During the visit of US National Security Advisor John Bolton to Moscow this week, an agreement was reached to hold a summit meeting of the two countries’ leaders in Helsinki on July 16. The Russian side has repeatedly said that it was ready to hold such a meeting at any time, convenient for the United States. Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, explains why the summit was scheduled precisely for this time.
There are several explanations for the fact that the agreement to hold a summit of the two countries’ leaders was reached right now. One of them is that President Trump believes he had a very successful meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and now he is confident that he can repeat or even build on this success at a meeting with President Putin. One can argue whether the meeting in Singapore was an American political victory or not, but apparently in the White House it is perceived as a great achievement and evidence that Trump’s diplomacy works despite the critical attitude to it from a significant part of the Washington establishment.
Another reason why the meeting is planned right now and not in the fall, is that perhaps Trump would like to support his fellow party members on the eve of the midterm Congressional elections and get some kind of commitment from the Russian side not to interfere in the American election campaign. It is clear that he will not get such unilateral commitments, but agreements in this area, whatever they may be, can be used in the internal political struggle in the United States. It is very important for the Trump administration that the midterm elections take place without accusations of Russian interference and attempts to influence the internal political process in the United States.
The third reason is the simplest: President Trump wants to make use of his visit to Europe for the NATO summit which will be held in Brussels just before the meeting with Putin. The NATO summit will probably bring some clarity to the relations of the United States with its European allies and on this background there is a certain logic to hold the summit with the Russian president, too.
We can assume that the current US readiness to improve relations with Russia is a kind of reaction to the aggravation of relations with other leading powers. Trump is a businessman, for him the international policy is a set of investment opportunities. If he loses these opportunities in relations with one partner or another, then he seeks these opportunities with others. However, Trump is unlikely to feel squeezed and isolated. On the contrary, he believes that his foreign policy is successful enough, he can press for the decisions he needs, and his partners, albeit without much desire, are forced to follow the general pattern of American policy and American interests. Over the past year and a half, Trump has strengthened his position as an international figure, and now he can launch dialogue with the potentially most difficult partner, Vladimir Putin.
Of course, the forthcoming summit is a kind of irritant in relations between the US and its partners in Europe. Angela Merkel said that Russia’s return to the G7 is unrealistic. The next day Trump purposely expressed his opinion: Russia must be back. Thus, perhaps, there is an element of Trump’s provocation: “You discourage me, warn me, and you meet with Putin yourselves, that’s why I will also meet with him, because your point of view is not relevant for me.”
We understand that the schedule is very tight and there is very little time left to prepare for the summit. Therefore, it is difficult to expect that the summit will end with the adoption of a detailed package of documents on specific issues.
The forthcoming summit will be something like the first meeting between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, when the agenda was open and there was no task to achieve any specific agreements. In any case, the summit did set a certain tone in the relationship. At that time, crisis trends also existed: there was expulsion of diplomats in the early 2001, and the meeting between the two presidents served to reverse this negative tendency. Probably, similar tasks are set before the forthcoming meeting between Trump and Putin.