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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

Will Hamburg Summit improve Relations between Russia and America?

Sunday 16 July 2017

by R.G. Gidadhubli

The summit of G-20 nations in Hamburg gave an opportunity for the long awaited meeting between the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the US President, Donald Trump, on July 7, 2017. There are valid speculations as to how far this meeting will bring about real improve-ment in strained relations between Russia and the USA even as European analyst Mike Eckel has opined that it was historic. This is partly because it became big news when after a routine handshake, the scheduled 35-minute bilateral meeting between the two leaders lasted for 2 hours and 15 minutes. Most importantly, Trump was happy and stated frankly that it was a “tremendous meeting”. It was officially stated that the talks were “constructive, cordial, and wide-ranging“ covering issues relating to the wars in Syria and Ukraine, cyber security, and Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

In fact a major success of the meeting was the ceasefire agreement reached between the two countries with regard to Syria to be effective from July 9, 2017. This was a bold step on the part of both the leaders to end the ongoing six- year civil war in Syria which has resulted in the killing of more than 310,000 people in the conflict and millions have been displaced. While Russia was backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the USA was backing the leaders of Opposition parties of Syria.

In fact defeating the Islamic State was the common objective of both Russia and the USA and at last pragmatism has prevailed with the ongoing talks between the two governments. This ceasefire agreement is to cover the Syrian provinces of Daraa, Sweida, and Quneitra in the southwest along the border with Jordan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that the ceasefire would be supervised by the Russian military police “in coordination with the Jordanians and Americans”.

Secondly, while there is no official statement about details of discussions between Putin and Trump on the issue of Ukraine, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on July 7 stated that Kurt Volker, who served as Washington’s NATO ambassador under the previous two US Administrations, will “take responsibility for advancing US efforts to achieve the objectives” of peace, known as the Minsk Deal, to end hostilities between Ukraine and Russia on the Crimean issue and conflicts in eastern Ukraine. In fact Germany and France are also actively involved in the Minsk Deal apart from Russia and Ukraine. But so far there is no end to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, that has resulted in the death of over nine thousand civilians. Whether involvement of the USA will bring about a final solution to the persisting problem is a test case for Trump. In fact Putin is aware that Trump met President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in the White House before the G-20 Summit and assured support to Ukraine knowing fully well that Russia will never return Crimea.

Thirdly, as reported by the media, Trump was candid in stating that he discussed the issue of cyber security with Putin and both have agreed to form an impenetrable Unit so that election hacking and many other negative things will be safeguarded. In fact in the USA there has been a strong allegation that Russia was involved in hacking in the presidential election campaign even as the Russian Govern-ment has consistently denied any involvement. It is reported that during the meeting, Trump pressed Putin about Moscow’s involvement in the US election which was again denied by Putin. In fact on this issue of participation and cooperation of Russia on cyber security, influential Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina has stated that Russia cannot be trusted. This shows that there are disagreements even within his party indicating that Trump has challenges to implement his decisions. Moreover, the outcome of efforts made in the past for cooperation between Russia and America on cyber security was far below expectations.

Lastly, Trump has been candid in stating that he wants to improve ties with Russia and hence the outcome of his meeting with Putin in Hamburg has great significance. Both the leaders have a common interest in the fight against global terrorism. Trump is also interested in ending economic sanctions on Russia. But his Administration so far has been insisting to maintain the punitive measures, targeting Russia for its actions in Ukraine, that began under Barack Obama.

Thus efforts made in Hamburg by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump to improve relations between the two countries are commendable while challenges persist.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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