In the wake of Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report — let’s just shorten that to BSMR, shall we? — President Trump apparently wants to take a victory lap. So does Russia. The Washington Post’s Anton Troianovski reports that Russia is feeling similarly: “The lack of a finding by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia served as an opportunity for Kremlin allies to renew their claim that Moscow didn’t interfere in the 2016 election.”

Will this lead to a new dawn in bilateral ties? Troianovski’s reporting suggests some optimism on the Russian side:

For Moscow, the question now is whether the end of the Mueller investigation can breathe new life into Russia’s trans-Atlantic policy goals. After the 2016 election, Russian officials had hoped that Trump’s presidency could herald a chance to lift sanctions on Moscow, engage in new arms-control talks and win U.S. support for Russian foreign policy priorities in Ukraine and beyond....
An opportunity for a “reset” may have finally arrived, Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said in a Facebook post Monday. Russia had to seize the moment to deal with Trump, Kosachyov wrote, now that the cloud of collusion allegations no longer loomed over the White House. For starters, the Russian lawmaker said, nuclear arms control should be at the top of the agenda.

Kosachyov is hardly the only prominent Russian official to express hopes for warmer ties. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier this week that Russia was open to warmer ties: “In this case, the ball is absolutely in their court. It was given to Trump in Helsinki,” Peskov said.

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Trump boosters feel similarly. Stephen K. Bannon claimed earlier this week that the Russia probe had acted as a constraint on boosting bilateral ties. Actually, he put it more colorfully than that. According to the Associated Press, Bannon said, “The ‘poisonous’ atmosphere that built in Washington during the now-completed Russia investigation has set back efforts to work with Russia ‘to unite the Judeo-Christian West.'” Okay, then.

So, that’s that. Russia wants warmer ties. Trump presumably wants warmer ties. There will be warmer ties, right?

Wrong.

Most speculation along these lines is based on the portions of the BSMR that conclude the Trump campaign did not collude with the Russian government. But there are other important portions of the BSMR that will still hamstring any attempt at warmer ties. Barr confirmed that Russian organizations like the Internet Research Agency “conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election.” He also wrote that “The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”

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Even if Trump has been exonerated from collusion, Russia has not been cleared of attempting to influence the election. Indeed, Trump’s handpicked attorney general just confirmed what everyone but Trump has willingly acknowledged: Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Any move by the Trump White House to improve ties will lead to questions about what Trump will do to prevent similar kinds of activities from taking place in 2020.

Another problem is that the Russia probe had done nothing to stop arms control negotiations. Even those who accuse Russia of election interference have not opposed the idea of keeping arms control on a more constructive track. The Trump administration made that move all on their own, thanks to national security adviser John Bolton. The BSMR does not change anything in that set of negotiations.

Having just spent a week in Russia meeting with various academics and officials, my conclusion is that the state of the bilateral relationship in recent years has closely tracked Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. In previous years, I saw denial, anger, and bargaining dominate discussions between Russians and Americans. This year, I would say that officials from both countries have gravitated toward depression and perhaps acceptance. Both sides ritually denounce each other, but in a pro forma way. This is just the new normal.

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Russia will need to see progress on arms control and Trump’s Helsinki promises to believe in an actual warming of ties. The conclusion of the Mueller probe does not affect the Trump administration’s preferences on either track. The United States continues to reject arms control, and Helsinki continues to be the low point of President Trump’s handling of foreign policy.

Trump might think the BSMR liberates him to do what he wants. He is about to learn that when it comes to Russia, nothing has changed.

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