As the old saying goes, it’s good to talk. US Secretary Mike Pompeo was cordially received this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Pompeo spoke of repairing the frayed bilateral relations and of finding “common ground” between the US and Russia on a range of pressing international issues. President Putin also said he aspired for much better relations between the two countries, and pointed out that the world’s biggest nuclear powers have an onerous obligation to cooperate.
Indeed, the issue of arms control was reportedly a top agenda item in lengthy discussions between Putin and Pompeo, and separately with Lavrov. Both sides expressed willingness to work on negotiating new controls and on extending the New Start treaty concerning strategic nuclear weapons which is due to expire in 2021. After the US unilaterally suspended its participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty earlier this year, amid dubious accusations against Russia for breaching the treaty, the stated willingness by Pompeo to return to negotiations is welcome.
On several other issues, the US and Russian sides clashed over differences. Russia defended the sovereign right of Venezuela to be free from Washington’s interference. Lavrov called for dialogue in the South American country as the way forward to resolve political conflict, not for Washington to “impose” its will on the Venezuelan people.
The Russian side also warned against further escalation of military tensions by the US towards Iran, reiterating the importance of respecting the 2015 international nuclear accord, which Washington unilaterally abrogated last year.
In principle, having sharp differences and opposing views is not a problem. Diplomacy is all about robust exchange of views and criticisms. At least, Pompeo’s engagement with Moscow shows that the Trump administration is willing to build on diplomatic relations based on mutual respect.
Earlier this month, Presidents Trump and Putin held a constructive phone call which no doubt helped set the agenda for discussions this week. There are further meetings planned between Lavrov and Pompeo at next month’s G20 summit in Japan. The White House has also said that during the summit, Trump is open to meeting with Putin. The Kremlin responded positively to that offer. It would be the first meeting between the two leaders since their summit in Helsinki last July.
This cordial outreach is encouraging, especially given the past two years of relentless political and media antagonism from the American side towards Russia and Putin in particular, with the latter vilified for allegedly orchestrating Kremlin interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Trump has always scoffed at those claims as a demeaning slur fabricated by his domestic political enemies. Moscow, of course, has consistently slammed the accusations as baseless slander. Given that a two-year investigation into the matter by special counsel and former FBI chief Robert Mueller concluded that there was “no Russian conspiracy”, that would seem to be a vindication of both Trump and Russia, and the end of the whole tawdry matter. Time to move on.
However, that’s why the additional comments on alleged Russian interference by Pompeo this week were jarring and disconcerting. He reportedly warned President Putin about not interfering in US elections “again” and for Russia to demonstrate “that it was a thing of the past”. Such an attitude from Trump’s top diplomat is reprehensible. The irony is that the Trump administration has been assailed with false claims of Russian collusion, and yet here was Pompeo spouting the same nonsense to his Russian hosts, instead of seizing the opportunity to get on with real, pressing issues of utmost importance.
Perhaps Pompeo was anticipating the furious anti-Russia media reaction back in the US where a plethora of commentators decried his otherwise convivial meeting with Putin. The fact that large sections of the mainstream US media did ham up ridiculous insults about “collusion” shows that there is a deep-seated pernicious Russophobia among the American establishment. Pompeo appears to be susceptible to owning similar pejorative views on Russia, if he can still articulate the scurrilous notion of electoral interference.
That is a troubling sign of dim prospects for a restored relationship. Pompeo’s remarks about “not interfering again” illustrates how ingrained the notion is in Washington that Russia meddled in American affairs. If Washington persists in this fundamentally Russophobic delusion, then the prospects for normal bilateral relations are indeed limited.
If one side has such a paranoid and delusional view of the other side, then the scope for a productive dialogue on other matters is badly hampered.
A genuine reset in US-Russia relations will require a sea-change in the political mindset in Washington. Cold War thinking should be “the thing of the past” not the tedious repetition of slander against Russia.
President Trump seems willing to make a fresh start with Russia. Maybe he ought to think about shaking up his diplomatic corps with some reasonable people who don’t just regurgitate Russophobic nonsense.