US, Russia seek better ties after years of diplomatic crises | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 14.05.2019
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US, Russia seek better ties after years of diplomatic crises

Senior officials have called for an overhaul of US-Russia ties, saying a more "constructive model" is necessary. Experts say attempts to normalize the often tense relationship will prove difficult, if it's even possible.

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'Trump is committed to improving relations'

Even before he was elected, US President Donald Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing him as a "strong leader" and someone "I'd get along great with."

Throughout his presidency, Trump has attempted to foster a deeper relationship with Putin despite a series of diplomatic crises between Washington and Moscow. Earlier this month, Trump described in a tweet the "tremendous potential for a good/great relationship with Russia," adding: "The world can be a better and safer place."

But Trump appeared to ignore the strategic divide between the two countries, a point that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged on Tuesday after meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

"We have differences — each country will protect its own interests and look after its own people — but it's not that we have to be adversaries on every issue," Pompeo said before meeting with Putin.

"I believe it's time to start building a new, more responsible and constructive model of mutual perception of each other," Lavrov added.

Read more: Russia encroaches on US war industry in Middle East 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Pompeo

Pompeo (right) said having differences doesn't mean 'we have to be adversaries on every issue'

'Champagne corks going off in Moscow'

Despite Trump's amicable posturing towards Putin, the US president's years in office have not been characterized by a drastic improvement in relations. In fact, Lavrov at one point described the period as "worse" than during the Cold War.

For Theresa Fallon, director and founder of the Brussels-based Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, there is a disparity between Trump's rhetoric and government action.

"Early on in the Trump presidency, there was this perception that things would improve. We heard about champagne corks going off in Moscow. Everyone thought it was going to be this great relationship," Fallon told DW. "But the reality is very different."

Last year, the Defense Department singled out Russia and China as the largest threats to US interests in its "national defense strategy," outpacing terrorism for the first time since the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Former US President Barack Obama sitting next to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after signing the New START Treaty

Even former US President Barack Obama attempted to reset relations with Russia.

Divided around the globe

Foreign policy differences have been a major sticking point between the US and Russia. Under Trump, the US has launched cruise missiles against Russian ally Syria over suspected chemical weapons attacks. They have also clashed on how to manage a political solution to the conflict in Syria and whether to maintain the Iran nuclear deal.

On North Korea, the White House has pushed for an all-or-nothing denuclearization process of the Korean Peninsula. The Kremlin, on the other hand, has opted for a gradual approach to denuclearization in order to bolster its political and economic position in Northeast Asia.

The Trump administration has taken a hard-line approach on Venezuela by recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's president, sanctioning key officials and mulling a military intervention to topple President Nicolas Maduro's regime. Russia has instead supported Maduro by deploying troops to the South American country and restructuring Venezuelan debt to prevent further economic crisis.

But even when supporting opposing sides in geopolitical crises, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov last week noted that Moscow and Washington have apparently managed to move forward in a practical manner.

Asked whether he and Pompeo discussed the US secretary of state's remark that "Russia must get out of Venezuela," Lavrov said: "We tried not to focus on public statements considering that they are influenced by too many things that have nothing to do with real politics. We tried to concentrate on real politics and we succeeded in this."

'Robust use of sanctions'

Even with the White House and the Kremlin hoping to reset relations, it's not always up to them.

US intelligence agencies have unreservedly pointed to Russian involvement in undermining domestic electoral processes. Although a majority of US sanctions against Russia are related to Moscow's illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the agencies' findings have been the basis for some of those disciplinary measures.

The US has also "imposed sanctions on Russia in response to human rights abuses, election interference and cyberattacks, weapons proliferation, illicit trade with North Korea, support to Syria and use of a chemical weapon," according to a 2019 Congressional report.

"Most Members of Congress support a robust use of sanctions amid concerns about Russia's international behavior and geostrategic intentions," said the report, a point that appeared to contrast the White House's approach.

Resetting relations

In March, the Russian Foreign Ministry took advantage of the formal closure of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election to call for resetting relations between Washington and Moscow.

"We hope that Washington will in the course of time pluck up its courage and officially confess that not only was there no 'conspiracy' but that all insinuations about Russia's interference into the US presidential elections are a groundless, vicious defamation created to be used in the internal political struggle in the US," the ministry said.

But Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New York-based New School, said that even with the latest overtures aimed at resetting relations, it "does not promise a smooth normalization of relations."

"Putin is still giving Trump the benefit of the doubt, given Trump's sweet rhetoric, hence the Pompeo visit in an attempt to find common ground and shrink the daylight on contradictory issues, such as Venezuela," she said. "But altogether, Russia will continue to call out American inconsistencies and American hubris."

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