Author: Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
On October 22-23 2018 the U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Moscow, where he held meetings with the President of the Russian Federation, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defence and the Secretary of Security Council. (During the press conference Bolton mentioned that he also held a meeting with Yury Ushakov – the Aide to the President of the Russian Federation and ex-ambassador to the United States. However, the press release of the meeting had not been released.) The fact that Bolton held meetings with nearly all high-level officials who have substantial influence on Russia’s foreign policy decision-making underscores the importance of the visit.
Before deliberating on the visit itself, it is worth briefly addressing the role of the office of the National Security Council and Bolton himself in President Trump’s Administration.
The functions of the office of the National Security Council are not limited only to intergovernmental coordination or/and national security policy planning. Since the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger and later Zbigniew Brzezinski served as National Security Advisers to the president, the office of the National Security Council has been directly engaged in international negotiations. Therefore, in such instances this office has a leading role in strategy shaping and decision making, in coordination with the State Department, the Department of Defense and other relevant agencies.
This is exactly what we see now as Bolton and his office play a central role in the formulation and decision-making process of U.S. foreign policy and in international negotiations on certain issues. Moreover, many agree that in the incumbent administration the best experts on Russia are employed by the office of the National Security Council.
Actually Bolton has critical influence not only on the issues related to US foreign policy regarding Russia. Presumably, in Trump’s administration Bolton is the most influential among those figures who have competence in foreign policy decision-making. The statement looks even more convincing if we recall that in his recent interview Donald Trump talked about the potential resignation of the Secretary of Defense. In addition, Bolton has a reputation as one of the most hawkish officials in the national security team of the incumbent administration and the main hard-liner on key issues of U.S foreign policy such as Iran, North Korea and the Russian Federation.
Specifically, regarding Bolton’s trip to Moscow, it should be mentioned that the visit was probably a difficult experience for Moscow, full of direct political messages.
Prior to the visit, Bolton announced that he was going to travel from Moscow to Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi – likely unpleasant news for the Russian Federation considering the Kremlin’s negative stance towards U.S. diplomatic activities in its close neighborhood.
Bolton payed tribute to the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, laying flowers at the place where he was shot dead on February 27, 2015. This murder, together with some other similar cases, are considered as “political assassinations” conducted during Putin’s reign.
The major topic of negotiations, stated before the visit, was also an uncomfortable one for Moscow. Shortly before the visit President Trump announced that Washington was considering termination of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) agreement.
The INF, signed on December 8, 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s leader Mikhail Gorbachov bans short-range (500-1000 km.) and intermediate-range (1000-5500 km.) land-based missiles, and has resulted in the elimination of nearly 2700 missiles as well as their launchers.
Apparently, all meetings were dominated by very difficult discussions on the topic of the termination of the INF treaty. Bolton’s first meeting with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev lasted nearly 5 hours. During the trip, Bolton discussed almost all difficult topics of international policy, such as Iran, Syria, Ukraine and North Korea. According to the US Embassy in Russia, the meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of RF covered the situation in the Caucasus. At the meeting with the President of the Russian Federation, upon the initiative of Putin, the parties agreed to hold a Trump-Putin meeting, which will be held in Paris in November, on the sidelines of events to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I.
Bolton made some attempts to clarify the US position regarding the INF treaty and some other important topics to the Russian audience. Presumably for that reason he gave these two interviews (kommersant.ru and echo.msk.ru) and held a press conference after the meeting with Putin: an unusually intensive level of publicity by a high-ranking official for such a short period of time.
The U.S. has well-founded arguments on the withdrawal from the INF treaty. In particular:
- The parties of the INF treaty are only US and Russia, while other countries have also developed and tested short and intermediate-range missiles. China along with Iran and North Korea are cited most often to validate this argument. The Bush Administration tried unsuccessfully to transform the treaty from bilateral into multilateral in 2001-2004. Nowadays this idea seems even more unrealistic as China possess a big stockpile of modified missiles which should be destroyed under INF provisions;
- Russia has for a long time been in violation of the INF treaty, possessing a land-launched cruise missile 9M729. This accusation was made during both the Obama and Trump administrations, who called on Russia to comply with the agreement;
- The INF treaty applies only to ground-launched systems, while both parties are free to deploy similar systems within the navy. For instance, the US. Navy ships deployed in Baltic sea are equipped with missiles which would be considered as a breach of the treaty if launched in nearby Poland.
The recent dynamics of US foreign policy show that Washington’s strategy aims to take back initiative in setting the agenda of bilateral relations with Russia. Generally, Trump’s administration has a similar strategy towards almost all important international relations issues. This strategy puts the Russian Federation in very uncomfortable position as Moscow has been trying recently to define the international relations agenda according to its own priorities.
The INF case is a good illustration of this. In particular, termination of the treaty may lead to a new arms race by limiting the chance of renewing the START treaty after its expiration in 2021. The topic of the START treaty, which regulates long-range nuclear weapons, was raised by Bolton during his visit. Even Russia’s most robust propagandists admit that returning to the arms race era is not in Russia’s interests, especially given its poor economic situation.
No one doubts that Western sanctions make it highly difficult for Russia to improve its economy. Moreover, according to the ex-Minister of Finance and current Chairman of the Accounts Chamber Aleksei Kudrin, the tightening of imposed sanctions will thwart Putin’s economic goals. This announcement was made just recently on October 10, during Kudrin’s meeting with leading businessmen.
In this context, the upcoming decision to be taken in November regarding a new wave of sanctions towards Russia over the Salisbury nerve agent attack, becomes tremendously important. When this question was raised during the press conference Bolton answered that no decision has been made yet. Initial speculations suggest that the new sanctions could be tough for Russia.
If Russia wants to extend the INF treaty it will need to make concessions towards the US. It is difficult to deliberate on the types of concessions as they derive from specific issues, but one thing is clear – the concessions will completely change the foreign political concept which has been developed by Moscow and put into effect especially after the annexation of Crimea. Therefore, the vital goal of the Russia’s political establishment to become a global power will be jeopardized.