Will Helsinki meeting of Russian, U.S. presidents repeat historic achievements?
An interesting asymmetry of agendas has shaped up for the much-anticipated U.S.–Russia summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. For Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the unscripted face-to-face in itself constitutes a major success and signifies that Russia, despite all its alleged crimes and misdemeanors, is a perfectly legitimate interlocutor.
For U.S. President Donald Trump, making the meeting a success is a serious task, and he needs this achievement in order to prove that he was right all along to defy the objections of his opponents and the reservations of the “adults” in his administration. Putin certainly knows about this imperative of his maverick counterpart and plans to turn the latter’s urge for success to an advantage by the simple diplomatic technique of giving a little and obtaining a lot. The Kremlin leader is supremely confident in his talents at negotiation and has picked up a few clues from Trump’s previous “success” at the Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
In the list of topics both leaders want to discuss, Syria perhaps comes first. But the space for a meaningful agreement here is rather limited. Symbolically, their deal on establishing a de-escalation zone in southern Syria, which was the main result from their first meeting, in Hamburg, collapsed with the offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Daraa, exactly as the Helsinki meeting was announced. Putin knows that Trump wants to withdraw US forces from Syria, and he can demonstrate that Russian forces are also coming home as the leader in Damascus expands his control. Of course, fewer Russian troops and mercenaries on the ground mean more Iranian advisors and surrogates; this is fine for Moscow, but absolutely not for Washington. No meeting of minds between the two presidents looks possible on this issue.
The topic of pivotal importance for Trump is North Korea, particularly as his doubts mount about the execution of the vague denuclearization deal. Putin can easily promise to maintain sanctions, even if he never favored the application of economic pressure on Pyongyang and predicted many times that it would never work.
In fact, his room for maneuver on this issue is quite limited. The decisions on tightening or relaxing the sanctions regime are made in Beijing, and in his country’s relatively weaker position, Putin is obliged to loyally follow those instructions. Similarly, Russia is standing together with China in the latter’s escalating trade war with the US.
Moscow’s contribution to this major global economic conflict is miniscule, but the consequences for the stagnant Russian economy could be devastating. It is probably psychologically uncomfortable for Putin to have no influence over the unfolding disaster, but at least it may enable the Kremlin to explain away Russia’s economic ills by the impact of irresistible external factors.
A topic that Putin wants to focus on is arms control, not least because nothing gives Russia’s international prestige greater boost than engaging in high-profile negotiations with the United States as an equal. The problem for the Kremlin is that Trump is hardly interested in the difficult work of finding calculated compromises; moreover, the latter is committed to a massive modernization of US strategic capabilities. He also appears loath to embrace extending the New START treaty, seeing it as a key part of President Barack Obama’s legacy. For Moscow, on the other hand, prolonging New START (which is set to expire in 2021) is a natural first step in relaunching the arms control process.
In order to interest Trump in these mundane matters, Putin might advance some bold initiatives, like for instance a ban on the deployment of nuclear-propelled cruise missiles, which the Russian president unveiled with great fanfare in this year’s address to the Federal Assembly. Trump probably would not fail to see the value of scoring a quick and easy nuclear point that could be amplified, via Twitter, into a major success supposedly entirely of his making. This cheap breakthrough would help him to close the file on Russian “hybrid” misbehavior- and Putin might seal this accord with a solemn promise not to interfere in US elections.
The main value for Putin of every improvised bargain with Trump is in exacerbating the tensions and concerns within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Kremlin is keenly watching the anxiety among the allies about Trump’s brash demands for increasing their defense budgets. Fears abound that this week’s (July 11–12) NATO summit in Brussels may end up as acrimonious as the recent G7 meeting in Quebec, Canada. Putin cannot necessarily expect that Trump will bring up the question of recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
He might, however, ambush his US counterpart with some outlandish suggestions like canceling Moscow’s nuclear-driven underwater drone project in exchange for Washington not sending combat ships into the Black Sea. Trump has, after all, abandoned the US’s so-called “provocative war games” with South Korea. Any compromise of this sort would be severely damaging for NATO cohesion, which would fit exactly into Putin’s definition of success.
Exploiting Trump’s need to achieve success is made easier for Putin by the latter’s tendency to strongly prepare as well as his lack of domestic constraints - the Kremlin leader faces about as much political opposition as the North Korean dictator. Nevertheless, much like Trump, he worries about his approval ratings, which have dropped due to the hugely unpopular increase in the retirement age. He missed a chance to gain some admiration by being present at the Russian soccer team’s sensational win over Spain and its later heroic loss to Croatia. And now, with the hangover from the World Cup about to hit Russia with devastating force, an explosion of protests is a distinct possibility.
In this uncertain domestic situation, the Kremlin may find a relaxation of tensions with the US to be unhelpful. Keen as Putin is to score a political triumph in Helsinki, he knows that nothing works better for mobilizing “patriotic” support than a “good crisis” with the West. Swift oscillations from back-slapping to chest-thumping come naturally for an autocrat who sees politics as a sequence of manipulations - of crowds as well as individuals.