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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2243

The ongoing fallout from Helsinki;
New energy talks with Kyiv

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
August 16, 2018

July 17:

In response to widespread controversy over the outcome of his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin, President Trump is seeking to clarify his remarks in Helsinki.
NBC News reports that President Trump has stated that he misspoke in his post-meeting press conference with Putin, and intended to say that he did not see any reason why Russia "wouldn't" be responsible for U.S. election interference in the 2016 cycle - effectively reversing the statement he made in Helsinki, in which he suggested that the Kremlin was not responsible. President Trump also used the occasion to express "full faith and support" for U.S. intelligence agencies and their conclusions, including their assessment that Russia bore responsibility for election meddling.

With two major ten-year energy contracts between Russian and Ukrainian state energy giants Gazprom and Naftogaz set to expire in 2019, both governments must forge a new agreement to keep gas supplies flowing.
The TASS news agency reports that representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union will participate in trilateral talks this week to try to reach an understanding on continued supply and transit terms. When asked to comment on the negotiations, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak stated only that "we have a constructive attitude and hope that all parties will discuss in this course."

The Russian political establishment is celebrating its president's triumph at the Helsinki summit.
Journalist Matthew Bodner writes for The New Republic that Russian political commentators nearly universally regard the summit as a symbolic victory that reaffirmed Vladimir Putin's domestic legitimacy and drove a wedge between President Trump and the American policy establishment. The most optimistic commentators now sense an opportunity to further burnish Russia's image as a great power. While dissecting differences in the two leaders' body language and cheering Putin's judo-inspired performance, this group has praised the fact that Putin "literally blew up the American information space."

Other commentators, however, have been more cautious in their analysis, fearing that Putin's outsized success will trigger anti-Russian backlash from the U.S. "deep state" — the same kind of backlash that many perceived in the wake of Trump's election. They argue that this could intensify perceptions that Russia is "under assault from a committed U.S.-led conspiracy against Putin and the people." Either outcome, Bodner notes, would serve Putin's own interests equally well.

July 18:

President Trump's remarks at the Helsinki summit continue to cause controversy in Washington, despite attempts at damage control by the White House.
The Washington Post writes that although the President expressed support for U.S. intelligence agencies during his most recent press conference, he still asserted that "other people also" could be responsible for the 2016 election interference, and he avoided addressing the other problematic elements of his engagement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Post described these clarifications as "strained," pointing to the President's body language and the scrawled marginalia visible in the paper copies of his remarks as signs of his frustration at the way in which extensive negative press coverage forced him into retreat.

Meanwhile, competing narratives have emerged about the ways in which the White House has sought to engage lawmakers and the media in the summit's aftermath. Reportedly, cabinet members John Bolton, John Kelly, and Mike Pompeo had a hand in prompting Trump's clarifying statement, although the Post also interviewed anonymous Republican officials who asserted that the response suffered from the lack of a centralized communications plan. Republican responses on record – even from staunch allies like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – were mixed at best, calling for the President to do more to fix the damage. The assessments of Democrats remained scathing across the board.

Despite the lack of concrete progress in the DPRK's denuclearization since the May Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russia is now proposing that the United Nations lift its sanctions on North Korea.
According to Reuters, Russia's ambassador in Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, has pointed to "positive change on the Korean Peninsula" and announced his country's willingness to help North Korea modernize its energy infrastructure if the sanctions can be removed. Matsegora's statement aligns with previous comments made by Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia about enticing Pyongyang to the negotiating table with concessions and reciprocity. However, Reuters notes that the United States shows no sign of easing its commitment to sanctions enforcement. Last week, the U.S. submitted a formal accusation to the UN that North Korea is violating caps on refined petroleum imports via illegal ship-to-ship transfers, and President Trump tweeted that there is no rush for negotiations with the North because "the sanctions remain!"

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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