Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump will meet at the G-20 summit that brings together the leaders of major industrialized countries on July 7-8. The event has been eagerly anticipated for months. It’s not known how the meeting will be arranged, but it will take place and that’s what really matters.
Everyone knows President Trump is in a precarious situation because of «Russia links» attacks and multi-pronged investigations into his campaign’s relationship with Moscow but missing the opportunity would hardly correspond to US national interests.
There is no specific agenda but something must be done immediately to revive the dialogue on arms control and none-proliferation. The New START deal is going to expire on February 5, 2021 with nothing in sight to replace it. No talks have been launched as yet. The fate of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is questioned with both sides accusing each other of breaching the document. It would be right if the presidents gave orders to launch meaningful discussions to smooth away the existing problems.
The future of arms control is the biggest challenge. Arms control agreements were in place even in the heat of the Cold War. If nothing replaces the New START, and the INF Treaty becomes a victim of mutual accusations of non-compliance, there will be a new situation with an arms race unfettered for the first time since SALT-I was signed in 1972. The weaponization of space is another problem that cannot be swept under the rug.
Russia understands the gravity of the problem. Its new ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, is known as a diplomat who has great experience of holding talks with US officials on arms control. He was the lead negotiator in talks to forge the New START Treaty in 2010. Antonov headed Russian delegation at the talks on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and on combatting weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The situation in Syria cannot be ignored. A direct clash is the last thing both sides want and it can be avoided, as practice shows. Exchanging views on the situation in Ukraine is a matter of utmost importance. On June 28, the Russian foreign ministry said «retaliatory measures» were being prepared for closure of the embassy compounds in Maryland and New York – another issue to be added to the agenda.
A legislation to codify the sanctions against Russia is being considered by Congress and the results of the meeting may influence the key provisions of the bill. Actually, hostility toward Russia is the only issue both parties - Democrats and Republicans - see eye to eye on. This attitude and mindset can start to change if the meeting jumpstarts positive changes.
There is a host of hot issues to be addressed by both presidents and it would be naïve to expect a major breakthrough to improve the overall relationship, but the presidents can agree on the guidelines of the agenda, leaving the details to be dealt with later by officials and experts.
In an open letter published on June 27, European Leadership Network (ELN) Chairman and former British Defence Secretary Des Browne, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and former US Senator Sam Nunn called on Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to use the July 7-8 G20 meeting in Hamburg to work together to reduce nuclear risks and other military risks and prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks. They offer to start with a new Presidential Joint Declaration by the United States and the Russian Federation declaring that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This step should be followed by increase in military-to-military communication through a new NATO–Russia Military Crisis Management Group, collaboration to prevent the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear and radiological materials through a joint initiative to prevent WMD terrorism and launching discussions for reaching at least informal understandings on cyber dangers related to interference in strategic warning systems and nuclear command and control.
Many issues could be addressed by working groups to come up with palatable proposals to get the relationship back on track.
The Russian International Affairs Council and the Center for International and Strategic Studies have offered a roadmap to improve the bilateral ties.
With geopolitical tensions running high, sharp differences and mutual mistrust negatively affect the relationship. Despite that, the sides have no choice but coordinate their anti-terrorist efforts and hold talks on European security and arms control.
The presidents could set the differences aside and concentrate on achieving progress in the areas where it can be done. It worked in the 1970s. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four «baskets».
The economic relationship can also be improved. Private business dialogue between the Russian government and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) and the US-Russia Business Council could be encouraged. This year, Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of International Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, attended the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (June 1-3) for the first time since the sanctions were introduced in 2014. It was seen as a good sign for business community. This year, the American Chamber (AmCham) will organize a round table on Russia-US business dialogue.
No progress can be achieved in one fell swoop but neither side is interested in further deterioration of the relationship. After all, politics is the art of the possible and the possible can and should be done. This opportunity to mark a new page in the Russia-US relationship should not be wasted.