How involved was former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov remarked last Thursday that no contacts between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump are expected at the G20 summit in Japan on June 28-29. 

“An encounter is not planned so far and there is no talk about a meeting,” Peskov said. This remark could have been taken as a statement of fact but for the coincidence that it was made in the run-up to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s forthcoming visit to Russia on May 12-14. 

There has been much speculation in the US media that a summit meeting between Trump and Putin was likely among Pompeo’s talking points with the Russian leadership. Perhaps, Peskov’s remark must be understood as a gentle reminder to Pompeo. 

The “pull-asides” that Trump has been resorting to on the sidelines of international events to have a quick word with Putin have fallen into a pattern. Firstly, things remained strictly between the two statesmen at a personal level and secondly, no feathers were ruffled back home while the Robert Mueller inquiry into “Russia collusion” was going on. 

Hurried visit

The arrangement left the Russian side unhappy, since unstructured informal conversations eventually led to nothing. Russian-American relations continued to deteriorate and Trump administration officials were in no hurry to turn a new page in US-Russia relations. 

Unsurprisingly, it took more than one year for Pompeo to schedule his first visit to Moscow after he took over as state secretary in April 2018. No US secretary of defense has yet visited Russia during the Trump presidency, either. The proposal on Pompeo’s visit was hurriedly mooted by Washington earlier this month. 

Therefore, if Pompeo’s visit is being treated on a low key, it could be that Moscow doesn’t expect much to come out of it. The point is, although the Mueller inquiry could not prove any ‘collusion’ between Trump and the Kremlin, Russia still remains a toxic subject domestically in the US. For Trump’s detractors, he and Russia are often synonymous. 

Besides, the narrative that Trump and people around him were engaged in improper activities with Russia is not about to wither away and there are further moves likely in the Beltway to find out about any other possible links between the Trump organization and even his family and Russian entities or oligarchs. 

Then, there is the vexed issue of the US sanctions against Russia, which inherently curb the scope for any meaningful expansion of ties. The post-2016 sanctions do not stem from executive orders but emanate out of laws passed by the US Congress, which takes away from Trump’s hands the powers to remove them – and, equally, they are not even tied to specific Russian behavior. The bottom line is that the Russians understand well enough that the sanctions won’t be lifted for a long time. 

At a State Department briefing on May 10, an unnamed senior US official disclosed that arms control will top Pompeo’s agenda during the Russia visit. He said Trump seeks new agreements with Russia “that reflect modern reality. These agreements must include a broader range of countries and account for a broader range of weapon systems than our current bilateral treaties with Russia.”

Besides, he said: “There will be a full range of global challenges to discuss, including Ukraine, Venezuela, Iran, Syria and North Korea.”

Venezuela deal?

However, there are enough signs that the main thing to watch is whether a US-Russia deal on Venezuela becomes possible. Three weeks back, Fiona Hill, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council in the White House, had visited Moscow for consultations.

Amongst others, she met Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov. According to media reports, Hill prioritized Venezuela as the most important topic in the US-Russia relations at the moment. 

The Russians would estimate by that more than oil or the Monroe Doctrine, what motivates Trump could be the impact of a regime change in Venezuela on Hispanic voters in the 2020 presidential race in Florida.

This impression would only have been reinforced last week when Pompeo met Lavrov on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Helsinki when, again, Venezuela figured prominently in their discussion. 

With the recent US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela having failed, the probability of an outright US intervention is low – almost non-existent. Trump would be reaching out for Russian help for a constitutional transition in Caracas that he could project as a “win.” Both Washington and Moscow are highly experienced in adopting a transactional approach to their relationship. 

For Russia, on the other hand, its support for the Maduro government in Caracas is driven as much by financial and energy interests as by Moscow’s vision of a multipolar world order that is based on international law.

Establishing rules

As Fred Weir, the Moscow-based correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, wrote recently, “while it may look and sound like a Cold War stand-off, for Russia it is really about the simpler issue of establishing rules for competing big powers in a post-Cold War world. In Venezuela, and between the US and Russia generally, there is no sharp ideological divide over world-shaping doctrines like communism versus capitalism.” 

Simply put, the Russian-American discord over Venezuela boils down to this: Washington wants Russia to stop “meddling” in the Western Hemisphere, while Moscow would expect that the US also should stop fomenting anti-Moscow revolutions in Russia’s backyard.

Otherwise, Russian experts acknowledge, it matters little to Moscow who rules in Caracas. 

The influential strategic thinker in Moscow Fyodor Lukyanov told Weir: “The relationship that emerged between Russia and Venezuela was an accident. It was mainly the initiative of Hugo Chávez, who was seeking counter-balances to his country’s dependence on the US. Of course, this was enthusiastically supported in Moscow.

“But it should be pointed out that at that time, the early 2000s, Chávez was rich and could pay for Russian arms and advice. Since Chávez died, and his successor has not proven so adept or popular, many in Moscow have been worried about our heavy investments in a potentially unstable regime.” 

It is entirely conceivable that this complicated Russian-American tango of ‘meddling’ in the other side’s region could be precisely what prompted Washington to schedule Pompeo’s hurried visit to Russia to meet Lavrov and Putin in Sochi on April 14. Quite naturally, the Trump administration’s resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine provides a diplomatic opening to Moscow, which of course continues to cherish the territories of the former Soviet republics as its ‘sphere of influence.’ 

To quote Lukyanov again: “This citing of the Monroe Doctrine is something quite intriguing, and it would be warmly welcomed in Moscow if we thought the Americans took it seriously.”

Indeed, some reports on Fiona Hill’s talks in Moscow last month hinted that she made a proposal to what roughly involved Russia letting up on Venezuela in exchange for some US concessions on Ukraine. 

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