The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki held on July 16 signalled a thaw in US-Russia relations, which have in recent years degenerated into acrimonious mutual recriminations, expanding economic sanctions and military confrontations (through proxies) across Europe and Asia. The two leaders projected cordiality and mutual respect in their joint press conference, though they were frank in expressing their differences.
Impressions about the summit have been dominated by the narrative in American media and political circles that President Trump cut a sorry figure in the press conference vis a vis an arch-adversary – his demeanour was variously described as deferential, submissive and even obsequious. Deep suspicions were voiced that he may have made unwise concessions to the Russian in their one-to-one meeting of over two hours. The most trenchant criticism was predictably over his ill-judged public comments about Russian “meddling” in US elections – belittling the assessment of US intelligence agencies, renewing his old allegations about a cover-up and seeming to endorse President Putin’s suggestion of mutual assistance in the investigations.
In actual fact, the joint press conference revealed differences and convergences, but did not show major shifts in US or Russian positions. There was no mention of lifting of sanctions. President Putin confirmed that President Trump had reiterated the US position on the illegality of the Russian annexation of Crimea. He said he had requested that the US should put pressure on Ukraine to honour the Minsk agreements. He argued for coordination on Syria between the Russia-led Astana process (including Turkey and Iran) and the US-led “small group” (including France, UK, Saudi Arabia & Jordan) to facilitate a political settlement. He expressed concern at US withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran. President Trump did not respond to the remarks on Ukraine and Syria, but forcefully emphasised the need for continued pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions, its “campaign of violence … throughout the Middle East” and its expanding role in Syria. He repeated his opposition to the Russo-German Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project, on which he had publicly harangued the German Chancellor at the NATO Summit a couple of days earlier.
The two leaders did voice convergence on some issues. They agreed to work towards a strategic arms reduction treaty, as the new START lapses in 2021. They noted the success of deconfliction arrangements between their militaries in Syria. President Putin appreciated intelligence cooperation with US agencies during the just-concluded FIFA World Cup. Importantly, they agreed to operationalize a separation of Israeli and Syrian troops in the Golan Heights in southern Syria, partially addressing Israeli concerns about Iranian military presence in Syria. More significant was an agreement to extend humanitarian assistance to Syria. This could mean a dilution of the Trump Administration’s line (especially since January) that it would not support humanitarian assistance in Syrian regions under the control of the Assad government. It was announced that a joint working group of captains of business would generate suggestions for enhancing economic cooperation – an interesting initiative in the environment of a harsh sanctions regime. Finally, President Trump said the Helsinki discussions would be followed up by the two National Security Councils.
The furore in the US Congress and media about President Trump’s comments on Russian meddling overshadowed the summit’s achievements and put the Trump Administration on the backfoot in respect of follow-up actions. The indictment (virtually on the eve of the summit) of twelve Russian military intelligence officers for cybercrimes during the Presidential election campaign and the arrest of a Russian woman for illegally acting as a “foreign agent” had already muddied the waters. To deflect some of the criticism, the State Department issued a strong statement confirming US opposition to the annexation of Crimea, just before a testimony of Secretary of State Pompeo before a US Senate Committee, at which he was grilled by both Republicans and Democrats on the details of the Trump-Putin conversation. Congresspersons were particularly incensed at the fact that the Russian side was releasing information, while the Trump Administration was tight-lipped about what exactly transpired in the tete a tete.
Russian sources revealed that a meeting of the two National Security Advisors is scheduled for August, the Secretary of State may visit Russia in the autumn and bilateral consultations at the Deputy Foreign Ministers’ level may resume (they were last held in September 2017). The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) reported that discussions had been held in Moscow (July 25) between US and Russian experts on strategic stability, arms reduction, deconfliction arrangements and mutual allegations of violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Secretary Pompeo telephoned his Russian counterpart (July 21); the State Department release said they discussed (besides developments in southwestern Syria – see the later section on Syria) counterterrorism process coordination, establishing business-to-business dialogue and improving mutual diplomatic access.
Progress in improving relations may well be slow and tortuous, because of entrenched positions on many issues and strong political resistance in the US. Nevertheless, President Trump defied domestic opposition and announced that he had invited President Putin to Washington. President Putin responded (during a media interaction in South Africa) that he would go, “given the right conditions”, and also disclosed that he had invited President Trump to Moscow.
July 30, 2018