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What Remains of the Relationship between Russia and the European Union

Natalia Viakhireva (Evtikhevich)

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We May Have Stumbled, but We Have Not Fallen Down

On Friday November 9, 2018, Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz made a statement about the detention of a retired Austrian officer on suspicion of spying for Russia. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Karin Kneissl cancelled her December visit to Russia. That very same day, the Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to Russia, Johannes Aigner, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. Journalists expressed concern that the situation would have an impact on the development of relations between Russia and Austria and further effect the EU–Russia relationship. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov expressed his regret that the West was increasingly turning to “microphone and megaphone diplomacy” instead of turning to Russia directly for clarification, which has always been the case in international relations.

The fallout from this incident will only become clear later. It is unlikely that it will result in any serious consequences, for example, a new round of sanctions or a sharp deterioration in relations. At the very least, Friday’s events did not affect the development of interaction at the level of track one and a half diplomacy. On Monday November 12, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) hosted a seminar entitled “EU–Russian Relations in the Context of the Republic of Austria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.” The meeting was organized by RIAC in conjunction with the Embassy of the Republic of Austria in Russia and the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation. It was attended by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Alexander Grushko, Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to Russia Johannes Aigner and the Head of the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation Markus Ederer. Participants included ambassadors of EU countries and Russian experts on EU–Russia relations. During the closed-door discussion, the ambassadors and experts talked about factors influencing the development of bilateral relations between Russia and Austria, and between Russia and the European Union, and outlined a number of development trends. It is important to note here that Friday’s incident was not brought up or discussed at the meeting.

Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union

Presidency of the Council of the European Union changes hands among EU member countries on a rotating basis every six months. During the six-month presidency, the country chairs meetings of the Council at all levels, ensuring consistency of the European Union’s work within the Council. To this end, the European Union employs a mechanism of a “trio presidency,” or simply Trio. Trios set long-term goals and draw up a common agenda on the main issues to be considered by the Council over the course of the next 18 months. Each country then prepares a more detailed programme on the basis of this agenda for their respective six-month terms. Presidency of the Council of the European Union entails, first and foremost, supervising the Council’s work on the development of EU legislation. The president country chairs meetings of the Council’s various structures, with the exception of the Foreign Affairs Council. However, it does work in close cooperation with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and supports its work.

Austria took over presidency of the Council of Europe for the second half of 2018, being part of the trio that includes Estonia and Bulgaria. Contacts between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the European External Action Service have been adequately maintained during the Republic of Austria’s presidency. Dmitry Medvedev has met with Jean-Claude Juncker, Sergey Lavrov has met with Federica Mogherini and regular working meetings and expert discussions have taken place. Indeed, Russia has a special relationship with Austria. Throughout the crisis, Austria has been a bridge between Russia and the European Union, maintaining an objective and loyal attitude towards the country and not succumbing to the general hysteria sweeping the continent. Austria has always believed that it is important to preserve communication channels with Moscow. For example, Austria did not follow the lead of other Western countries that expelled Russian diplomats in a display of solidarity with the United Kingdom following the Skripal case. In the context of the crisis in EU–Russia relations, it is in the interests of both sides to have a neutral mediator. We have to hope that Austria will continue to fulfil that role.

Islands of Cooperation between Russia and the EU

The discussion at the seminar once again demonstrated that Ukraine remains a sticking point in EU–Russia relations. Moscow and Brussels differ in their opinions on the reasons for the crisis in their relations, as well as on the reasons for the Ukrainian crisis and current events around it. As far as the European Union is concerned, the crisis has been primarily caused by Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, believes that the causes of the crisis had been simmering long before the events in Ukraine, owing to the accumulated problems between Russia and the West. Key among these problems, according to Russia, is the eastward expansion of NATO in total disregard of Russia’s security interests. Moscow regards the events in Ukraine in 2014 as a coup d’état that threatens the Russian-speaking population and ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, while the European Union sees them as a popular protest against the regime. Both Russia and the European Union call for the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, the approaches of the two sides are irreconcilable. Russia believes that Kiev’s policies are blocking the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The European Union sees otherwise, blaming Russia’s policies for impeding the proper fulfilment of the agreements. Russia does not even see itself as a party to the conflict. Moscow is in favour of improving relations with the European Union, as it believes that further deterioration is not in the interests of any of the parties. For the European Union, improving relations involves changing Russia’s policies.

Despite the deep crisis in EU–Russia relations, there do exist certain “islands of cooperation.” First and foremost, humanitarian cooperation remains one of the few areas of regular interaction between the two sides. This includes cooperation in science, culture, education and academic exchanges. Liberalizing the visa regime would contribute to greater mobility and success in this area, but it is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future given the current political climate.

When states experience difficulties in their official relations, non-governmental channels are often used to maintain a dialogue – non-profit organizations, analytical centres, contacts among academic institutions and scientists, expert dialogues, etc. The political situation could very well change at some point in the future, which is why it makes sense now to work out a strategy for cooperation if and when that does happen, at least at the expert level.

Russian experts and members of the political community support the idea of cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), seeing it as a niche area of interaction with the participation of Russia and the European Union. However, European experts and EU officials have expressed their concerns that the EAEU is not a purely economic integration association. In particular, many European experts see the creation of the EAEU as an attempt to restore Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. At the political level, the reaction is more restrained. The Global Strategy for the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union states that the European Union supports regional integration and is prepared to cooperate with regional associations. However, the Eurasian Economic Union is not named as one of those associations. EU officials complain that the interests and positions of the EAEU member countries are not aligned, which makes it difficult to cooperate with it as an association. At the same time, attempts have been made to cooperate with the Eurasian Economic Union at the technical level. It is probably best in this situation to work out issues of interaction at the level of track one and a half diplomacy beforehand, involving representatives from interested EU and EAEU countries in the process.

Russia and the European Union have common interests with regard to China. In particular, many experts believe that both players could take a more proactive stance on China’s Belt and Road Initiative to strengthen connectivity in the Eurasian region. Cooperation could be built in the format of the European Union, Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union, China and Central Asian states.

Of course, this set of initiatives is not enough for a full-fledged cooperation agenda, but it is a niche for interaction during the crisis in the relations between Russia and the West. Limited interaction between Russia and the European Union is evident against the background of a rapidly changing world, the growing threat of terrorism and extremism, the conflict in the Middle East, the technological revolution in the military sphere, the growing threats in cyberspace and the significant changes in the foreign policy of the United States under the Donald Trump administration, which has seen the country increasingly becoming a factor of instability and unpredictability in global politics. It is in the interests of both Russia and the European Union to come together to resolve these issues, as well as many others, in a coordinated fashion.

First published in our partner RIAC

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It Is Crucial to Watch Changes among the Russian Elites

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Georgia’s and to a large extent any other post-Soviet state’s foreign policy depends on what happens in/to Russia.

Problems in the Russian economy might be causing reverberations in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc., but it still is not a long-term problem. What should matter more fundamentally to us are internal developments within the Russian ruling class, changes in the government, struggle among powerful groupings, and relations between the civil and military branches.

In other words, we need to pay closer attention to the Russian elites which govern the country and therefore control the country’s foreign policy. This is important since Russia’s internal situation often has a bearing on foreign policy, and that is where it matters to us.

To be sure, watching developments in a country’s ruling elites is crucial for almost every modern state which is geopolitically active. But with Russia, this is even more important as the political power in the country does not derive from the people as in the European democracies, but rather from powerful security and military agencies which enable the central government in Moscow to control efficiently large swathes of territories, usually of unfriendly geographic conditions.

The way modern Russian elites operate is very similar to the way how Soviet and imperial (Romanov) governments worked. Quite surprisingly, in all the cases Russian elites have been always perceptible of changing economic or geopolitical situation inside or outside the country.

It is often believed that a ruler, again whether during the imperial or Soviet times, wielded ultimate power over the fate of the population and the governing elites. The same notion works for Vladimir Putin. Westerners often portray him as a sole ruler to all the affairs Russian and non-Russian and a major voice in what should be done. True, the incumbent president is powerful, but he gained this authority more as a balancer among several powerful groups of interests such as military, economic, security, cultural and numerous smaller factions inside each of these large groups.

To many, it might seem strange and hardly possible that the Russian president balances rather than rules, but generally a Russian ruler, despite the historically autocratic models of government, always had to pay attention to changing winds among the country’s elites. In the beginning, if all goes badly, the elites might be silent for the fear of oppression, but slowly and steadily they would always try to influence the government. If this did not work, the Russian elites would not hesitate to abandon the ‘sinking ship’.

Indeed, Russian history shows how powerful the Russian elites are and how vital their support for a government is.

Take the example of the Romanov dynasty before World War I. There was a big disenchantment with the way the government operated and once the Tsarist rule failed in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and the WWI, the result was immediate: the elites turned their back on the Romanovs and the Empire ceased to exist in 1917.

Perhaps an even better example is how the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Though there were military problems, corruption as well as economic woes, it was still in the minds and hearts of the ruling Russian and Ukrainian, Georgian and other governing circles that the idea of a common state failed.

Nowadays, Russia is experiencing serious problems, ranging from economic and educational to purely geopolitical. There are occasional signs that the Russian elites are getting more worried about the future prospects of the country. Where before the Ukrainian crisis there was still hope of final European-Russian rapprochement and the idea that Russians had to model themselves on Europe, now this idea is dead.

Thus, along with social and foreign policy troubles, the Russians are also experiencing a purely spiritual problem. All point to the fact that there are too many issues which have accumulated during Putin’s rule, which, surely, will not be easy to change overnight, but there is a growing understanding that this chosen way is not getting Russia to a spectacularly good place in the world arena.

This brings us to the pivotal question of what Russia will be like after Putin. Is a change to the existing status quo possible? Many developments show that it is a plausible scenario. Considering how many problems have accumulated and considering how troublesome historically it has been for the Russian elites to act openly against the government, it is possible that once Putin is out, internal infighting among elite groups will take place. As a result, reverberations to foreign policy will follow. It is not about wishful thinking on the part of the western community, but rather the result of an analysis of Russian history and the Russian mentality. Almost always, changes at the top of the government, whether peaceful or otherwise, have an impact on the foreign and internal situation.

This is what should be meticulously studied by the Georgians.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Experts Campaign to Enlist Russia’s Commitment to Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Roscongress Foundation and Integration Expertise LLC (Intex) have signed an agreement on cooperation between their organizations to work collaboratively on the “Russia-Africa Shared Vision 2030” in preparation for the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit. The agreement directed towards collecting and collating expert views for the project “Russia-Africa Shared Vision 2030” that could be incorporated into the final Summit Declaration.

A group of Russian experts plan to present a comprehensive document titled “Russia-Africa: Shared Vision 2030” at the forthcoming Russia-Africa Summit scheduled on 23–24 October in Sochi, southern Russian city.

Sochi, located in southern Russia, has an excellent heritage. In both winter and summer, the city hosts world-class global international events, such as the Olympics, the World Festival of Youth and Students, and many others. Sochi has one of the largest congress complexes in the country.

The key issue emerging from many policy experts is a fresh call on Russian Government to seriously review and change some of its policy approach currently implemented in Africa. It’s necessary to actively use combined forms of activities, an opportunity to look at the problems and the perspectives of entire Russian-African partnership and cooperation in different fields from the viewpoints of both Russian and African politicians, business executives, academic researchers, diplomats and social activists.

The Russia-Africa Summit will be the first platform to bring African leaders and business executive directors to interact and discuss economic cooperation of mutual interest with Russian counterparts, nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even as the historical event draws nearer and nearer with preparations underway, Russian officials at the Kremlin and Ministries, particularly Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and Economic Development and Industry, are still lip-tight over what African leaders have to expect from the Summit.

On the other hand, competition is rife on the continent, with many foreign countries interested in Africa. Resultantly, African leaders have been making rational and comparative choices that enormously support their long-term Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Roscongress Foundation along with the Integration Expertise information-analytical company said in a recent news brief that collaborative writing team of Russian and African experts have been working on a document that would outline the main areas for interaction between Russia and African countries.

An expert analysis, including macroeconomic reviews, and an analysis of political systems and inter-country development strategies would be used to reach conclusions about opportunities for cooperation, make recommendations, and define specific goals for the development of Russian-African relations in the period until 2030.

Anton Kobyakov, an Adviser to the Russian President, noted that “Russia has traditionally prioritized developing relations with African countries. Trade and economic relations as well as investment projects with the countries of the African continent offer enormous potential. Major Russian businesses view Africa as a promising place for investment.” 

Andrei Kemarsky, Director of the Department of Africa of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the work on the series of expert reports united by the common theme “Russia-Africa Shared Vision 2030” would make a significant contribution to intensifying Russian-African cooperation and would further promote Russia’s interests on the African continent.

“This project seems to be particularly relevant given the fact that the Russia-Africa Summit is scheduled to be held in Russia with the participation of heads of all African countries,” Kemarsky said.

In December 2017, Russian Export Center became a shareholder of Afreximbank. Russian Export Center is a specialized state development institution, created to provide any assistance, both financial and non-financial, for Russian exporters looking for widening their business abroad.

 “We are seriously looking at multifaceted interaction with Africa. Russia has a long historical connection with the continent since the time African states started gaining their independence. However, that has lost its momentum in early 90s. It is our major goal now to rebuild the trust and the connections with the African countries to make the strong foundation for further business cooperation,” the General Director of the REC, Andrei Slepnev, told me in an emailed interview.

“We’re witnessing a clear growing interest from the both sides to establish the new level of relationships which means it is a perfect timing to boost the economic agenda we have, create a platform to vocalize these ideas and draw a strong roadmap for the future,” stressed Slepnev.

“Given the growing interest in Africa, Russian organizations, both private and public, need a high-quality guide that will help to avoid at least some of the mistakes that have already been made and provide pointers on some of the most promising mechanisms for collaboration,” Roscongress Foundation CEO, Alexander Stuglev, said.

Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a Senior Lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics said that Russia and Africa needed each other – “Russia is a vast market not only for African minerals, but for various other goods and products produced by African countries.”

Currently, the signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, already many important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen, first of all, how these intentions and agreements would be implemented in practice with African countries, according to Arkhangelskaya.

During the signing of an agreement between the Integration Expertise and Roscongress Foundation, Yevgeny Korendyasov, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that intensifying Russian-African cooperation was now among the list of current priorities of the Russian government and the business community.

“Preparations for the Russia-Africa Summit as a new platform for the Russian-African partnership are in full swing. In this situation, ensuring that relations between countries reach a new level requires a rethinking of approaches, mechanisms, and instruments for cooperation based on their heightened significance in the new conditions of world politics and economics,” according to Yevgeny Korendyasov.

Andrei Maslov, an Expert at the Valdai Discussion Club, noted that Russia’s partnership with the African continent was also a major focus at the Valdai International Club’s  discussion platform, which hosted an expert session titled “Russia’s Return to Africa: Interests, Challenges, and Prospects” held in March 2019.

On March 19, under the Chairmanship of Yury Ushakov, an Aide to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Organizing Committee on Russia-Africa held its first meeting in Moscow. The Russia–Africa summit is expected to be attended by roughly 3,000 African businessmen, according to the official meeting report.

As a way to realize the target goals, a preliminary Russia-Africa Business Dialogue as part of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) will take place on June 6–8, and will be followed by the annual shareholders meeting of African Export-Import Bank. Russian Export Center became a shareholder in December 2017.

The Roscongress Foundation, established in 2007, is a socially oriented non-financial development institution and a major organizer of international business conventions, together with Russian Export Center are the key institutions responsible for preparation and holding of the all events. President Vladimir Putin put forward the Russia—Africa initiative at the BRICS summit (Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) in Johannesburg in July 2018.

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Russia and North Korea: Key areas for cooperation

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The April 25 meeting in Vladivostok between President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un was their first since the North Korean leader came to power in 2011. Arriving on his armored train, Kim Jong-un said that he had always dreamed of visiting Russia and hoped that his first visit would not be the last.

“We talked about the history of our bilateral relations, about the current situation and the development of relations between our two countries,” Vladimir Putin said wrapping up the opening phase of the negotiations, which lasted for two hours – twice longer than originally planned.

Kim Jong-un said that the two leaders “had a very meaningful and constructive exchange of views tete-a-tete on all pressing issues of mutual interest.”

“I am grateful for the wonderful time I have spent here, and I hope that our negotiations will similarly continue in a useful and constructive way,” he added.    

The talks later continued in an expanded format and ran for three and a half hours.

“We had a detailed discussion of all issues on our agenda: bilateral relations, matters related to sanctions, the United Nations, our relations with the United States and, of course, the central issue of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, focusing on different aspects of all these problems,” Vladimir Putin said during the final press conference.

The main outcome of the talks, however, was the two leaders’ repeated emphasis on the need to restart the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as Russia’s readiness to act as a de-facto mediator between Pyongyang and Washington. Representatives of Russia, North and South Koreas, China, Japan and the United States regularly met between 2003 and 2008 (under Kim Jong-il), but those meetings were eventually suspended by Pyongyang following Washington’s refusal to ease the sanctions regime and its attempts to revise existing accords.

Ahead of the Vladivostok summit, the US Special Envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, made a brief visit to Moscow to discuss the terms of the new Korean settlement parley. The US State Department described the diplomat’s visit as a desire to “discuss respective bilateral engagements with North Korea and efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

However, Mr. Biegun’s visit only underscored the lingering differences in the negotiating sides’ views on resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula and regarding the mechanisms and mutual steps needed to make this happen. While North Korea, Russia and China are holding out for a phased lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang in exchange for North Korea gradually rolling back its nuclear missile program under international security guarantees, the United States insists on Pyongyang’s prior cessation of its entire nuclear missile development effort. According to Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un then asked him to convey his position and expectations to Washington.

“Chairman Kim Jong-un personally asked us to inform the American side about his position and the questions he has about what’s unfolding on the Korean Peninsula,” Vladimir Putin told reporters after the summit.  He promised to do this at upcoming international forums – including in China, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The North Korean leader had thus decided to get back to Pyongyang’s previous practice of “balancing” between the leading world powers in an effort to achieve maximum possible concessions. This balancing act is important for Pyongyang primarily with Washington and Moscow – especially after the failure of the US-North Korean summit held in Hanoi in February.

According to Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, “Kim Jong-un’s trip to Vladivostok means that he is looking for outside support amid his stuttering talks with the United States.”.

“With the failure of the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un needs to confirm that he is generally committed to denuclearization, but within the framework of the Russian-Chinese phased plan. Donald Trump and his team reject this and demand a complete denuclearization of the DPRK as a condition for lifting the sanctions,” Go Myung-hyun of Seoul’s ASAN Institute of Policy Studies said.

“What Pyongyang now needs following the failure the Vietnam summit is at least a semblance of minimal diplomatic success,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said.

The list of countries Kim Jong-un can now turn to for diplomatic support is very short. These are essentially Russia and China. However, his visit to Beijing is not in the best interest of China, which is currently locked in tense trade negotiations with the United States.

Therefore, Kim Jong-un apparently hopes that his talks with Russia will send a signal to Washington that since political pressure on Pyongyang is not working, the Americans should proceed to a phased lifting of sanctions against North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang partially coming across on its nuclear missile program.

“North Korea’s strategy always has been walking a tight-rope between the conflicts of the world powers and getting concessions that way,” the BBC commented.

With the successful Russian-North Korean summit, which reaffirmed the two countries’ shared desire to breathe new vigor into the Korean settlement process, the ball is now in the US court, and President Trump’s well-known predilection for quick fixes and spectacular moves inspires hope for his next, third, meeting with Kim Jong-un.

During his recent visit to Washington, South Korean President Moon Jae-in underscored the need for a new such meeting between Trump and Kim. When meeting with Donald Trump, President Moon stressed that his “important task” is to “maintain the momentum of dialogue” toward North Korea’s denuclearization while expressing “the positive outlook, regarding the third US-North Korea summit, to the international community that this will be held in the near future.” Donald Trump responded in his peremptory manner: “I enjoy the summits, I enjoy being with the chairman,” he said, adding that his previous meetings with the North Korean leader had been “really productive.”

Although there has been no word yet about when exactly this meeting could happen, Kim Jong-un has already made it clear that he is ready “to be patient and wait for the American president by the end of the year.”

Seoul, another target of Pyongyang’s political signals, factors in very importantly in the diplomatic activity currently swirling around North Korea. 

“Kim launched the inter-Korean phase of the “new way” immediately after the meeting in Hanoi. It involves ratcheting up pressure on South Korea to demonstrate greater independence from the US,” The Hill commented.

“Of course, while it is awkward for South Korea to say so openly, there is no gainsaying the fact that the failure to make really meaningful progress in implementing the detailed agreements negotiated during the inter-Korean summits in Panmunjom and Pyongyang is due to the constraints imposed by South Korea’s support for the US’ North Korea policy.”

“South Koreans truly may be the most effective mediators precisely because they are caught between the parties: the Americans with whom they share long-term, common interests; and the North Koreans with whom they share an existential, common national identity,” the publication concluded.

In addition to general political issues and the problem of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, economic projects in energy and infrastructure, including the construction of a gas pipeline and a railway line linking the two countries are an equally important aspect of cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

All these things, however, depend very much on the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula and the prospects for the normalization of inter-Korean relations.

“I spoke about this. We have been talking about this matter for many years. This includes direct railway traffic between South Korea, North Korea and Russia, including our Trans-Siberian Mainline, opportunities for laying pipelines – we can talk about both oil and gas, as well as the possible construction of new power transmission lines. All of this is possible. Moreover, in my opinion, this also meets the interests of the Republic of Korea, I have always had this impression. But, apparently, there is a shortage of sovereignty during the adoption of final decisions, and the Republic of Korea has certain allied obligations to the United States. Therefore, everything stops at a certain moment. As I see it, if these and other similar projects were implemented, this would create essential conditions for increasing trust, which is vitally needed to resolve various problems,” President Vladimir Putin said about this particular aspect of the talks with his North Korean counterpart.

Any further progress in the Korean settlement process depends directly on the kind of relationship we are going to see happening within the framework of the “six” world powers. Anyway, the summit, which has just closed up shop in Vladivostok, gives reasons for optimism. 

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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