Helsinki Summit: Trading Against the Trends

The upcoming summit meeting of Presidents Putin and Trump in Helsinki on July 16 has already generated diametrically opposite assessments. The indignation of Russophobes of all kinds is compensated by the voices of optimists, who present the meeting as a fateful event for the entire international politics.

Indeed, the summit has important symbolic meaning. Until recently, the probability of holding it remained low enough due to the burden of contradictions which had accumulated in bilateral relations, as well as the domestic political climate in the United States. Speculation about Donald Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, as well as the unprecedentedly hostile media background against Moscow put any constructive steps in the Russian direction from the US President under serious risk. However, Trump decisively goes against the current trend. He simply “buys” foreign-policy assets, rejected by the majority. He throws off the liabilities, which his colleagues on the international arena hold hard. Russian stocks are important. And they are phenomenally cheap. Trump is eager to get the political gains before the rest move in.

With all the fuss about the United States’ greatness and the negligible role of Russia in the world economy, the American diplomacy has reasons for concern. The ties between Moscow and Beijing are becoming increasingly closer. The Russian Armed Forces receive fundamentally new weapons systems, which must be reckoned with. Despite its limited capabilities, Moscow can change the balance of power in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Finally, conversations between Russians and Americans inevitably boil down to global security issues: the future of the world order, arms control, global problems, balance of power.

Arms control and dialogue on strategic stability are likely to become the summit’s central topic. It has several advantages at once: global scope, significance for both countries’ security, a set of accumulated problems and, most importantly, at least a theoretical possibility of their solution. This is almost the only topic where the control levers are in hands of the US and Russia. On other issues, Moscow and Washington are limited by other players. This applies, for example, to Syria and Ukraine. As for strategic stability, there is also room for creativity and relatively broad freedom of hands.

New approaches to arms control may appear at the Helsinki meeting. Even radical proposals are expected from the American side, like the consecutive dismantling of the INF Treaty, and possibly even of the START Treaty to be succeeded by some other configuration of arrangements, taking into account the new technological realities. However, it will not be an easy conversation. At one time, Americans offered to view the ABM Treaty as obsolete, pointing to the need of opening a new page. As a result, no new page was opened, and in the Russian-American relations a hole appeared in the form of disagreements on missile defense in Europe. The paradigm shift in the strategic stability dialogue would be consistent with Trump’s style. He could present himself as a constructive destroyer of obsolete (according to some observers) agreements. The INF Treaty, for example, is more important to Europeans than to Americans. After all, it is the European countries that will be targeted by Russian missiles. Washington can point out that intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles are needed to contain Beijing, which has such weapons systems. The problem is that the destroyed arms control regimes are unlikely to be replaced by new ones, and the world is unlikely to become safer. Nevertheless, there is common ground for conversation for both Russians and Americans. Moreover, for Moscow this topic is traditionally the most comfortable one. With nuclear parity preserved, we are playing as equal partners.

The two presidents will probably discuss the entire complex of Middle East affairs. Serious progress is unlikely. The Syrian knot is too tangled. As for the sanctions against Iran, Moscow will not accept Washington’s position, continuing to uphold the UNSC resolutions. Afghanistan became a peripheral topic with no breakthrough in sight. We will rather hear statements of commitment to fight against radical Islamism, as well as coordination of actions to prevent military incidents. These statements are likely to be of general nature, although they may be presented in the “deal” format.

It is difficult to expect compromises or breakthroughs on the Ukrainian issue. The situation here is less chaotic in comparison with the Middle East. But the bunch of contradictions is so deep that such a topic makes any summit toxic. This is a serious problem. With all the periphery status of the Ukrainian issue in comparison to other global topics, it is still the key stumbling block. Over time, it may be eroded by other issues, but its impact on the overall background of the relationship will remain strong. Most of the US sanctions against Russia are related to Ukraine. The presidents will most likely agree to work further to solve the problem. In the language of diplomacy, they will remain of the same mind.

The window of chances is on the issues of digital security. Russia is a major player in this field. At the level of bilateral relations, there are serious developments, although the dialogue remains frozen. The presidents’ meeting can give impetus for its defrosting. Moreover, dialogue on cyber security provides an opportunity to mitigate the issue of the notorious “Russian interference.” There is hardly a topic that is so destructive for bilateral relations on the one hand, and difficult to verify and opaque on the other. New technological realities raise the question of the clear rules of the game. It is difficult to expect emergence of some formal agreements on mutual “non-interference” (claims about this come not only from Washington, but also from Moscow). Moreover, Donald Trump himself is under constant attacks on the topic of “Russian interference” and he will be rather cautious in discussing it. However, the issue requires a solution or at least positive dynamics. Dialogue about the rules of the game in digital space gives such an opportunity.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.