The Trump-Putin honeymoon continues to chill... that is if Trump's top foreign policy advisors speak for the president, which remains very much unclear.
As discussed yesterday, in the clearest sign yet that when it comes to diplomacy with Russia, there are two clear axes developing within the Trump administration: a Pence/Mattis/Haley foreign policy and a Trump/Bannon/Miller foreign policy, Vice President Mike Pence told the crowd at the Munich Security Conference that he would "hold Russia accountable" even as he vowed "unwavering support" for NATO. This prompted the following interesting scene moments later, as recounted by Bloomberg.
Shortly after Vice President Mike Pence pledged to “hold Russia to account” while looking for common ground in a speech to European allies, a hawkish Russian legislator reached out to shake his hand as he passed through a crowded hotel corridor.
“Mr. Vice President, I am from Moscow and we hope we will reach those arrangements you were talking about,” said Alexei Pushkov, a member of the defense committee in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. He enthusiastically told reporters afterward that he saw the Vice President’s smile as a good sign.
And while Saturday's Munich "close encounter" took just 10 seconds, despite Pushkov’s affirmative spin, Russia seems to be disappointed by how events this weekend panned out as Pence’s reassurances to NATO allies were a "far cry from previous hopes in Moscow, and fears in Europe, that U.S President Donald Trump would deliver dramatic change in the U.S.-Russian relationship, abandon an “obsolete” NATO, end sanctions over Ukraine and - as Trump once intimated during his election campaign - consider recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea" according to Bloomberg.
So what is the Russian sentiment now that the "Pence, Mattis axis" has emerged as the dominant one? Mostly disappointment.
“I heard nothing in the speech” that was positive, Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said of Pence quoted by Bloomberg. “The new American leaders have started to reproduce the negatives that accumulated under the previous administration.” Kosachyov described Pence’s message as disturbing but added that Russia would not abandon efforts at reaching an understanding with the Trump White House.
Adding insult to Crimean injury, in a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Saturday, Pence “underlined that the United States does not recognize Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of the Crimean peninsula,” according to a summary provided by the White House.
Presenting the Russian side, in an address to the same Munich Security Conference audience later in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s speech on what he called “the post-Western world” was short, at eight minutes, and uncharacteristically flat. His only comment on what had been said before him was an oblique complaint that the speeches showed NATO “remained a Cold War institution.”
Lavrov told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that he supports the resumption of military cooperation with the alliance. Without it, the diplomats’ meetings do not make any sense, he said. “We need to resume [our] military cooperation. [And yet] NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, surrounded by his deputies yesterday, couldn’t say that NATO is ready for this. It's sad,” Lavrov said.
“NATO's expansion has led to an unprecedented level of tension over the last 30 years in Europe," he added. Russia is not looking for conflicts with anyone, but will always be able to protect its interests, Russia's top diplomat said. “What kind of relationship do we want with the US? One [based on] pragmatism, mutual respect, and an understanding of special responsibility for global stability,” he stated.
At a later press conference, Lavrov said the message he took away from Pence’s speech and an earlier meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was that Washington was willing to engage. “We are waiting for the team be to fully formed which will oversee American foreign policy,” he said. “Only then we will be able to understand what the general approaches that Trump and Pence have voiced will look like.”
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Meanwhile, as we observed yesterday and as Bloomberg confirmed overnight, the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, whom Putin and other Russian leaders know and respect from his years as chief executive at Exxon Mobil Corp, has so far failed to offer any detail on the U.S. administration’s policy, according to three senior Russian officials familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. During a bilateral meeting with Lavrov earlier in the week, Tillerson spoke little and did not go into any specifics of arrangements for a possible Trump-Putin summit, a key Russian goal, two of the people said.
While State Department officials said Tillerson would be in “listening mode” on this trip, the upshot was it remains unclear if Trump and Putin will meet before the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in July.
On Ukraine, the key obstacle in relations between President Vladimir Putin and former President Barack Obama, it is now clear the Trump administration, too, will demand concessions from Moscow before moving on to discuss any wider arrangement, said Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, an advisory body to the Kremlin.
A meeting in Munich Saturday of the so-called Normandy format to resolve the conflict -- comprising France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine -- ended with a bland commitment to further the stalled peace process. In a sign of its impatience, the Kremlin separately announced that it will for the first time recognize the documents of citizens in Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk and Lugansk regions as valid in Russia, a measure it described as temporary. Poroshenko attacked the move as a breach of international law.
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And yet despite the unexpectedly "pro-establishment" diplomatic exchanges, the reality is that everything could still change on a dime: both for Europeans as well as Russians who gathered eagerly in Munich this year to hear from some of the new U.S. administration’s most senior officials, there was by Saturday a recognition that no immediate clarity will be forthcoming on core aspects of U.S. foreign policy. The reason: The two men who ultimately will decide NATO and Russia policy -- Trump and Putin -- were not in the room.
As we reported yesterday, while US NATO allies were reassured after listening to various U.S. speeches in Munich guaranteeing commitment to NATO’s collective defense commitment, Article 5, and talk of shared values, Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden who was in the audience, said “But people know the president will be making the decisions." With the message in Trump’s foreign policy tweets often at odds with the comments of his officials, many European leaders are hoping the apparently more traditional foreign policy stances of Pence, Mattis and Tillerson will prevail. Russia is placing its hopes on Trump himself for a more radical change.
“Trump right now is the one guy who wants to engage with Putin,’’ said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “He is surrounded by people that are much more skeptical.”
For now, that's the message the Russians attending the transatlantic alliance’s annual security conference heard loud and clear. Following the much anticipated meeting between Trump and Putin, however, all of the recent NATO "reassurance" by the US diplomatic corps ex-Trump, may disintegrate overnight.