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Setting Expectations for the Helsinki Summit

Carol R. Saivetz
Sunday, July 15, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The U.S.-Russia relationship is at the center of the Trump administration. At home, the investigation over Russian interference in the 2016 election continues to enrage the president, while abroad Russia appears to be one of the few countries in the world the president respects. So it is not surprising that all eyes are on the Putin-Trump summit. MIT's Carol Saivetz surveys the summit landscape, assessing what might be on the table and how the summit might go.


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Editor’s Note: The U.S.-Russia relationship is at the center of the Trump administration. At home, the investigation over Russian interference in the 2016 election continues to enrage the president, while abroad Russia appears to be one of the few countries in the world the president respects. So it is not surprising that all eyes are on the Putin-Trump summit. MIT's Carol Saivetz surveys the summit landscape, assessing what might be on the table and how the summit might go.


On Monday, July 16, President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Both presidents want the summit and both need it to appear successful. For Putin, the summit represents a return to what he sees as Russia’s rightful place as a leading world power. For Trump, the tête-à-tête is emblematic of his negotiating prowess and his undoing of Obama-era foreign policies.

We do not yet know the actual agenda—and there is reason to be skeptical even if one were announced. President Trump has said he will discuss “everything.” But, what does that really mean? Will he discuss election meddling? Trump seems to have accepted Putin’s denial of interference in the 2016 U.S. elections—even tweeting recently, “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” He’s mooted recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and seems to be looking for a Syria deal that would ultimately facilitate a U.S. withdrawal.

We can only surmise what Putin might want from his one-on-one with Trump. Russia has endeavored to weaken the transatlantic alliance, hopes for disruption of the European Union by supporting Euro-skeptic forces in Europe, and would like NATO to dissolve. The Kremlin hopes to secure formal recognition of the annexation of Crimea, and the renewed consolidation of the Assad regime in Syria. Most importantly, Putin needs sanctions lifted in order to improve the Russian economy.

To date, President Trump has already given Vladimir Putin many of the items on his wish list. In the leadup to Helsinki, Trump disrupted the G-7 by calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “mild and meek” and “dishonest” and by refusing to sign the final communique. In recent months, he has disparaged America’s closest neighbors; questioned the value of the NATO alliance and attacked those members who are not, in Trump’s words, sharing the burden; supported Brexit; and supposedly offered French President Emanuel Macron a deal to leave the EU. Additionally, Trump has initiated a multi-sided trade war that further frays the transatlantic alliance. What’s left? If indeed Trump agrees to recognize the annexation of Crimea and negotiates a deal on Syria, the only item remaining is the lifting of sanctions imposed for human-rights abuses under the Magnitsky Act, in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, and, of course, for election meddling.


Ever since Russia’s invasion with “little green men” and the subsequent annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s fate has been at the center of European and U.S. relations with the Kremlin. It was the first time since the end of World War II that one country had used force to annex territory from another. Putin hopes to move beyond this issue and Trump allegedly commented during the G-7 meeting that he thinks Crimea should be part of the Russian Federation because everyone there speaks Russian. Russian state TV was overjoyed. Several reports indicate that a presenter proclaimed: “Crimea is ours! Trump is ours!”

Should Trump take that tack, it would be a major victory for Vladimir Putin and leave many of our NATO allies—especially in the Baltic States—fearful that they could be next. Such recognition would also legitimate Putin’s notion that Russia has the right to meddle in the affairs of its sovereign neighbors. Perhaps most importantly, Crimea is not Trump’s to give away—it belongs to Ukraine.


In many respects, Syria is already a win for Putin. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains in power and Russia has garnered new respect as a power broker in the Middle East. Perhaps in recognition of these facts, President Trump seems to be mulling over some kind of a deal with Putin about the balance of forces in Syria. Speculation centers around an arrangement that would facilitate U.S. withdrawal in return for Russian efforts to evict Iran from the Syrian conflict.

Although Putin seems sympathetic to Israeli concerns about Iranian and Hezbollah troops deployed close to the Israeli border—Netanyahu traveled to Russia just this last week—most people doubt that Russia has the leverage to force Iran out of Syria. In the words of Andrey Kortunov, the head of the Russian International Affairs Council, “Trump can’t force Putin to turn away from Iran … Putin is not willing to push Iran too hard and he cannot rely on Trump.” And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged caution, arguing that “demanding that Iran pull out of Syria altogether is not realistic.”

Beyond the question of Iranian forces, President Trump should be skeptical about Russian assurances in Syria. Currently, Russian-backed Syrian forces are consolidating control of Deraa in a new offensive that has sent refugees fleeing toward Jordan and Israel. The situation is a clear violation of the joint U.S.-Russian agreement to create a de-escalation zone there. That understanding is now meaningless.

What Can the Summit Accomplish?

Summits, during the Cold War and after, are not unusual. One need only look at the history of summitry—Brezhnev and Nixon; Reagan and Gorbachev; Clinton and Yeltsin; and Putin and a series of U.S. presidents. Face-to-face meetings can achieve many successes if both parties are realistic. Summits with Putin have eased tensions for a limited period (as with George W. Bush), but have also showcased tensions with the Obama Administration. Russia and the United States do need to devise new rules of the game that some are calling Cold War 2.0. We are competitors, but outright military conflict should be avoided at all costs.

Thus, a useful agenda should include discussion of the multiple military challenges the two countries face, the solution to which might help prevent U.S.-Russian relations from deteriorating further. The top issue should be an extension of the New START treaty. Signed in 2011 and currently set to expire in 2021, the treaty limits the number of warheads and launchers permitted to each side and contains clauses that mandate inspections and the sharing of data. The two leaders can extend the current treaty for five years. Putin is known to be interested in extending the treaty but, according to multiple reports, Trump dismissed the request, saying it was a bad deal for the United States. If the treaty is allowed to lapse, both sides lose vital information about the other’s capabilities—and, obviously, the limits disappear.

A second important item is allegations from both sides that the other violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The United States charges that Russia has tested and deployed an intermediate-range cruise missile, while the Kremlin has expressed concerns about the Aegis deployment in Romania. At the very least, it should be a simple task to assign experts to assess the purported violations; compliance with the INF treaty is in both states’ interests.

Another issue on which progress is possible is the enhancement of military-to-military cooperation. The Russian and U.S. militaries already act in close proximity in Syria. Putin and Trump could not only augment those arrangements, but extend that communication to avoid the numerous close calls that have occurred over both the Baltic and Black Seas.

Success, Failure, or Something in Between?

We may never know why Donald Trump is so reluctant to criticize Vladimir Putin and why the U.S. president seems so eager to disrupt the post-war liberal international order. Putin is cunning and many people feel that he will flatter Trump and seem to commiserate with him about the “deep state” and how Obama ruined bilateral relations. Trump’s notorious unpredictability could also play into Putin’s hand.

Noted Russian commentator Alexander Golts offers a different hypothesis. In an article for Yezhedevny zhurnal (The Daily Journal, an online publication that has been under pressure from the Kremlin), Golts argues that both Putin and Trump are “reactionaries” who long for the 19th Century. He writes: “Both presidents consider world politics to be a kind of new Yalta Forum at which the ‘great’ conduct an unending zero-sum game using as playing cards the ‘small’ countries.” A “new Yalta” portends a renewed division of Europe and long-term competition.

If Presidents Trump and Putin focus on arms control and broader military issues, both could claim success. Moreover, movement on these concerns might presage increased communications and better relations down the road.

If, in contrast, Trump succumbs to vague declarations and uncertain promises—as with President Kim Jong Un of North Korea—the future is uncertain. One fear is that a joint declaration about non-interference in elections would result in a further Russian clampdown on election-monitoring NGOs and, in reality, offer no respite from Russian-supported hacking, trolling, and fake news in the United States. Additionally, Ukraine and Syria remain contentious issues and one can only hope that Trump doesn’t squander the leverage that sanctions represent. In the end, there are no guarantees.

Carol R. Saivetz is Senior Advisor in the Security Studies Program at MIT.

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