Russia-US trade was never significant for either country even before the barrage of sanctions and countermeasures which were enacted beginning in 2014. While the Chinese superpower is able to withstand a US trade war because American companies, like those throughout the world are highly reliant on Chinese goods, paradoxically, the Russian superpower has been able to withstand the US economic war against it because Russia relies on the US so little, either as a customer or as a producer. Since sanctions went into place against Russia, the main result has been that certain Russian businesses which were geared towards western markets took a hit while others who excelled at import substitution, especially in agriculture actually experienced an economic boom. Russia’s fiscal and monetary conservatism also helped to keep the economy stable throughout the period of sanctions and most importantly, sanctions on Russia from both the US and EU helped even the most obstinate pro-western Russian politicians realise that Russia’s trading partners that matter are in its own Eurasian Economic Union which has just signed free trading agreements with China and Iran, while Turkey and much of south east Asia remain contenders for future agreements.
That being said, Russia would prefer US sanctions to be dropped. This is due to the fact that just as is the case with any business, no country wants to see potential opportunities (however seemingly insignificant) be artificiality taken away, let alone in a spirit of anger. Thus, when examining what it would take for the US and its EU partner to lift sanctions, Russia must examine what sorts of games of give and take would be necessary in order to realistically achieve this.
Below are items that are automatically off the table in respect of any possible bargaining with the US
1. Russia’s domestic situation is not going to change one iota irrespective of what carrots and sticks the US offers.
2. The current borders of the Russian Federation are not going to change even if the US promised zero sanctions and loads of investment in return. Any commentator who says otherwise, is simply unfamiliar with the modern political situation in Russian politics and the Russian deep state. Likewise, Russia is not too perturbed that the US doesn’t currently recognise the official borders of the Russian Federation even though during the G7 summit, Trump allegedly said that he might. This however was likely a bluff designed to shock his European “partners” more than anything else.
3. Russia’s current trading partnerships will not be changed irrespective of what the US has to offer in a give and take scenario. The Eurasian Economic Union is not going to go anywhere, nor is Russia’s major trading and security partnership with China. The same is true in respect of all current trading and security partners that Russia maintains.
Here is a list of items that could be discussed and possibly acted upon but not to any significant degree
–Donbass Conflict with Kiev regime
Over the last year, the Donbass conflict has become largely frozen. Even though the Kiev regime forces and its mercenaries often stage new and often fatal attacks on Donbass civilians, the contact line has not moved and appears to be increasingly set in stone.
While in public, the US makes embarrassing statements regarding “Russian involvement” in Donbass, behind closed doors the US knows full well that apart from sending aid and non-military supplies to Donbass, Russia has in fact done next to nothing to help fellow Russians in an historic Russian land – something which remains a major source of consternation between the Russian government and certain opposition parties, namely the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
Instead of liberating Donbass, Russia clings to the internationally agreed upon Minsk Agreements even though virtually not a day has gone by where Kiev has done anything but violate both the letter and spirit of the protocols.
Realising that the Minsk agreements and the parallel Normandy Format have failed to turn Donbass into anything but a frozen conflict that often flares up whenever the regime needs to shift news headlines away from the dismal state of the Ukrainian economy, the US and Russia could work to foment some practical solution weather it be a major ceasefire or even an acknowledgement that the present contact line should not be molested by either side and that a future political settlement to the conflict will essentially be put on ice for the time being.
While such a compromise seems reasonable, it might still be too much to ask of the US as Washington clearly seeks to reserve the right to goad the Kiev regime’s forces into crossing the contact line whenever the US is particularly angry with Moscow. A summer offensive by regime forces could still take place, thus dashing hopes of keeping the conflict largely frozen.
While the US will never openly acknowledge this, probably not even behind closed doors, the current peace process in Korea is progressing along the lines of last year’s jointly Sino-Russian proposed “double freeze”. The DPRK has ceased all nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, while the US and South Korea have ceased their joint military drills and their own weapons tests.
Additionally, a future Moscow proposed Russia-Korea Transport Corridor is already in its early stages of development, all with the happy approval of Russia’s Chinese partner. While the US doesn’t want to give anyone but itself credit for the current peace process and likewise Russia isn’t asking the US for credit, it remains the case that when it comes to de-nuclearisation, Russia has supported the main US objective, even though Moscow has at times criticised the hawkish statements of people like John Bolton and Nikki Haley, both of whom have said virtually nothing about Korea since the successful Singapore Summit earlier this month.
Because of this, Korea has become something of a rare issue on which the US and Russia generally agree, even though both countries retain different methods for insuring the peace process. In summary, both countries reserve the right to make the most of this unique area in which they are both mainly on the same page.
Depending on how immature the US side seeks to be, someone might tell Donald Trump to tell Vladimir Putin not to sell his S-400 missile defence systems to Turkey. It would be a big mistake for any US diplomat to suggest this to the President as this is a totally unacceptable attempt to meddle in the sovereign affairs of two other nations.
If Turkey does come up during the meeting, if anything Russia will likely defend Turkey in so far as Russia is aware that Turkey can have partnerships to the east and the west. Therefore, Russian officials might convey to their US counterparts that Moscow is not angry at Turkey’s relations with the US so why should the US be upset that Turkey has positive relations with Russia?
The real crux of the meeting is Syria
While in Korea both sides support de-nuclearisation and the double-freeze and while in Donbass both sides cling on to the hopelessly flawed Minsk agreements, it is over Syria where the most progress could potentially be made during a Russia-US Presidential summit.
Russia is keen to see the military phase of the conflict wind down as soon as possible. Insofar as this is the case, Russia has been adamant that foreign troops, including those legally operating in Syria (e.g. Iranian, Hezbollah, PMU troops) vacate the country as soon as possible.
Russia has also tacitly accepted the US occupation of north eastern Syria even though occasionally Russian officials will still criticise this illegal move by the US in order to highlight US hypocrisy that has been a mainstay throughout the present crisis. As for the US and Turkey competing for influence in parts of northern Syria, Russia has sat backed and allowed Turkey and the US to operate on their own terms without getting involved except in so far as when Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch targeted YPG/PKK terrorists in Afrin, Russia gave Turkey the green light and also likely told the Syrian Arab Army not to get involved.
Finally, Russia has done everything to discourage Syrian attempts to liberate the occupied Golan Heights. In any case, such a full scale operation could scarcely be won militarily by Syria at this time in history and all but the most fanatical voices on all sides must surely realise this.
Because of this, the US and Russia no longer have the kinds of disagreements they once did over Syria but nevertheless the US remains willing to provoke certain dangerous situations on the ground owing to latent anger at the fact that regime change in Damascus failed and did so largely because of Russia’s intervention.
Therefore, Russia and the US will likely use their summit to form a “good cop/bad cop” front on several issues:
1. The withdrawal of Iranian, Hezbollah and PMU troops from Syria
2. The need for Syria to accelerate the so-called constitutional reform process
3. Convey through subtle means to Damascus and Tehran, the existing gentleman’s agreement that dictates that Russia will not liberate north-eastern Syria from US occupation
By agreeing to these measures during the summit, Russia will then be in a position to bluntly tell its partners in Syria that if they cooperate over the aforementioned terms with Russia, things can be accomplished in a dignified, measured and peaceful manner. By contrast, if the demands are rebuffed, the US will use its own often violent means to extract these concessions. To put it simply, the joint message Russia and the US could likely send to all interested parties in Syria is ‘We can do this the easy (Russian) way or we can do this the hard (American) way.
Both the US and Russia want the war in Syria over. Russia wants it over because it long ago achieved its stated goal of defeating terrorism as a viable threat to the Syrian people and their legitimate government and the US wants it over because they failed in their initial objective but have nevertheless succeeded in de-facto partitioning the country while forcing the matter of constitutional reform on the international stage.
The issue therefore is Russia convincing its less than malleable partners to accept this new reality (for all its many faults) or else face the wrath of the US and its “Israeli” partner alone. This is the sad reality of a war in which there are clear losers but where the victory for Syria is counterbalanced with the fact that the peace process will not immediately return the country to a united state of normalcy in the short term. The medium term is an entirely different matter and Russia realises this.
Russia also realises that if Syria and its other partners do not learn to value a long-game strategy, the US may yet unleash further hell on Syria. It is this latter prospect that Russia is now working to prevent and even if Russia does prevent this, it still will likely not see sanctions being lifted by the US in the near future. In other words, Russia is again making a short term sacrifice for a long term strategic gain. Others who seek to ensure their own survival must now adopt a similar approach.