Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, was in Washington last week for meetings with US President Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state. Lavrov’s visit at The White House came as the House of Representatives concluded its impeachment hearings primarily centered on evidence the American leader attempted to extort a political favor from Ukraine by holding up foreign aid. Considering the 2016 allegations of collusion, the pending impeachment vote, and the upcoming elections, Lavrov’s visit to the US raised eyebrows. The two nations understandably have other issues to discuss outside of US domestic politics, but if there was any concern of a Kremlin official meeting Trump, it was amplified when both sides recalled the subjects of their discussion.
Whereas Pompeo and The White House insisted Trump personally “warned against any Russian attempts to interfere” in the 2020 presidential election, Lavrov denied elections were discussed at all.
“I will leave to the White House to give the details of what is said. I never talk about what the President says in those private settings, but I can tell you that Foreign Minister Lavrov’s statement is not accurately a reflection of my recollection of that meeting,” Pompeo countered. “[T]here is no mistake that President Trump made clear in the meeting that he had with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the rest of the Russian team that was there that President Trump personally, and America, finds their meddling in our elections unacceptable in the very same way that I had said it earlier to Foreign Minister Lavrov.”
Lavrov not only denied the conversation took place, but also took umbrage with the notion that The Kremlin even interfered in the election. In denying this basic premise, he argued there are no facts to support the argument Russia meddled in the election, which was well-documented in Mueller’s 500-page report. Furthermore, Lavrov stated that because of the undue focus on the “alleged” interference, other work between Russia and the US has been inhibited. These topics include nuclear arms control and weapons shipments to Libya.
In February, the Trump administration announced the US would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. The agreement was a landmark deal when it was signed at the end of 1987 as it heralded the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The INF forbid both nations from possessing land-based missiles and launchers with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. Consequently, the two states drastically reduced their stockpiles.
Former US President Barack Obama negotiated the New START treaty, a followup to the 1991 START I agreement. Like the INF, New START placed limits on the nuclear programs, capping the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550. It also placed limits on missile launcher systems and heavy bombers.
Trump has signaled his intention not to renew the New START treaty, which expires in 2021. Complicating matters further, the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021, leaving no time for Trump’s successor to broker an extension or work a new deal, if Trump is defeated in the election. Since the American president has chosen not to renew the treaty or work toward a new one, it seems the US and Russia will be without an agreement for the first time in over three decades.
Although Russia is willing to extend it, Trump is refusing because he wants to see China added to the deal. China’s nuclear arsenal is comparatively small, but experts estimated it will double its stockpile over the next 10 years. China is not a member to any nuclear treaty and, as Lavrov declared, Beijing is uninterested.
Hinging a critical nuclear deal such as New START on a condition beyond Moscow’s control is unreasonable. Nuclear arms cannot be left to irrational demands especially when the other party is powerless to fulfill them.
On Libya, Pompeo called for a peaceful solution in coordination with The Kremlin to limit the weapon flow. Libya has been in a state of civil war since April when General Khalifa Haftar, a Gaddafi holdover, began a campaign to take control of the government. Washington has evidence Haftar’s Libyan National Army is supplied by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia.
“We want to work with the Russians to get to the negotiating table, have a series of conversations that ultimately lead to a disposition that creates what the UN has been trying to do,” Pompeo said. “Foreign Minister Lavrov told me directly yesterday he is prepared to be part of that, to continue it. I reminded him that there is a weapons embargo that is still in place in Libya, and that no nation ought to be providing incremental materiel inside of Libya.”
The US and Russia often find themselves on different sides when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa, particularly under Trump as the US has attempted to extricate itself from the regions. The US still looks to put its weight behind international affairs, however, and Trump has publicly called on Haftar to end his campaign. As in Yemen, when outside powers invest resources for war, conflict becomes difficult to stop. In the case of Russia, there are few options that will not risk an international incident except harsh words during an Oval Office visit.