On the agenda for US-Russia talks: Energy

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton met with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week before flying to Europe to try to patch up relations with American allies who are perturbed about America’s withdrawal from international agreements, most notably the Iran nuclear deal.

Bolton’s meeting with Putin was to firm up a July 16 summit between President Donald Trump and the Russian leader. Energy Secretary Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: Political appointee taking over as Interior IG | Change comes amid Zinke probe | White Houses shelves coal, nuke bailout plan | Top Dem warns coal export proposal hurts military The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump, Stormy Daniels trade fire on Twitter | Three weeks to midterms | Pompeo meets Saudi king White House shelves rescue plan for coal, nuclear: report MORE, meanwhile, met with his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak, on the sidelines of the World Gas Conference in Washington.

Though Syria and other matters in the Middle East will dominate their agenda, Trump and Putin are likely to discuss oil and gas as well. That’s because Moscow wants Washington to lift U.S. sanctions affecting Russian energy companies and to stop its opposition to construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will convey Russian gas to Germany and beyond.


It is too early to predict whether the Trump administration will modify some of Washington’s punitive policy toward Russia, which has faced dozens of sanctions for its regional aggression and its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The summit could bring clarity to this question.

Over the past three decades, Washington has swung back and forth between disengagement and selective engagement with Russia. Ronald Reagan’s selective engagement in the 1980s helped bring about the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his admirers say. In recent years, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaRepublicans bail on Coffman to invest in Miami seat Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Live coverage: Heitkamp faces Cramer in high-stakes North Dakota debate MORE’s multifaceted engagement under the Reset policy led to both Russia and China supporting the Iran nuclear deal.

A combination of domestic factors in the United States and Russia, along with geopolitical factors, has guided the two countries’ relations in recent decades. This time it’s no different. 

As a trade war develops between certain countries and the United States because of President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation MORE’s transactional foreign policy, the Middle East remains one region that is not sparring with the United States over trade, in part because of changing geopolitical dynamics there — including Russia’s growing influence.

Together, Saudi Arabia and Russia largely control global oil prices, especially with economic and political turmoil in Venezuela. Oil prices likely were a key subject of Perry’s meeting with Novak. Increasing global prices will force Americans to continue to pay more to fill up their cars — a hot-button consumer issue just a few months before the November elections.

Trump sees Russia as an important global geopolitical player, an approach that fits with Putin’s view of the world’s power picture as multipolar, with Russia being one of the poles.    

Trump repeatedly has called for Russia to have a say in global decision-making, a stance that many American allies oppose. They contend it rewards Moscow for its proxy wars and interference in Syria’s civil war.

Unlike Obama’s sweeping Russia engagement policy, which covered issues ranging from nuclear arms prevention to democracy building, Trump likely will take a selective engagement approach with Moscow, focusing on issues such as stabilizing oil prices, the Syrian conflict and Iran. 

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, says Putin wants “linkage” when he negotiates with Washington — meaning that when the United States asks Russia for something, Putin will ask for something in return.

One demand may be the removal of U.S. sanctions, which have deprived big Russian companies of western capital for expansion. Another may be that the United States stop trying to prevent the completion of Nord Stream 2. The Baltic Sea pipeline will let Russia supply more of its gas to Europe directly.

Even if President Trump wants to lift sanctions against Russia — he has delayed imposing some in the past — there is bipartisan support for sanctions in Congress, which he may not want to negotiate before the midterm elections, or be able to overcome.  

It is difficult to predict the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations, but history has shown that U.S. cooperation with authoritarian regimes has proved futile. Russia sees the United States as a threat to its national security. Moscow’s propaganda machine has promoted the notion that the West — in the form of NATO — has moved dangerously close to its borders.

Still, the United States and Russia can find ways to cooperate over the short term — in energy matters, for example. Whether this is lasting for the long term, however, remains to be seen.

Rauf Mammadov is resident scholar on energy policy at The Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of energy security, global energy industry trends, and energy relations between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Caucasus. Prior to joining MEI, he held top administrative positions for the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) from 2006 to 2016. In 2012, he founded and managed the SOCAR office in Washington D.C.