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Iran-Russia Alliance: A balancing behaviour or A Bandwagoning Conduct

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In an unforseen decision last August, Iran allowed Russian warplanes to conduct several missions over Syria from the Shahid Nojah Air base in Iran. Russian tactical bombers took off from the airbase and targetted several spots related to ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra. As surprising as it seems, observers and policy makers did not expect such move given the long unstable relationship between Russia and Iran, often associated with tension and uncertainty.

If we carefully examine the history, Iran and Russia have often come up against strained relations, from the then leader Ayatollah persistent criticism of the Marxsist ideology during the cold war, to the unjustified Soviet invasion of Afghanistan right after the Iranian revolution and the ouster of the Shah. If bad history generates unreliable relations, then questioning the nature of today Iran-Russia relations becomes legitimate. Internationally, Washington was even more surprised , but avoided any direct criticism nevertheless. Instead, the Department of State proclaimed that it would ponder over whether Russia has violated a UN Security Council resolution 2231 on military dealings with Tahran.

The aforementioned resolution manages international military interactions between Iran and other international actors. Such interaction includes training, financial assistance and the acquistion of new technologies. While the US administration is turning a blind eye on other forms of violations of the UN resolution, the latter seems over concerned about the Russian-Iranian possible alliance. For instance, Obama administration did not directly criticize Iranian presence in Syria best expressed through sending Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Syrian grounds.

Understanding the nature of Iranian-Russian alliance becomes inevitable. Alliances are ususally formed according to two major patterns. First, balancing behaviour is the most classical form of alliances, in which states ally with other individual states to protect themselves from stronger and more powerful sides. The argument that Iran-Russia alliance is the result of balancing behaviour endeavours may be true to some extent. Russia is a key player in the MENA region and it is already forming a significant balance of power against the United States. Russia is a permanent member in the United Nations Security Council and a founding member of the BRICS. Russia is also a significant military power, given its ability to intervene in Ukraine and Syria. Russia is also considered as an economic power . Albeit sanctioned by the West for annexing Crimea, Russia succeeded in implementing effective financial and banking reforms and thus increasing its economic growth from 0.5% to 0.8%. Accordingly, Russia is solely imposing a balance of power and the alliance with Iran would not make sense to reach this end.

Second, alliances may be shaped according to bandwagoning behaviour, by which states join stronger sides in order to avoid potential threat either to protect themselves or to maximize their power. These states usually join newly rising powers out of fear or out of greed. This is applicable to the Iranian-Russian case. Given that economic sanctions on Iran have been lifetd thanks to US-Iran nuclear deal, Iran rejoiced a palpable economic growth from 4.2% to 4.6% in 2016, according to the latest MENA Economic Monitor Report. Politically, Iran is undoubtedly hyper-active in the middle east with a plain military and financial engagement in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In Syria, the Qods Forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are currently providing siginificant military assistance to Bashar’s regime. King Abdullah of Jordan expressed his deepest concern about Iranian suspicious presence in the region and stated in an interview published in April 2015 that” We are seeing Iranian boots on the ground, just over the Jordanian-Syrin border”. Iran involvement moved beyong Syria and reached Iraq, with severall Iranian troops fighting Sunni minorities such as the Islamic State. Yemen is another excellent illustration of Iranian involvement in the region. There is no theory that might explain adequately, let alone justifiably, what is happening in Yemen. However, the Iranian ship , which was intercepted in the Arabian Sea and equipped with missiles and weapons to supply the Houthis, may illustrate the extent to which Iran attempts to impose itself in a neverending dynamic middle eastern context. Far from the conflict zone, Iran is also exercising another form of hegemony in North Africa transled through cultural exchanges. For instance, a major forum on “Civilization of Iran and Islam” took place in Tunisia on the 24th August, in an attempt to introduce Iranian ideology and its shite morals and beliefs. Economically, around 15 major agreements were signed between Iran and Algeria addressing different economic sectors, paving the way for a new Iranian power to rise in the Greater Maghreb.

Given such Iranian dominance in the region, Russia alliance with Iran will be undoubtedly fruitful for the Kremlin. Russia will profit from such close relationship with Iran, politically, militarily and economically. The alliance with Iran seems out of greed rather than fear, and the alliance would be illogical if presented as an attempt to reduce US dominance rather Russia realist school best expressed in its endeavour to maximize its power and interests.

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Russia’s strategy towards the United States over Syrian issues

Sajad Abedi

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The Meeting with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of the United States and Russia on the sidelines of the G20 summit ended not only with many concerns about the failure of the two sides to negotiate, even according to Secretary of State Rex Tilerson’s statement, he had very positive results in it also addresses the Middle East problems, including an agreement on Syrian issues.

The two sides agreed to create tensions in the south and east of Syria, to divide the level of infiltration and maintain the security borders of the region, along with a general principle on the reinstatement of Bashar al-Assad in power and the presidency of Syria. He also expressed his hope that Russia would use its influence to secure a ceasefire in Syria and its willingness to surrender Syria’s move to Russia from the outcome of the meeting, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has identified as the result of the transfer of the destiny of Bashar al-Assad to Russia.

Perhaps the G20 summit may be a turning point in the fate of Syria to escape domestic conflicts and disruptions, but given the two totally contradictory views of the United States and Russia, the insistence of Trump on the withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad on the one hand, and the continued support of Putin from Bashar In order to remain on the other hand, observers’ eyes will be more focused on Russia and Putin’s goals in the Middle East. Therefore, the question will be shaped in the minds. According to the two results of these negotiations, namely, the retention of Bashar al-Assad and the transfer of the fate of Syria to Russia, can Russia be successful in overcoming the United States in the Middle East and winning a big game? Which has started since the onset of the internal crisis in Syria, and in particular since 2015?

For many years, the Middle East has become a critical area at the center of world politics and security. Russia’s foreign policy has been planned, especially globally, in relation to the main centers of power and global security issues. Syria’s internal developments and the unrest that, it has emerged as evidence of Russia’s capabilities provide Moscow with the best opportunity to use its means of engagement in resolving Syrian issues not only at the regional level, but also at a higher and more global level.

Russia has always been a supporter of Syria since the onset of the internal crisis in Syria, with political assistance to the Assad regime in September 2015 with military aid. The military strategy was an option that was put on the agenda. (According to a military document planned for 2014, the Russian military doctrine was changed from defensive to aggressive). The presence of the Russian Air and Ground Force along with the logistics capacities of the sea was a demonstration of unique capabilities and the ability to build a powerful ally.

Subsequently, Putin’s ambitions for gaining more gains in the region came with the arrival of Donald Trump in America and the Middle East policy of the new government in Washington that could be a decisive factor in boosting or weakening Putin’s goals. So there were four possibilities:

First, Russia continues to play an effective role in the region and to keep its reactions in the region with the US government, as it was usual under Obama’s presidency. On this basis, although Russia was happy with Obama’s presidential term under Obama’s presidential term, Obama was happy with Obama’s idea of “giving fate to their nations,” but he was dissatisfied with Russia’s refusal to appear in the multipolar world.

Secondly, in a more difficult situation, Tramp will take on more tension with Putin and rebuild the Russian-US two-time Cold War era. This situation for Moscow was equal to the return to the post-Soviet era, and the prohibition of Russia’s expansion in the Middle East, which posed a serious challenge to the rise of Russia as a superpower.

Thirdly, in a more complex situation, both Russia and the United States have come up against their own national interests in a historically competitive struggle, and because of the sharp contradictions in the war in the Middle East, which, although seemingly fueled by Russia’s role as a counterpart, The United States existed, but the disadvantages and costs of this confrontation of Moscow were diverted from its strategic goals. It should be noted that Putin was unhappy with the fact that Obama called Russia a regional power “not universal”.

Fourth, in an optimistic mood, Moscow can engage and engage Washington in strategic objectives in the region and pursue its influence in the region in order to prove its superstructure and its inclusion as a pole. This would be the most desirable situation in Moscow’s view, which would have required the withdrawal of Tramp from sharp positions against Putin and the settlement of disputes between the two sides and serious consideration of the demands of the other side.

What happened at the summit of the twenty-fifth group would have been the fourth option, and now Putin is pleased to not decide on the future of Syria to Russia not only to win the G-20 summit, but also to succeed in implementing its Middle Eastern strategy and promise of the first-world power struggle has been.

Putin’s Middle East strategy is based on the modernization and promotion of Russia as a global power and, in recent years, has displayed its abilities in different stages in the light of developments in Syria. If the US-Russian talks on Syria’s disarmament in September 2013 and its implementation in February 2015 under the control of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the strengthening of the Russian-US cease-fire in Syria in February 2016 and the strengthening of multilateral peace-building Syria has all been the prospect of Russia’s effective role for multilateral regional cooperation.

Basically, Moscow is trying to introduce itself as a pragmatic, reliable, and experienced player to the Middle East, which is able to control the situation in the region with diplomatic and military means. The Russian military operation in Syria was a symbol of Russia’s regional power, which would have been a prerequisite for the imposition of its international ambitions. Moscow’s rational strategy, by preventing the fall of Bashar al-Assad, and then fighting his enemies and insisting on holding talks with the United States, sought to be seen as an unparalleled power capable of bringing the geopolitical weight of the Middle East not only through bilateral engagement And multilateralism with the countries of the region, but by defending them as necessary.

Under the current conditions, the engineering of the Syrian Peace Treaty with the United States could be a successful start for Russia, bringing the country closer to the key goals set in strategy priorities.

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Russia’s key to Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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On July 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly received two African leaders, Gabonese Ali Bongo Ondimba and Sudanese Omar al-Bashir, within the framework of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The two were on a three-day working visit part of which was to attend in the FIFA World Cup final match between France and Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Together 12 presidents, prime ministers and many high-ranking representatives of foreign states attended the final match.

While meeting them separately in the Kremlin, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s role in and support for solving endless conflicts specifically in Central African Republic (CAR) and in Sudan, and other regional conflicts in parts of Africa. The meetings were also to consolidate the existing diplomatic relations.

Despite its significant mineral deposits and other resources, such as uranium reserves, crude oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, lumber and as well as significantly large arable land, the CAR is among the ten poorest countries in the world.

Nearly 90% is among the most impoverished of the estimated population of around 4.6 million as of 2016. CAR has been engulfed in political and ethnic conflict.

“There is naturally a lot of work to do for us, including the regional settlement in Central Africa. We know that Gabon takes the most active part in this, making a significant contribution to this joint work,” he stressed at the meeting with Ali Bongo.

In this context, Gabon is now chairing the Economic Community of Central African States and this community or regional organization is directly involved in settling the conflict in the Central African Republic.

Gabon bordered by Equitorial Guinea to the west, Cameroon to the north and Republic of Congo on the east and south, and the Gulf of Guinea to the west. Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had three presidents.

Abundant petroleum and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Sahara Africa. Gabon’s economy is dominated by oil. Oil revenues constitute roughly 46% of the government’s budget, 43% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and 81% of exports.

During the meeting, Ali Bongo argued that “Russia is a huge country, which has enormous capabilities and which can, of course, contribute a lot to the continent. Everyone talks about Africa today, from most various angles. The continent is rich in resources, and we observe how many major states fight each other to gain access to these resources.”

From above statement, Ali Bongo was encouraging the Kremlin authorities, flex muscles to face risks and high competition, in order to raise Russia’s economic profile on the continent to match with its global status. As already known, African countries have seriously adopted “economic diplomacy” and are looking to find pragmatic solutions to issues relating to infrastructure development, foreign trade and investment cooperation.

The transcript posted to Kremlin official website did not say anything about oil business, but understandably, Russia seeks to cooperate in this sphere.

The Kremlin press service said that trade between Russia and Gabon doubled in 2017 to $47.7 (from $29.1 in 2016). Last October, Russia’s oil giant Rosneft signed a profile protocol of understanding with Gabon’s Oil and Hydrocarbon Ministry.

In June 2017, Zarubezhneft and the Gabonese oil company signed a Memorandum of Understanding – a framework agreement on key aspects of cooperation, including joint exploration of deposits and construction of oil and gas facilities in Gabon.

In his discussion with Putin, Al-Bashir noted that Russia and Sudan relations really demonstrated positive dynamics.

“As for the economic sphere, we are developing a programme to share information and opinions on how we can develop these relations. Russian companies, including those producing mineral resources, actively work in Sudan. There will also be a meeting devoted to the agricultural sphere in September,” the Sudanese leader said.

Sudanese leader hopes to start tourist exchanges soon. He also encourages the participation of Russian oil and gas companies so that they would work in Sudan.

There are positive shifts in the military-technical sphere and in military cooperation. “We see big exchanges between specialists of Russia and Sudan. A big number of Russian specialists work in our country and this is why we highly praise the role that your country plays in preparing Sudanese military personnel,” Al-Bashir told Putin.

In fact, Putin and Al-Bashir last met and had a comprehensive business discussion November 2017 in Sochi. According to Kremlin website, the two sides have signed agreements and memos of understanding in the field of oil, gold mining, the peaceful use of nuclear power, higher education, external relations and agriculture.

In Sochi, Al-Bashir affirmed that Sudan is opening its doors for all countries and companies to invest in the country, indicating that Russian, Chinese and Arab companies are now operating in Sudan.

Interestingly, Al-Bashir has offered to help Russia in Africa. “Sudan has extensive ties in Africa and can help Russia develop relations with African countries. Sudan may become Russian’s key to Africa. We are a member of the African Union,” he promised Putin.

“We have great relations with all African nations and we are ready to help. We are also interested in developing relations with BRICS,” he concluded assertively. The BRICS group of emerging economies comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa will host a summit of BRICS countries on July 26-27.

Despite the fact that bilateral relations between Russia and with both Gabon and Sudan still below expectation, the three leaders Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir in their separate discussions expressed high optimism to take practical effective steps working towards its growth and sustainability.

It is worthy to note that Africa, indeed, has emerged as a playground for foreign powers especially Asian powers including China, India and Japan; each with its economic interests in the region and trying to expand its influence in strategic ways. In principle, all three leaders (Putin, Ali Bongo and Al-Bashir) have agreed that relations, in anyway, be developed in all directions between their individual states and Russia.

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The Art of Expectation Management

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship.

The current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin. Any far-reaching Trump-Putin agreement short of a complete and unconditional surrender of Moscow to Washington would meet with a fierce and not always fair criticism within the US foreign policy establishment. The odds are that the Congress would overrule or water it down, and high-ranking bureaucrats within the Administration itself would find a way to sabotage it.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies. It has always been tempting to go for a grand bargain with US above the heads of Europeans. There might be more personal chemistry between the US and the Russian leaders than between any of them and German Chancellor Angela Merkel or UK Prime Minister Theresa May. There might also be a shared Trump-Putin skepticism about the future of the European Union. Nevertheless, in many ways Europe remains indispensable for Moscow. Despite all the recent sanctions and counter-sanctions, EU remains the largest Russia’s trading partner, the prime source of FDIs and new technologies to the country. Moreover, on a number of important international matters – like the Iranian JCPOA — Russia and major European powers stand shoulder to shoulder against the revisionist US. From Putin’s vantage point, European leaders might look stubborn, boring and even antiquated, but most of them still appear to be more reliable compared to the flamboyant and unpredictable US President.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world. How can President Hassan Rouhani interpret it from Tehran? What should Bashar Assad think in Damascus? Nicolas Maduro in Caracas? Above all, how are they likely react in Beijing? The latter should be of particular concern to Vladimir Putin because the meeting in Helsinki takes place against the background of rapidly deteriorating US — Chinese relations.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship. If there is anyone, who might push hard for innovative, out of the box solutions in order to turn the Helsinki summit into an epic event, it should be Donald Trump rather than Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader is more likely to take a cautious approach, keeping in mind that any far-reaching deal between him and Trump would be a risky political investment for both, at least at this particular point.   The most important thing for Putin today is to change the overall dynamics of the US — Russian relationship, indicating the beginning of a new period of gradual normalization.

What does this approach mean for the US-Russian agenda? As for the strategic arms control, it is not evident that this issue is a top priority for the Kremlin these days. Judging by Putin’s March Address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian leader is confident that he can assure national security even in the absence of a US — Russian strategic arms control. However, politically strategic arms control is still important for the Kremlin; it gives Russia a very special status in the international system and puts Moscow on equal footing with Washington. This is one of not to many areas where Moscow can significantly contribute to global commons. The Russian military might lack enthusiasm about the New Start and, especially, about INF, but the political considerations can outweigh skepticism of the military provided that President Trump is also interested in salvaging INF and/or in extending the New Start.

It is impossible not to bring regional issues to the table in Helsinki, but here opportunities are limited as well. Looking from Moscow it is very hard to imagine any US — Russian ‘compromise’ on Ukraine, which would fly on the Hill and would be acceptable to the Kremlin at the same time. On the other hand, the predominant perception in Russia is that nothing significant can be accomplished in Donbas until the end of next year’s election cycle in Ukraine. Finally, the United States is not even a participant to the Normandy process and is not a signatory to the Minsk agreements. All the significance of the Volker-Surkov bilateral consultations notwithstanding, they can hardly be regarded as an efficient alternative to the German and French engagement.

Today, Russia has little to offer to US on the North Korean nuclear matter. It could have played a role of an honest broker on the Korean Peninsula when the relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were at historic lows. After Kim Jong-un’s trip to Beijing and the Chinese-North Korean reconciliation in spring, the window of opportunity shut fast for Russia. In the nearest future Moscow is more likely to follow the Chinese line on the North Korean problem rather than to advance its own innovative ideas.

A potentially more promising subject for conversation is Syria. At minimum, Trump and Putin can agree on future arrangements for the Syrian South-West and on a tactical deal regarding accommodating Syrian Kurds, at maximum — they can give a push to the Geneva process on political settlement. Does Trump intend to convince Putin to drop Russia’s current partnership with Iran and to shift to the ‘right side’ of the conflict? If so, the US President is likely to be disappointed: Iran is simply too important for Moscow in places like Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Caucasus to sacrifice this relationship in order to please Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi King Salman. One should also keep in mind that the ability to keep good relations with all major sides to numerous Middle East conflicts has been a key, if not the key Russia’s comparative advantage in regional politics; with this advantage removed the Russian role in the region is likely to decline sharply.

The US sanctions against Russia might also be a part of the conversation though the official Russia’s position is that it does not conduct any negotiations about sanctions and leaves it up to states-initiators to decide on their sanctions’ future. The last round of US anti-Russian sanctions announced in April included RUSAL, Russia’s largest aluminum producer, and had a substantial negative impact not only on this company, but also on the global aluminum market at large. Vladimir Putin should know pretty well about the US legislative process that makes it impossible for Donald Trump to lift the existing sanctions against Moscow. What he can hope for is some kind of informal pledge from the US executive not to initiate any further increase of the sanction pressure on Russia. Another issue that Russians might wish to discuss in this regard is the modalities of the extraterritorial dimension of US sanctions — a politely sensitive matter that can become a nuisance for both sides.

Vladimir Putin is also well aware of the importance that Americans attach to the “Russia’s interference” into the US political system. Under no circumstances will he confess that such an interference authorized by Russian authorities did take place. The odds are that he will stick to his standard narrative about some unspecified independent actors (“patriotic hackers”) who had nothing to do with the Russian state. Nevertheless, one cannot exclude Putin offering Trump to sign a US-Russian “non-interference pact” — a mutual commitment not to mess with domestic affairs of each other. The problem for the US side is that the term “interference” is likely to be interpreted by the Kremlin in the broadest sense possible — it might include international activities of American NGO, foundations, media outlets, think tanks, Universities and so on. It is not clear how the two leaders can possibly reach a compromise on such a divisive issue.

The last but not the least, the Russian side would like to unlock doors to intergovernmental cooperation or, at least, to intergovernmental communication at various levels and in various fields including more contacts between diplomats, military, state bureaucrats, and intelligence agencies. The Russian Embassy in Washington should stop being a besieged fortress, the paralysis in the visa services on both sides should be dealt with. A symbolic progress in resolving the diplomatic property problem would also be appreciated by Moscow. One of the positive outcomes of Helsinki would be a decision of the two leaders to start planning a next summit meeting — either on the margins of a multilateral gathering like the G20 summit in Argentina or another bilateral event later this year.

In sum, the current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

First published in our partner RIAC

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