US-Russian exchanges gather momentum

If a single exchange stood out during the tense interview of President Trump with the CBS News 60 Minutes on Sunday — Washington Post listed 8 of them — I would say it was when he tried to filibuster Lesley Stahl over the topic of ‘Russian meddling’ in the American elections.

Stahl kept taunting Trump but all she’d get was Trump repeating, ‘But China also meddled in the US elections.’ When she pointed out that she was asking about Russia, Trump repeated calmly, “And I think, frankly, China is a bigger problem”. Later, Stahl recounted that out of all 4 interviews she’s taken with Trump in the past 2 years, he was different this time: “He’s truly President. He felt it, I felt it.” Now, that was fulsome compliment from someone who is known to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Most certainly, Trump is unceremoniously shifting the narrative on Russia by laterally inserting China into it. He calculates that it pays, since ‘Russia collusion’ did not turn out to be a campaign issue in the midterm election in US, after all. Besides, the tide of opinion in the US regarding China has changed so dramatically and the focus is no longer on Russia. Arguably, engaging Russia as ‘counterweight’ to China might even appeal to the American opinion. Henry Kissinger long advocated it.

Suffice to say, US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s visit to Moscow next week will be taking place in a rapidly changing international setting. The Russian side has highlighted Syria and North Korea as key topics in Bolton’s talks with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev.

Meanwhile, an Israeli foreign ministry delegation also held consultations in Moscow today. The Russian readout said, “The sides have exchanged opinions on a broad agenda, including current issues of Russian-US relations, international security, issues of arms control and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction with special attention paid to the situation in the Middle East.” Simply put, Bolton will be travelling to Moscow with inputs from Tel Aviv.

In fact, “a full round of consultations on the situation on the Korean Peninsula” was due to take place today in Moscow between the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and the US Special Representative for North Korean Stephen Biegun.

On Monday, curiously, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu made a public overture to Russia that he highly valued friendly relations with President Vladimir Putin and their mutual respect. Netanyahu said this at the Knesset. He said he maintained direct contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin and placed high value on their friendly relations and respect for each other. “This helps us cope with the most serious challenges in our region,” Netanyahu added. He stressed the importance of this for Israel’s security.

Clearly, Bolton will also take note that Russian-Israeli relations are returning to ‘business as usual’. Indeed, the reopening of the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria last week has been a major Russian initiative. Again, the Russian deployment of S-300 missile system in Syria has brought about a degree of predictability to the security situation, which provides a platform for Russian diplomacy to address the other issues of Syria’s stabilization.

In this sudden burst of diplomatic activity, it cannot be accidental that the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did some some loud thinking today that Moscow regards it “useful” if a meeting between Putin and US President Donald Trump takes place on the sidelines of the festivities to mark the centenary of the end of World War 1 in Paris on November 11 – although this “has not been raised by either party yet and no preparations are underway in this area.” Now, it’s no big secret that Peskov says only what Putin wants him to say.

Of course, Russians just hinted that they’d welcome a meeting between Putin and Trump in Paris – so that Bolton can come prepared with a response. There is very little time left for the Paris event to prepare for a summit. The Russian assessment seems to be that given the perceptible mellowing of American rhetoric lately, a summit meeting might prove productive. US-Russia talks on arms control is an urgent priority as well for Moscow.

Significantly, Peskov also hyped up Russia’s cooperation with European countries. He said, “This cooperation never ceased to exist, its volume either shrinks or increases, we are faced with a set of negative factors, which exert a restraining impact on this cooperation, but our interaction never came to a halt and will never stop as well.” Again, Peskov spoke to no audience in particular, but the remarks come after a string of European pronouncements lately, including at the level of French President Emmanuel Macron, stressing the importance of Russia as the West’s interlocutor for addressing various regional and global issues.

All in all, the signs are that Russian-American exchanges are resuming with a degree of seriousness. One way of looking at it is that the relations had become so bad that they can only improve now. However, there could even be positive fallouts on the Syrian situation.

If a Trump-Putin meeting takes place in Paris on November 11, it will be just 5 days after the results of the mid-term election get known. But from Peskov’s remarks, the Russian side isn’t particularly perturbed. The big question is what happens to the Robert Mueller investigation on ‘Russian collusion’. In the CBS interview on Sunday, Trump kept open his presidential prerogative to terminate the investigation.

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