When Donnie Met Vova: What to Make of a Trump-Putin Summit?

Following a controversial NATO Summit, US President Donald Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. What will the world leaders discuss? How limited are their options? Will domestic opposition hinder any agreements? Leksika investigates. 


With the 2018 North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit concluding, the focus of the international media’s attention turns to the Helsinki meeting between American President Donald Trump and his Russian Federation counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Friction between Washington and several (but not all) of the European capitals as well as tension between President Trump and his domestic opposition cast a shadow over the summit with these parties expressing concern that the American leader will cave to the demands of the Russian president. Such concerns stem from charges that President Trump has been comprised by Russian intelligence or is at least sympathetic to Moscow. 

Regardless of the validity of such accusations, it is worth inquiring as to what “demands” President Putin will make of his American counterpart. What does Russia hope to gain from this summit and what does it realistically expect to achieve? More so, how will the Kremlin react is President Trump proves unable or unwilling to comprise on any issues? 

A previous article published by Leksika (and written by one of the authors of this piece) argued that Russo-American relations were at an historic impasse; that Moscow’s 19thcentury great power politics and Washington’s liberal interventionist agenda were incompatible on the world stage and one side would have to abandon their respective system in order to reduce tensions between East and West. Russia certainly shows no signs compromising in this regard. Russian operates on the basis of derzhavnost’, the belief that Russia is a great power and should be respected as one by the West. The key objective of Russian diplomacy with the U.S. is to achieve a sort of grand bargain in which Moscow is given a free hand by Washington to execute a Monroe Doctrine-style policy in its near abroad. Andrey Klimov, the chair of the Federation Council’s (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) foreign affairs committee, called recognition of Russia as a great power “a return to common sense.” 

Experts agree that Russia will likely raise this point at the summit. Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s former Ambassador to Russia, argues that President Putin could give President Trump “a history lesson about Ukraine or about Russia’s relations with Syria, and the president somehow says he will reverse his own administration’s policy. I don’t predict that will happen, to be clear, but that would be my worry.” President Putin will behave as he has at past meetings with U.S. leaders, using the summit as an opportunity to recount American misdeeds.Klimov argues that this is a chance for President Trump to hear the other side of the story. Russian journalist Leonid Bershidskiy adds that Helsinki will present a chance for President Putin to make himself look like the reasonable leader on the world stage. 

Still, this is typical Putin behavior. Evidence of more concrete proposals for the summit – on both sides – remains scant. Bershidskiy notes that there are no plans to discuss a withdrawal of NATO troops from European soil, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, or the U.S. returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; better known as the “Iran nuclear deal”). “I’d be surprised if there were any major agreements,” said former Ambassador William Burns, who is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “There’s a trap if anyone thinks there’s a grand partnership to be had. Russia will remain an adversarial relationship.” Russia too appears skeptical of any sort of breakthrough, and Moscow’s agenda for the summit remains unclear. Kremlin aide Yuriy Ushakov spoke of the possibility of a joint declaration on improving U.S.-Russia relations, a sentiment shared by Foreign Ministry (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del; MID) spokeswoman Mariya Zakharova; “In general, I’d recommend everyone not to use phrases like ‘breakthroughs’ and such like... I suggest taking quite a pragmatic and realistic view of these meetings.”

With a grand bargain between both powers highly unlikely, it is worth examining some of the individual points of contention in Russo-American relations, what Moscow’s goals are with respect to each of them, and whether the Trump administration is willing or able to concede. 

The Forgotten War   

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its subsequent sponsorship of an insurrection in the country’s eastern Donbas region proved to be major factors in the deterioration of Russo-American relations. They are also a major focus for Western media and politicians with regard to the upcoming Trump-Putin summit. These figures fear that President Trump’s “comprised” state could lead him to “surrender” Ukraine and Crimea to Russia. 

Russia strongly desires a U.S. withdrawal from interference in Ukraine’s affairs. Per Moscow’s narrative, the Maydan uprising of early 2014 that forced out Ukraine’s Russia-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych, was an illegitimate, Western-backed coup d’état designed to draw Ukraine away from Russia’s sphere of influence, where the Kremlin argues that it rightfully belongs. Moscow was also disturbed by the how the revolution brought to power anti-Russian, ultra-nationalist political parties like Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) and Svoboda (Freedom) as well as their paramilitary arms, organizations such as the Azov Battalion and C14. 

As for President Trump’s views on the conflict, he has previously stated that Crimea is rightfully Russia’s because the population there speaks Russian. It is unclear whether this remains his official position, with him only saying that “we’re going to have to see,” when directly asked if the U.S. will recognize the peninsula as part of Russia. In any event only the U.S. Congress can grant official American recognition of Crimea as a republic of the Russian Federation. For his part, National Security Advisor John Bolton insists that Crimea is notpart of Russia and Congress is unlikely to lift sanctions, one of the few points of bipartisan consensus. 

Further, there is no talk of ending U.S. support for Ukraine. American weapons are already in the country and NATO advisors have become a mainstay in Ukraine’s armed forces. (Including among units such as Azov, which Russia fears will acquire American weapons and use them in the east against the separatists and the Russian commandos that support them, escalating a conflict on Russia’s borders.) For its part, Russia is unlikely to consider anything with regard to Ukraine until after Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections next year. 

Yet, some suggest that Putin will reintroduce the idea of stationing peacekeepers in Ukraine. European leaders have previously rejected such proposals. Europe wants an international force to police Ukraine, forcing Russian mercenaries and special operators out and ensuring the reintegration of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblastiwith the rest of Ukraine. Conversely, Russia wants peacekeepers to serve along a 500-kilometer line of separation between eastern and western Ukraine alongside international observers. As such, European leaders most likely will not agree to such a proposal if President Putin reintroduces it, and given the views of President Trump’s cabinet, the American foreign policy bureaucracy, and the U.S. Congress, a compromise with regard to the Ukrainian conflict favoring Russia – or a compromise of any kind – is unlikely to be reached at the upcoming Helsinki summit.  

With Friends Like These…

A further concern among European leaders is the rather hostile rhetoric that President Trump directs toward NATO member states. The American president has called the Atlantic Alliance “as bad as [the North American Free Trade Agreement; NAFTA],” called for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Germany, and suggested that NATO countries devote four percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to military spending (as opposed to the two percent threshold that only five member states have met). He has initiated a trade war with Europe by putting tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the European Union. He threatened to do likewise with European automobile manufacturers. Meanwhile, President Trump as called for the readmittance of Russia into the Group of Eight (G8), from which Russian was expelled in 2014 for its annexation of Crimea. 

Such statements leave European leaders concerned that if President Trump is sincere in his statements, he will be open to manipulation by President Putin, considered by many analysts to be plotting to divide the West through subversion and immobilize the Atlantic Alliance. Indeed, the expansion of NATO is a major point of contention in Russo-American relations. Russia cites the Alliance’s eastward movement as a betrayal by the West as it violated a gentlemen’s agreement between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that such expansion would not take place (though some dispute the historical context of this promise). In Moscow’s view, the encroachment of the West into its traditional sphere of influence left it with no choice but to engage in military actions such as the 2008 intervention in Georgia and the sponsorship of insurrectionists in eastern Ukraine. 

However, allegations that President Putin wishes to destroy the Western world order – especially by using President Trump as an asset – stand on flimsy ground. Firstly, President Trump does not have the authority to readmit Russia into the G8. The other members are stalwart in their convictions that Russia should not be welcomed back. Russia is still a member of the G20, which gives President Putin the opportunity to schmooze with such figures as China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Additionally, Russia, as a major aluminum and steel producer, will suffer from President Trump’s trade war with Europe. As Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and New York University, points out, Russia has too many interests in Europe to risk destabilizing the Western world order. Europe is a major customer of Russian-supplied energy, Western corporations have long desired to invest in Russia, and much of the wealth held by Russian oligarchs is kept in banks in the West. 

Furthermore, the U.S. government does not appear to be in line with President Trump’s more drastic proposals, such as a significant U.S. troop withdrawal from Germany. BothSecretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have spoken positively of the Alliance, and the Trump administration continues to put pressure on it European allies to maintain sanctions on Russia. In short, the upcoming Helsinki summit is unlikely to result in any sort of dramatic restructuring of the Atlantic world order in part because of President Trump’s inability to do so and because of Moscow’s desire more so for a return to the pre-Crimea status quo than for the destruction of the liberal-democratic West through right-wing sleeper agents. As mentioned before, though, President Putin will still likely voice his objections to the Alliance’s expansion and the American military presence in Europe (including on Russia’s borders). 

Sand Trap

Russia and the U.S. have been at loggerheads over Syria, Russia’s primary client state in the Middle East, since protests against the government of President Bashar al-Asad began in 2012 and morphed into a violent jihadist- and Islamist-led insurgency. The U.S. took advantage of the situation by providing arms to anti-Asad rebels, some of which ended up in the hands of more hardline Islamic insurrectionists. At the same time, the U.S. launched a bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in eastern Syria, working with Kurdish militias to seize the caliphate’s territory. 

Russia intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015 at the request of the Asad government. Its air forces, in cooperation with the Syrian military, bombed Islamist positions in western Syria, with the coalition consisting of Syria, Russia, Iran, Hizbullah, and other militias gradually moving eastward (at times making kinetic contact with U.S. and U.S.-backed forces). Though the Asad regime considers the U.S. military presence in Syria a violation of the country’s sovereignty, American troops remain in Syria, distancing themselves from Russian forces through the maintenance of a “deconfliction line.” 

Still, Russia greatly desires a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. The Kremlin has long opposed U.S. regime change efforts in Middle Eastern states such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria, arguing that they only empower jihadist factions hostile to the rest of the world, especially Russia. The Russian military intervention in Syria served to prevent Syria from becoming a haven for such elements as Libya has. Russia further demonstrated its opposition to American regime change ambitions by renewing the leases on the Tartus naval replenishment facility (Russia’s only naval installation located outside the former Soviet space) and the Khmeymim air base. Both facilities will undergo considerable expansion and host weapons platforms such as anti-aircraft (AA) batteries and air superiority fighters (ASFs) designed to counter Western military technology.

President Trump, too, has expressed an interest in withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria. However, as part of such an agreement with Russia, it is clear that he would want Moscow to limit the ability of Iranian commandos and Hizbullah militants to operate on Syrian soil.The American leader recently floated to King Abdullah II of Jordan a deal he would strike with President Putin, to set up an “exclusion zone” in southwest Syria and ensure the withdrawal of American troops, which have reportedly come under fire in the region from an “unidentified hostile force.” The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) would police this zone with Russia’s assurances that Hizbullah and Iran not be allowed to operate there. 

The area in question is Syria’s Daraa province, which is under relentless bombardment from Syrian and Russian air forces. The assault forced over 45,000 refugees to flee the city with Jordan opposed to any of them crossing its borders. As this region borders Israel, Tel Aviv, like Washington, is also opposed to the presence of Iranian and Hizbullah forces in Daraa. Interestingly, Russia appears somewhat willing to compromise on this issue, and it may be the most plausible positive breakthrough in Russo-American relations to emerge from the Helsinki conference. President Putin may try to convince the leaders of these countries that he can provide the guarantees they seek. Israel, a country with greater ties to Moscow than most would expect, has called for Russia to rein in Iran and Hizbullah in Syria. 

However, Russia’s willingness to orchestrate an Iranian/Hizbullah withdrawal from southern Syria is a separate issue from its ability to do so. Russia’s alliance with Iran and Hizbullah was a temporary one to combat IS and retard the collapse of the Syrian government. Still, considerable tensions exist between these factions. In June of this year, Russia deployed its troops to the Lebanese border without consulting Hizbullah. In a compromise, SAA personnel took overt he positions occupied by Russian forces. On 17 May, President Putin said that all foreign forces should withdraw from Syria. He emphasized that this includes Turkish, Iranian, American, and Hizbullah forces. Israeli officials concur that only Syrian soldiers should be stationed in southern Syria. Iranian officials issued a counter-statement. "As long as terrorism exists and the Syrian government wants, Iran will have a presence [in Syria]", said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi on 21 May. "No one can force Iran to do something. Iran is an independent country and its policies are determined based the interests of the Islamic republic in the world."

Ultimately, Iran is a longtime partner of the Syrian government as is Russia. Iranian troops arrived in country at Damascus’s request before Russia began its formal military intervention in Syria. Moscow is unlikely willing to compromise its relationship with its chief Middle Eastern client state, so despite its desires (and those of the U.S.), it will have to contend with Syria’s decisions with regard to keeping Iranian troops in country. 

Agree to Disagree

Though these are the major points of contention between Russia and the U.S. currently, there are a few others worth mentioning briefly here. The Helsinki summit is arguably the best forum for U.S.-Russia nuclear arms talks, especially given that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires in 2021. Nuclear arms have been a major point of contention between the two countries since the U.S.’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002. This event was followed by the stationing of ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations throughout Europe. Russia feels that these systems prevent it from achieving strategic parity with the U.S. (a key goal of détente) and will give America a clear advantage in the event of a nuclear war. Such insecurities likely prompted Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a point that President Putin may raise at the summit. 

Also overshadowing the Helsinki meeting are allegations of Russian meddling in America’s 2016 presidential election and charges that Trump’s campaign “colluded” with the Kremlin to secure his win. For his part, President Trump has cast doubt on assertions that Russia meddled in the U.S. 2016 presidential election. He also denies any collusion between his campaign and figures linked to the Russian government. Trump administration officials said that the president would discuss election meddling with the Russian leader. Also, merely days before the summit, special counsel Robert Mueller announced the indictment of 12 Russian officers affiliated with the Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; GRU) for their role in the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) e-mails in 2016. In response to the recent Mueller indictment, President Putin and his entourage will likely continue their usual tactics of deflection. Ushakov recently issued a statement arguing that those who oppose improving U.S.-Russia relations should not be allowed to speculate on Russian interference in the election and that raising such issues was harmful to any reconciliation between the two countries. 

In conclusion, though, it appears that the upcoming Trump-Putin summit will yield any results disproportionately favorable to either state. Experts at the Washington, D.C.-based Kennan Institute note that a true reconciliation would involve Russia ceasing to challenge the U.S.-led order and the U.S. to recognize Russia as a partner in the international sphere. They argue that the Helsinki forum will only moderate the confrontation and is not likely to lead to any fixed outcomes. Russia recognizes that because so much of the American foreign policy bureaucracy is at odds with President Trump, therefore making it unlikely that Moscow will achieve any of the results it most desires, namely an American retreat from Russia’s near abroad and recognition of Russia as a great power and international partner. Russia will continue to make such offers to the U.S. in the coming months, a state of affairs largely similar to the pre-Helsinki status quo. 

However, one must not discount the possibility of a further deterioration in Russo-American relations following the summit should Moscow not get what it desires. Professor Cohen argues that a lack of progress in a Putin-Trump summit could have disastrous consequences in Moscow for American national security. Because much of what President Trump wants to accomplish vis-à-vis Moscow has to be authorized by Congress, which appears unwilling to follow the president’s line on Russia, this risks President Putin falling under the influence of military and intelligence officials more hardline than him. As Joshua Yaffa writes, “[The Russians] understand and know how to deal with individuals, less so institutions, with their amorphous centers of power and internal checks and balances.” President Putin could become convinced that negotiating with the West is futile, leading to a more hostile Russian foreign policy and a further deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow. 

In some ways, such behavior has already manifested itself. New evidence has emerged to buttress previous reporting that in 2016 GRU officers bankrolled a failed but potentially violent coup against Milo Djukanovic, then-prime minister (now president) of Montenegro. At the time, Montenegro was preparing for ascension into NATO, and it became a member state in early 2017. Such violent subversive activities on Russia’s could become more commonplace if the coming summit convinces President Putin that it is futile to negotiate with the West. (The intervention in Syria has already convinced the military apparatus that brute force is the optimal approach to rolling back a “color revolution.”) Russia will undertake more drastic steps to curtail Western interference in its sphere of influence.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons