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Ahead of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on July 16, many in the United States express deep suspicions about the nature and outcome of the get-together. In Europe, there is near-paranoia that NATO may be about to be dismantled, and U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Germany. Ukraine in particular fears Trump’s recognition of Crimea as part of Russia. By contrast, in some EU business circles there is a hope of Western sanctions on Russia being eased or even lifted.
Beijing, on the other hand, takes a sober view, expecting the U.S.-Russian contradictions to persist. The Chinese are basically right: European political commentators have gone over the top, while some businessmen have engaged in wishful thinking. The summit will not do away with the fundamentals of the U.S.-Russia conflict. However, the meeting will probably be much more than a photo op.
For Trump, the meeting with Putin is another chance to demonstrate that he can deal with difficult foreigners so much better than Barack Obama. The perceived success of the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un has prompted Trump not to wait until after the November elections, and meet with Putin during his long-planned trip to Europe.
For Putin, a meeting with the U.S. president is not a reward but a resumption of normal business. He may enjoy the fact that Obama’s attempt to isolate Russia is ending in his successor coming to the doorstep of Putin’s hometown for a meeting with the Russian leader. Yet Putin is less interested in the narrative than in the symbol that the meeting will send.
Helsinki will mark the first détente in the four-year-old Hybrid War between Russia and the United States. Deconfliction, already practiced between the U.S. and Russian militaries, which prevented a head-on collision in Syria last spring, may be followed up by a limited de-escalation through the beginning of a political dialogue, which can only be started at the top level.
For Putin, who is increasingly focused on his domestic, essentially socioeconomic agenda, a lowering of tensions with the United States will be very useful. Sanctions will remain in place, but they will only mean what is written in the relevant documents, which give the U.S. president a wide latitude to exempt various items from being sanctioned. Doing business with Russia will still be subject to restrictions, but Russia itself will no longer be toxic. Some business contacts may actually flourish outside of the sanctioned field, which is in itself a major potential win for Vladimir Putin.
From the U.S. public’s perspective, the big cloud overshadowing the Helsinki meeting is the issue of the meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. This is an issue that Trump will be compelled to raise, given the public mood in the United States. Moreover, for the successful summit that he wants, he will need to make sure that there will be no more meddling. Promises are essentially meaningless, but people will be watching in November. Putin, of course, rejects any Russian state role in the meddling, and is not expected to admit it, still less to apologize. However, since he has no interest in the failure of the meeting and the suspension of dialogue, and anyway it now makes no sense for Moscow to meddle, the result may well be that there is no election interference this fall. Trump, of course, can claim that as a big achievement.
The key items on the U.S.-Russian agenda are obvious to most observers: security, regional conflicts, and bilateral relations. On security, both the United States and Russia need to establish clarity about the future of the two remaining arms control agreements: the 1987 INF Treaty that bans intermediate range (500–5,500 km) missiles, and the 2010 New Start Treaty that reduced U.S. and Russian longer-range systems. Both agreements are in trouble. On INF, the United States and Russia accuse each other of violations; as for START, it expires in 2021, unless the parties decide to extend it for another five years. The best way for Putin and Trump would be to agree to start in-depth discussions—consultations rather than negotiations—of the issues pertaining to INF, with the goal of resolving them and upholding the agreement. The idea is not to revive traditional arms control, which is a feature of a long-gone era, but to create a good environment for discussing twenty-first-century strategic stability, including nuclear, advanced conventional, and cyber weapons systems.
Of the regional issues, Syria stands out as an opportunity. Moscow and Washington could build on their legacy of de-escalation zones to reach understanding on the new delineation lines in the war-ravaged country. Even more important, there may also be some tacit agreement on the parameters of Iran’s military presence in Syria. Russia and Israel have been dealing with the issue in the past few months, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Russia three times this year to discuss it. For Washington, Moscow can become the principal intermediary and facilitator for dealing with Tehran, though of course there will be no sellout of Iran by Russia.
On the Iranian nuclear issue, no progress can be expected after Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement, but it would be very important for Putin to understand what Trump’s game plan on Iran is—to avoid unpleasant surprises. On North Korea, Russia will publicly support the U.S.-DPRK dialogue. Moscow may yet make its own contribution to regional de-escalation by staging a get-together between Kim Jong-un and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the margins of the Eastern Economic Forum next September. Then again, it will be crucial for Putin to understand what Trump’s plan is for Korea when he realizes that Pyongyang is willing to surrender a great deal in the process of denuclearization, but not his ultimate deterrence capability vis-à-vis the United States.
The Helsinki meeting’s most important result could be its follow-up. Should the presidents agree on holding full-fledged summits in their own capitals next time (Donald Trump has already talked publicly about his intention to invite Vladimir Putin to the White House), this would set the two bureaucracies in motion.
The two sides would need to come up with potential deliverables and, in the process, reengage with each other after a break of several years. Make no mistake: U.S.-Russian relations will not be miraculously transformed as a result. The Hybrid War will continue. But some rules will be laid down, and a measure of dialogue will be taking place. The Europeans will be at least relieved that the confrontation will not turn them again into a potential battlefield, and the Chinese will be glad to see a bit less chaos under the heavens.
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