these requirements perfectly. Seventy-two percent of its workers had post-secondary education as of 2017 compared to Russia’s 66.6 percent, according to the World Bank; most of them are Orthodox Christian and many of them speak fluent Russian.

Russia’s own labor force has declined by 3 percent in 1992-2018, totaling 73.6 million last year, according to the World Bank and is bound to keep shrinking by 800,000-900,000 a year until 2025, according to researchers at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Putin’s plan aims to change this trajectory, attracting workers from Ukraine, which as of 2018 had nearly 20.3 million individuals aged 15 and older “who supply labor,” which is how the World Bank defines the labor force.
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Kim and Putin on escalator
This week’s summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un—the first between the Russian and North Korean leaders—has proved to be as underwhelming as expected. While the two spent twice as much time talking face-to-face as had been planned, they neither announced any major agreements nor appeared to have achieved any progress toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

In fact, the Kremlin had even warned before the talks that no major statements or deals were likely. And it did so for a reason: Contrary to some experts’ views, Russia is neither the key to denuclearizing North Korea nor can it “deliver” an arms control agreement covering North Korea’s arsenals, even in exchange for a softening of Western sanctions on Moscow. While Russia is an important player in both regional and international non-proliferation efforts, it has substantially less leverage vis-à-vis North Korea than either the U.S. or China; Moscow cannot single-handedly achieve a breakthrough in efforts to push Pyongyang into rolling back its nuclear weapons program, even though it shares America’s interest in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (Granted, Moscow is perhaps more skeptical that this can be achieved.)

Moscow’s lack of heft is determined by economics: Unlike the Soviet era, Moscow is no longer a top economic partner for Pyongyang.
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Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford with Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov during a meeting March 4, 2019.
When Russia’s Defense Ministry hosts representatives of 100 countries at its annual conference on international security this week, one group will be conspicuously absent: The U.S. and its NATO allies have reportedly decided not to delegate anyone to this year’s event. With relations between Moscow and the alliance all but frozen, “Track 2” discussions between the U.S. and Russia have become especially important. That’s where the Elbe Group comes in: The influential group of retired senior military and intelligence officers from Russia and the United States gathered in Reykjavik last month for an intimate discussion of pressing security issues affecting the U.S.-Russian relationship. They argued in a joint statement that obstacles to bilateral cooperation “should be reduced or eliminated” and that the U.S. and Russia “bear a special responsibility to negotiate and abide by agreements that ensure strategic stability.” The group also called for a “broadened dialogue on the future of U.S.-Russian relations” that takes into account new technological, military and strategic realities. The 13 delegates to the Reykjavik meeting included: from the U.S. side, former Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Maples, former defense attache to Moscow Kevin Ryan and Belfer Center Intelligence Project director Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a CIA veteran; from the Russian side, former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, former head of military intelligence Valentin Korabelnikov and former acting head of the Federal Security Service Anatoly Safonov.

Below are the group’s conclusions on strategic stability, counterterrorism in the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, NATO-Russia relations, cyber and Arctic issues.
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Trump and Putin in Helsinki
Has Trump indeed weakened sanctions against Russia and appeased Moscow in ways that have helped advance its interests? Our review of the evidence suggests the answer may be “barely.”
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panelists at Fletcher-MGIMO conference
Russia’s focus on alliance formation in its “near abroad” is motivated by Moscow’s key security objectives: “to diminish the number of attack directions and maintain buffer zones,” according to MGIMO’s Andrey Sushentsov. He spoke at a recent conference organized by his institute and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where Russian and American scholars discussed various aspects of alliance formation.
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RT-2PM2 Topol-M system
The U.S. State Department has just released new data on New START, which shows that both the U.S. and Russia remain in compliance with the treaty. According to the data, which shows compliance as of March 1, 2019, Russia has remained below the treaty limits in all three categories: the number of deployed delivery systems, the number of warheads on these deployed systems and the total number of deployed and non-deployed systems. The U.S has also remained below treaty limits in the first two categories, but its number of deployed and non-deployed systems remains at the 800 system maximum allowed by the treaty.

The new data shows that between September 2018 and March 2019, the number of U.S. deployed systems declined by 3 to 656, the number of warheads on these deployed U.S. systems declined by 33 to 1365, while the total number of U.S. deployed and non-deployed systems stayed the same. Over the same time period, the number of Russian deployed systems increased by 7 to 524, the number of warheads on these deployed Russian systems increased by 41 to 1461, but the total number of Russian deployed and non-deployed systems declined by 15 to 760. The New START treaty was signed in 2010 and came into force into 2011. Unless extended, it will expire in February 2021.
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William Burns (center) with Graham Allison and Cathy Russell

William Burns has been hailed as one of America’s most outstanding diplomats—perhaps the only living person to have a room named after him at the State Department, according to Ambassador Cathy Russell. In his new book, “The Back Channel,” Burns argues that the U.S. now needs skillful diplomacy like never before and shares insights on key foreign-policy challenges, including relations with Russia, where he was ambassador in 2005-2008. On March 28, Burns, Russell and Harvard professor Graham Allison discussed the book and, more broadly, diplomacy’s crucial role in international affairs, as well as its illusions and limitations.

During the talk, Burns applied a decidedly pro-diplomacy lens to Russia: Despite the badly damaged relations between Washington and Moscow and the “very narrow band of possibilities” in those relations under Vladimir Putin’s regime (“from the sharply competitive to the nastily adversarial”), “there is space for artful American diplomacy as you look ahead” and a need for “guardrails” that keep the situation from getting worse, he argued. “It’s important,” Burns believes, “not to give up on the Russia beyond Putin”: The Russian middle class is not “revolutionary” but it is “restive … over economic stagnation” and an “absence of possibilities,” and in the longer term Russians will start chafing at being “China’s junior partner” just as they chafed at Moscow’s status as America’s junior partner after the end of the Cold War, Burns said. Even in the short term he was hopeful there may be room for cooperation on Afghanistan, where Russia, like the U.S., has “a stake in some kind of stability.”

At the same time, Burns was far from Pollyannaish about bilateral ties today: “Essentially we’re managing an adversarial relationship” with Russia and “we don’t have to have illusions about that,” he said. He expressed particular concern that what’s left of the bilateral arms control architecture “is about to crumble,” with the INF Treaty effectively null and the renewal of New START, due in 2021, looking increasingly unlikely. “That would be a huge disadvantage not only for the U.S. and Russia but for the rest of the world at a time when we’re trying to make the argument against the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Burns said.

After the event, Burns—who rose to the rank of deputy secretary of state and has served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since leaving the Foreign Service in 2014—gave some details about what he thought a realistic U.S. strategy for relations with Russia might entail, other than joint efforts toward peace in Afghanistan. First and foremost, this included expanding New START and “talking about what we used to call strategic stability,” including all the ways in which the intersection of cyber instruments with nuclear weapons and advanced conventional weapons can destabilize the relationship. Options for coming closer to agreement on Syria are very limited, Burns feels, but at least Moscow and Washington could work to guard against escalation in the region between Israel and Iran and between Turkey and the Kurds.

Those who are interested in Burns’ insights about Putin—whom the diplomat calls an “apostle of payback” and a “combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity”—and in his prescient concerns about “leaving NATO expansion on autopilot” can view the whole event below, read Graham Allison’s review of “The Back Channel” and Burns’ recent interview with The New Yorker and, of course, read Burns’ book for themselves.

The book contains a separate chapter on U.S.-Russian relations during Putin’s rule and an appendix full of fascinating, newly declassified documents. In one of the cables Burns sent to Washington as ambassador in Moscow, he noted that the U.S. has come to face a “Russia that's too big a player on too many important issues to ignore.” The book also features a February 2008 email from Burns to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the subject heading “Russia Strategy.” The e-mail argued against the Bush administration’s intention to push for NATO membership action plans (MAPs) for Georgia and Ukraine at an upcoming summit of the alliance, describing it as one of  “three potential trainwrecks” in U.S.-Russian relations, along with Kosovo and missile defense.

The email warns that granting a MAP to Kiev will amount to crossing a Russian redline and may prompt Moscow to start meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Granting a MAP to Georgia, Burns argued, would raise high the prospects of a war between Russia and Georgia. The final communique of the April 2008 NATO summit did not include references to MAPs, but stated unequivocally that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” Four months later Russia and Georgia fought a war along the lines Burns had anticipated, and five years later Russia—its military significantly improved, based in part on its Georgia experience—sent its “little green men” to meddle in Crimea and eastern Ukraine after a pro-Western revolution in Kiev.

In addition to Burns’ foresighted email to Rice, the book’s trove of correspondence includes a 1993 memo written by outgoing Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for the incoming Clinton administration, in which he rightly argued that “the collapse of Communism … has not ended history” and warned that it was “certainly conceivable that a return to authoritarianism in Russia or an aggressively hostile China could revive” the Cold War-style threat of “a global military adversary.” It also contains Ambassador Thomas Pickering’s Jan. 11, 1995, cable from Moscow to Washington describing the challenges Boris Yeltsin faced as he tried to quell violent separatism in Chechnya, a sign of Russia’s “slow crumbling," and a May 27, 2008, memo to the secretary of state discussing U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Iran beyond the future nuclear deal, noting that Russian help could be instrumental in implementing parts of this strategy.

Photo by Gail Oskin, courtesy of Harvard's Institute of Politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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