Russia-US Summit in Helsinki: Expectations and Results

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The summit of the presidents of the United States and Russia Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that took place earlier this week caused mixed reactions all over the world and in the member states in particular.

And while in Russia the attitude towards the national leader is extremely positive and towards his opponent – controversial, in the United States most establishment representatives, including Republicans and national media, lashed out at Donald Trump even harder than at Vladimir Putin.

It became clear right after the meeting of the presidents, when late on July 16 they made their statements in front of the journalists. It is noteworthy that American journalists were much more interested in presidents’ appearance than in the agenda of the summit.

As a result, for a few days already American and many West European media have been repeatedly criticizing, often without grounds, Donald Trump, who, according to these media, surrendered to the Russian leader. And more and more accusations have been made against Russia and even forceful actions against Russian citizens were made, for instance, the arrest of Maria Butina in the United States.

What is behind all this? Who was more convincing at the summit? And, what is more important, what will the meeting of the presidents in the capital of Finland lead to? Political experts specializing in international relations held a small round table.

Experts also discussed the prospects of the international relations in light of the summit in Helsinki and tried to find out how this meeting will influence the United States Congress midterm election.

Politanalitika editor-in-chief, political essayist Boris Mezhuev expressed his own view on the reasons of Donald Trump taking a risk of a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin:

I think that there were two reasons for Trump’s participation in Helsinki summit. The first one was to stop the uncontrolled deterioration of relations between Russia and the USA. It was uncontrolled because the development of these relations towards complete uncertainty depended not on the White House or State Department, but on a wide variety of political process subjects: from the House of Representatives to intelligence community, say nothing of close ties of the latter with Mueller’s counsel.

The second task of Trump was to try to drive a wedge between Russia and China as well as Iran. He thought that he had resources and opportunities to fulfill this task. Perhaps, he believed that the factor of Nord Stream 2 and double pressure on Russia and Germany in this matter would coerce both states into a greater loyalty towards US policy on Iran. Put it shortly, Trump was sure that he could speak with Russia from the position of strength and, quite possibly, he tried to do it behind closed doors.

Helsinki summit was preceded by publications in media loyal to Trump, such as Fox News, stating that the United States finally had a strong president who would talk tough to Putin unlike Barack Obama who allowed Russia’s leader to reunify with Crimea and save Assad. Just before the summit Fox News published a column of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili full of compliments to a “strong” leader. Meanwhile, at the same time when Trump was preparing to make peace with Putin and to do this to put pressure on Putin, Mueller’s counsel issued legal proceedings against 12 GRU officers for the alleged hacking of the US election. It becomes clear that the intelligence tried to define the agenda of the upcoming meeting and ignored the plans of Trump and his team. This was an open blackmail of the President by his opponents in the intelligence community and it became clear that Trump would be psychologically committed to showing that he would not surrender to the intimidation from within the state.

As a result, the press conference made an impression that he sided with Putin against his own intelligence service that knows something ominous about the President of Russia that should be made a key pillar of the talks. It turned out that Trump fell into a trap prepared for him by his internal opponents. And despite the fact that he made no concessions to Russia and even gained some small concessions from it, such as readiness to convince Iran to remove its troops from the Golan Heights and to preserve gas transit through Ukraine, he nevertheless practically ruined the expectations of his fellow Republicans, who wished to see a strong, self-confident American leader getting tough with “Russian aggressor” at the press conference.

In the end he received a predictable barrage of accusations from the liberal establishment, curse of neoconservative never-Trumpists and, as the worst thing, a disappointed hum of voices of his former staunch allies such as ex-Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, who called Trump’s statement about the Russian “interference” at the press conference “his biggest mistake”.

It appears that the press conference and the summit as a whole only increased the wave of Russophobia in the United States. The arrest of Maria Butina as a person serving the interests of our country is the evidence of this. The grand total of the summit: one step forwards, two steps backwards. Or, rather, two steps towards the very same abyss that Trump tried to step back from.

Political commentator specializing in the US studies Dmitry Drobnitsky notices that, from his point of view, everything happened just the way it was anticipated. Obviously, both leaders were not ready to bring concrete agreements to the public attention, holding eye-to-eye talks. By the way, now Congress demands that Marina Gross, an interpreter working at the face-to-face meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin give a statement and, in fact, disclose what two leaders were talking about.

At the same time Drobnitsky does not think that Helsinki summit was a failure for Donald Trump:

I would become disillusioned with this politician if he did not suspect what would await him and did not think over some steps. What is happening in American media is mind-blowing. It is fright. American journalists would like two presidents to have a quarrel. But everything developed in a different way. All these accusations against Russia and its citizens come from here. Let us not be shy: political arrests began in the United States. And they can affect not only Russian citizens but Americans as well.

But I would emphasize an important message of Vladimir Putin when he talked about the necessity to find a philosophical basis for the improvement of our relations. It is an invitation to serious work. Both parties are interested not only in the resurrection of the Cold War, as theoretically Americans have already determined the formula why Russia is a “number one enemy”.

Putin’s phrase about the search of a new basis for the relations will allow a bilateral process to develop further, and critics of Russia will have no grounds for new accusations. Most likely, Trump has a plan…

Mikhail Remizov, President of the National Strategy Institute, upholds the same position. According to him, the US President does have a plan. And it touches not only the development of the American foreign policy, but mainly stirring up domestic policy situation, when the “D.C. Swamp” in fact sucked Trump under, even though during the electoral campaign he promised to drain it.

According to Remizov, it will be the best option for Russia if American domestic policy fixes on itself and for a while drops everything related to anti-Russian sanctions and spying hacking scandals off the radar. This would provide Moscow with an opportunity to systematically build relations with other geopolitical players, including Iran, Syria and Israel.

Also, in Remizov’s view, Russian-American relations are far from the bottom. There are some problem issues that could exacerbate relations further or even bring two states to the brink of a conflict. These points have not been passed yet. And only when they are passed, it will be possible to talk about a full-fledged reset of the relations. But at the moment American establishment has to tackle its own internal issues.

Political analyst Pavel Svyatenkov, on the contrary, is sure that proceeding from general political judgements, it is now, using Trump’s terminology, profitable for the United States to get on with Russia:

It is because it is usually thought that if one has problems with China, they should mend relations with Russia and vice versa. The USA now has problems with China, the raise of entrance duty is expected. Besides, Washington faces the same problems with Canada and Mexico. “Circles of unfriendliness” are emerging around the United States: NATO adversaries (from the bloc that Washington cooperates most closely with in the economic sphere), Canada and Mexico, Europe. It seems that out of geopolitical concern it would be useful to make nice with Russia. There are no trade differences with Moscow, so it is possible to find common ground.

But the question is: in which spheres this common ground can be found? If have a look at the list of the spheres, it becomes obvious that this will not be difficult. What does it mean “find a common ground concerning Ukraine”? If one means Russia conceding on all issues, this is hardly possible and can hardly be called “find a common ground”. Taking into account Russia’s interests is conceding on Ukraine. But Trump is hardly able to do it. The grip from the Congress, security services and “minor” NATO allies is very firm. They are trying to hog tie Trump.

Trump does not have a mandate on decision-making in relations with Russia. May be he has such a mandate for others – for instance, China and Europe where he is more energetic, North Korea. But in relations with Russia his hands are tied. At the same time, his opponents in the US do not have anything against Trump to accuse him of treason.

In the American media the hysteria goes on without any argumentation. Some say that Putin bought him… The problem is that Trump does not have anything to bargain. For Americans, to get on with Russia means Russia’s capitulation. Russia will not do it, while space for steps toward Russia for Trump is very limited.

For example, the agenda on the interconnected Iranian and Syrian issues has been more specific. Presidents could partially agree on certain steps and even concessions. If Russia guarantees security in the south of Syria, serves as an intermediary between Iran and Israel, it would be good for both Israel and Iran as well as Bashar al-Assad. No one in the US is interested in Iran and Israel’s face-to-face confrontation in Syria.

But, overall, Trump is banned from taking Russian interests into account, and this is the main problem.

Rethinking Russia Director, political expert Alexander Konkov noticed that at the meeting with Putin Trump confounded many expectations:

The mere fact of the summit is a positive thing. It was held in a style of Soviet-American summits of the Cold War: Khrushchev-Eisenhower, Brezhnev-Nixon, Gorbachev-Reagan. Over the last years Obama and Putin have not held such meetings. For a decade we have not had full-fledged Russian-American summits. And the fact that this meeting has occurred and the press conference that followed this meeting are already an achievement in the context of a permanent cooling in relations that we have been witnessing in recent months, and within this framework it is the main result of the summit. In my opinion, the summit has become a symbolic point after which there is no space for going lower.

It is important to differentiate face-to-face talks, talks in extended format and press conference. I do not think that all issues raised during the talks were covered at the press conference. And this may be even more important for bilateral relations.

As for Trump’s appearance that became a focus of everybody’s attention and a reason for all accusations against the president in American media, let us remember his appearance at the meeting with Kim Jong-un.

It is now important for Trump in the context of the domestic situation. After a while he will say to his voters that he was the first American president to meet Kim Jong-un, that he met Vladimir Putin despite nobody wanted it, as it is good to have constructive relations with Russia, but not bad. Yes, Trump is criticized for such approaches, but he has a different standard. That is why, voters will not argue with the fact that meeting Putin is a good thing.

One more thing is that, according to the surveys, Trump remains popular. Everybody notices that Trump’s chances to be re-elected are growing. And this means that, Russian-US relations will continue to depend on him, no matter what pressure he is under.

Political essayist Kirill Benediktov, who has written a number of articles in the run-up to Helsinki summit, expressed confidence that whatever the outcome would be (and it was obvious that at this summit no concrete agreements would be reached), hostile to Trump American media would lash out at the President.

A week before the summit there was panic in American mainstream media. Not it is hysteria, and then it was panic. It seems that this panic was based on one textbook – “by no means should Trump promise Putin to withdraw from Syria”.

Judging by the press conference, nobody promised anything to anyone. There were discussions on a number of issues, but no agreements were reached. In Syria the military solve the issues, and politicians follow them. And nevertheless, hysteria is underway in the American media as if Trump gave up everything he could. It seems to me that there were certain pieces prearranged several days before the summit based on possible statements on cutting the US military presence in Syria. These statements did not follow, while the pieces must have been released. It all resulted in a stupid accusation against Trump that he allegedly believed Putin concerning hacker attacks and did not believe his own intelligence community. But if we read attentively, we will see that Trump said: “I have no grounds to distrust either this or that side… My people came to me, they say they think it is Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it is not Russia.” And that is all.

Experts also discussed the nearest political future of the American President and the United States as a whole. Midterm election to the Congress will be held soon. According to Kirill Benediktov, even in the current climate and criticism against the administration of the White House, Republicans have all chances to keep the majority.

Boris Mezhuev was more conservative in his assessments:

The results of the midterm election cannot be predicted now. Russian-American relations are not a shaping factor here. Often the party which holds the White House loses midterm election – this is a tendency. Democrats lost the House during Clinton’s first term in 1994; Republicans – during Bush’s second term in 2006.

On the other hand, the US economic growth and unprecedented reduction of unemployment to 3% benefits Republicans and it seems that Democrats have no clear message to an American voter.

As for the situation as a whole, I would say that Russia needs to get rid of “toxicity”, but it is unclear whether Trump is able to do it. I am afraid that neither Trump nor any other leader can do it.

“Toxicity” will go away if Euro-Atlantic space ceases to exist as a single civilization. In other words, rightist Republicanism headed by Trump or any other leader will ultimately separate the USA from the EU. Or if Euro-Atlantic civilization consolidates in its rivalry with China and, against this background, controversies with Russia seem minor. The latter development seems less probable than the first one, although the first one looks less desirable.

Dmitry Drobnitsky also expressed confidence that at the midterm election a lot will depend on the Democrats who will have to suggest something, since it is hardly possible to win just criticizing the President.

Pavel Svyatenkov is also sure that much depends on how Trump presents his foreign policy. Political analyst reminded, and the majority of experts agreed with him, that Trump is not just a politician but also a successful businessman and is used to making both profitable and less profitable deals:

Trump will try to present everything as a success of his new foreign policy confined to making good deals. One more important factor is whether he will secure a new trade deal with at least somebody – Canada, Europe, Mexico, China. If he succeeds, he will collect everything into a single puzzle, including all meetings, negotiations with Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, and present it to the audience: “Look, I am conducting an effective foreign policy.”

Obviously, in the context of constantly increasing unprecedented pressure on Russia and groundless accusations against it, an attempt to hold such a summit of two leaders is to a large extent symbolic thing, but still significant. So far, the parties have agreed to differ. But Russia once again has demonstrated readiness for dialogue. And the United States at least – understanding Russia’s role in the contemporary geopolitical landscape.



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