Trump-Putin summit: Major diplomatic progress unlikely amid deep distrust and recriminations over Crimea, say analysts

Kremlin sees US president as 'a moron to take advantage of', believes one expert

Oliver Carroll
Sunday 15 July 2018 20:30 BST
Trump and Putin's Helsinki summit: What you need to know

Fresh from conquering his allies at Nato, Donald Trump arrives in Helsinki for a long-awaited summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Billed as “the diplomatic event of the summer,” few expect diplomacy in any normal sense.

The choice of the Finnish capital for the first substantial meeting between the presidents is not coincidental. According to Russian sources, Vienna was the original choice, but White House officials insisted on a change.

A number of explanations have been offered. Perhaps it was because of security. Perhaps because Austria’s populist government has diverged with Western policy on Russia. Perhaps because of famous associations.

Helsinki has certainly hosted history before. It was here, in 1975, that US President Gerald Ford broke the ice with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, with both agreeing to respect post-WWII borders. Fifteen years later, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met here to coordinate joint positions on Iraq. In 1997, Bill Clinton offered Boris Yeltsin membership of the G7 economic elite.

There is little hope of a similar breakthrough this time. The backdrop of Monday’s summit is complete distrust, with bilateral relations having broken down on several important fronts. Sanctions, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, compound closures, diverging positions on a host of international conflicts all stand in the way of a major new concordat.

According to commentator Pavel Palazhchenko, who was by Mikhail Gorbachev’s side as his translator during the 1990 summit, success at previous summits was predicated on pre-existing confidence.

“In 1990, we’d been through the most difficult experiences in eastern Europe, especially East Germany, so relations were already there and we were able to make real progress,” he told The Independent. “Today, it’s a completely different task – it would be enough to resume a more or less reasonable dialogue.”

The summit is the personal initiative of the US president, the result of a belief that personal bonds can overcome complex international problems.

According to several accounts, he made the offer in an off-script phone call to Vladimir Putin following the latter’s March election victory. Officials had instructed him not to congratulate the Russian leader – it may have been an overwhelming numerical victory, but it was achieved on the back of barring the competition, they argued.

Against the advice of officials, Mr Trump not only congratulated Mr Putin, but invited him to Washington. Later, he helped facilitate the exits of national security advisor Herbert McMaster and secretary of state Rex Tillerson, two men associated with a cautious Russia policy.

The American president has made several overtures to his Russian counterpart in advance of the summit. He has praised the “very clever” Mr Putin, and said saying he wants to become his friend. He has undermined Nato and the EU. The Russian leader has mirrored the compliments while criticising the “American establishment” in disparaging terms.

But with an agenda put together at the last minute – apparently still to be finalised – it is difficult to see where substantive agreement can be forged. And many in Moscow worry that Mr Trump, while appearing conciliatory, may not fully understand the issues at stake.

Donald Trump waves to screaming protesters at Turnberry in Scotland

“Trump’s unpredictability and inability to concentrate is concerning many people here,” says Andrey Sushentsov, program director of the Valdai Club, a discussion forum associated with the Kremlin. “US-Russian problems are of a systemic nature, and there can be no takeoff without proper preparation and commitment. People doubt Trump can provide that.”

Ahead of the summit, the Kremlin suggested the “new arms race” would be the starting point for discussion. But it is unclear if Mr Trump has any appetite for the complex issues of arms control. It is also well known his new national security advisor John Bolton is no fan of control treaties.

Meanwhile, the issues that most irk Russia fall outside of Trump’s presidential authority.

Sanctions are largely controlled by Congress, with US law linking them to the annexation of Crimea. There is precious little room for manoeuvre on Ukraine either. Trump’s recent comments suggesting Crimea was on the negotiating table may have worried Kiev. But there is little prospect of Trump recognising Crimea as Russian. That, again, would be against US law.

There is more hope for agreement in the Middle East. On 1 July, following his meeting in Moscow, John Bolton said the topic of Iranian troops in Syria would be discussed at the summit. A few days later, the Kommersant newspaper followed with a report saying Moscow would undertake to help remove Iranian troops from near the Israeli border in exchange for US withdrawal from the region.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has distanced the Kremlin from such reports, likening promises on behalf of a third country to an arranged marriage.

That will not stop Vladimir Putin trying to sell what he does not really have on Iran, the security expert and former Kremlin advisor Vladmir Frolov said.

“Putin cannot forcefully remove Iran from Syria, who can cause real problems for him if they wanted to,” he said. “But he can try to insert himself between the US and Iran to mediate and prevent war. This will make Putin indispensable for Trump for a while.”

Most likely, the meeting will produce a vague, aspirational statement on “foreign fighters in Syria,” allowing Mr Trump to say it means Russia blocks Iran.

According to multiple sources, that statement will likely also include commitments to resume inter-governmental dialogue, frozen by President Barack Obama in 2014. There will be new or renewed mechanisms between militaries, institutions, diplomats and other top officials.

But even this limited commitment to dialogue would be a major step forward, said Mr Palazhchenko: “This is how Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan worked. First, they agreed proper discussion mechanisms. This allowed for a normalisation of dialogue, a change in the atmosphere, and the first results flowed from that.”

A reset of relations would be considered a major success for the Kremlin. After being pushed into the diplomatic wilderness following the annexation of Crimea, Russia has insisted on sticking its ground, and waiting for the West to make the first concession. Now it has that, it is unlikely to offer anything substantial in return.

But what it can do is engineer a ceremonial success. Russia will be more than happy to create a media narrative of diplomatic triumph, Mr Frolov said – only to “lock him in” and force painful concessions down the road.

“The Kremlin views Trump for what he is – a moron to take advantage of, a novice to be played,” he added.

“They want him to bulldoze his way through Western security institutions. They want him to create power vacuums that Russia then can fill.”

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