What will Trump and Putin agree on at the Helsinki summit?
Facing mounting domestic pressure, Trump does not have much to offer to Putin except for Syria.
By: Joe Macaron
On July 16, US President Donald Trump will meet in the Finnish capital Helsinki a triumphant Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has just secured another victory in the Syrian war and obtained the international recognition he wanted from hosting the World Cup.
The Russian president will seek to exploit the growing rift between the United States and the European Union and the intensifying Iranian-Israeli rivalry to achieve his two main goals: Break Russia out of international isolation and become the sole kingmaker in Syria.
But in pursuing a deal with Trump, Putin poses the biggest threat to the legitimacy of his US counterpart domestically and internationally. The US establishment and intelligence community largely believe that the Kremlin favoured him in the 2016 US presidential race and an investigation into alleged Russian interference is still ongoing.
At the same time, Trump is confronted with an increasingly disgruntled group of allies who are wary of Russia’s aggressive posturing. That he will be meeting Putin right after attending the NATO summit in Brussels and visiting the UK (which has just had a major diplomatic crisis with Moscow), will not please any of them.
A history of Helsinki summits
The choice of Helsinki as the venue of the summit is not coincidental. The Finnish capital has hosted leaders of the two superpowers for important talks on two other major occasions.
In September 1990, a month after Iraq invaded Kuwait, US President George H W Bush met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Helsinki to discuss the crisis in the Gulf.
Preoccupied with the dissolution of the Eastern bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with a Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, Gorbachev was negotiating from a position of weakness. Bush wanted his commitment to implementing sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime and he got it, in exchange for support for his counterpart’s reform plans.
In March 1997, US President Bill Clinton met Russian President Boris Yeltsin to discuss a range of security and economic issues, including nuclear disarmament. At that summit, the Russian president had no trump cards to play.
The economic situation in Russia had been persistently deteriorating while the government was waging a highly unpopular war in Chechnya. Badly needing US financial support and backing, Yeltsin decided to concede to the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in return for Russia’s integration in the global economy with US help. For that disastrous decision, he was labelled a “US puppet” by his opponents.
On July 16, President Trump will meet President Putin, but this time around, it seems, the roles have been reversed. The US president is facing a growing legitimacy crisis at home, where he is perceived as “a Russian puppet”, while his Russian counterpart has been dealt a powerful hand.
The Trump-Putin deal
This will be the fourth meeting between the two leaders since Trump took office in January 2017. They met twice during the July 2017 G20 summit in Germany and once on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) summit in Vietnam last November.
Since they last met, Trump succumbed to domestic pressure and took a number of anti-Russian measures, including approving lethal weapons sales to Ukraine in December, expelling Russian diplomats from the US in March, striking the Syrian regime and imposing additional sanctions on Russian officials in April.
Putin, too, upped the ante by giving a provocative speech on March 1, issuing unveiled threats of an arms race with the US. Then, after his re-election, he took advantage of the simmering US-EU trade war and the Iran nuclear deal crisis to re-engage with France and Germany, while also negotiating with Israel on key points of concern regarding the Syrian war.
Putin’s actions left Trump with no choice but to move up the meeting and send his national security adviser John Bolton to Moscow to set it up.
The US president plans to meet alone with his Russian counterpart and his translator, triggering concerns in the US and Europe regarding what he might concede if left alone in the room.
But despite these fears, no real breakthrough in US-Russian relations should be expected until Special Counsel Robert Mueller finalises his investigation. Lifting US sanctions on Russia, recognising its annexation of Crimea, and pulling US troops out of Eastern Europe are all off the table for the Helsinki summit; Trump’s hands are tied by US domestic politics.
The only issue on which he can concede to lure in the Russian president is the Syrian war. Trump will give up Syria to Putin the way Gorbachev left Iraq to Bush in 1990.
The prerequisites for this deal are already in place. Trump’s closest ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is scheduled to meet Putin on July 11, just five days before the Helsinki summit; this will be their third meeting this year.
Russia is engaging the Israeli prime minister, aiming to repeat the Deraa scenario in Quneitra province near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Trump seems fine with the idea of ultimately removing US troops from the al-Tanf area on the Jordanian-Iraqi-Syrian border in return for keeping Iranian forces and their proxies away from southwest Syria.
Trump’s endgame is not Syria. What he ultimately wants is for Putin to remain neutral in the US diplomatic offensive on Iran. The White House hopes Russia will follow through on the initial agreement with Saudi Arabia and OPEC and increase its oil output to compensate for the drop in Iranian oil exports caused by the reimposition of US sanctions.
This move would diminish the effect of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on international markets and minimise a potential negative impact on the US economy ahead of mid-term elections in November. Moreover, Trump is also attempting to outmanoeuvre the Europeans in their rapprochement with Moscow by offering Putin to rejoin the G7.
And it already seems that the agreement between the two leaders is solidified even before they met. Russia is passively watching as the EU states scramble to save the nuclear deal with Iran, while the US has done nothing to help the Syrian opposition factions it once supported against the Russian and Syrian regime operation in Deraa.
Apart from that, the aftermath of the summit will also give an indication of how relations between Washington and Moscow will develop in the near future. Will a direct line of communication be re-established, most notably on arms control negotiations? Will the Russian ambassador in Washington have more access to US officials moving forward? Will the US establishment become more receptive to engaging Moscow without tangible shift in Russian policy post-Helsinky summit? If there is a change on one or more of these fronts, it could bring more dynamism into US-Russian relations.