The most likely outcome of the Putin-Trump summit is that both Presidents will declare it a success and agree that their officials will begin work on resolving a number of difficult issues. But the real test will come in the implementation phase after the summit is over.
After weeks of speculation, it has been announced that Presidents Putin and Trump will meet for their first bilateral summit in Helsinki on July 16th. Given the tense state of U.S-Russian relations and the absence of high-level contacts, there are strong arguments for Trump to hold a summit with Putin. However fractured the relationship, it makes sense for the world’s two nuclear superpowers to sit down together and re-establish some of the channels of communication that were cut off after the Ukraine events of 2014. The list of issues on which there needs to be dialogue is long: Ukraine, Syria, Iran, North Korea, terrorism—and cyber interference.
What is in this summit for the two presidents? Trump is determined to prove that, unlike Barack Obama, he can have a productive relationship with Putin who, he has said, deserves a seat at the table on all important international decisions—which is something that Putin also believes. Indeed, Trump has called for Russia’s return to the G-8. Trump would like to secure an agreement that the two countries will cooperate on the issues on the agenda for the summit: Syria, Ukraine and “bilateral relations”. For Putin, the summit means the end of the isolation that the U.S. sought to impose on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and a chance to restore ties. The Russian side would clearly also like to discuss sanctions, although since the U.S. Congress passed the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions) Act last August, the President’s ability to lift sanctions is limited.
The situation in Syria is a priority. The de-confliction talks have mostly prevented direct U.S-Russian clashes. But the battle between U.S-led forces and Russian mercenaries trying to seize an oil field in the Deir Ezzor region last February—with more than 200 Russian casualties –is a reminder of how dangerous the situation is, given the proximity of Russian and U.S-led forces.
Iran will no doubt be a topic, both because of its role in the Syrian civil war and because of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement, of which Russia is also a signatory. Putin has criticized the U.S. actions, but he could play a role in finding a solution for the Iran issue that the United States might accept, in particular persuading Teheran to refrain from actions that could provoke a conflict with Israel.
One area where Trump and Putin could make progress is arms control. The New START treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons expires in 2021. Since there appears to be little interest on either side to negotiate a new treaty, the two Presidents could agree to extend the treaty for five years by Executive Action, which the treaty’s provisions entitle them to do.
Of course, the summit could also produce surprises. Trump will come to the meeting after attending a NATO meeting, which already has U.S. allies concerned both by his criticism of NATO and his questioning of its future utility. They would like to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier last month, when Trump left a contentious G-7 summit refusing to sign the final communique, and proceeded to heap praise on Kim Jong Un. Allies worry about what might happen in the closed-door sessions in Helsinki.
The most likely outcome of the summit is that both Presidents will declare it a success and agree that their officials will begin work on resolving a number of difficult issues. But the real test will come in the implementation phase after the summit is over.