It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.
First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin. Any far-reaching Trump-Putin agreement short of a complete and unconditional surrender of Moscow to Washington would meet with a fierce and not always fair criticism within the US foreign policy establishment. The odds are that the Congress would overrule or water it down, and high-ranking bureaucrats within the Administration itself would find a way to sabotage it.
Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies. It has always been tempting to go for a grand bargain with US above the heads of Europeans. There might be more personal chemistry between the US and the Russian leaders than between any of them and German Chancellor Angela Merkel or UK Prime Minister Theresa May. There might also be a shared Trump-Putin skepticism about the future of the European Union. Nevertheless, in many ways Europe remains indispensable for Moscow. Despite all the recent sanctions and counter-sanctions, EU remains the largest Russia’s trading partner, the prime source of FDIs and new technologies to the country. Moreover, on a number of important international matters — like the Iranian JCPOA — Russia and major European powers stand shoulder to shoulder against the revisionist US. From Putin’s vantage point, European leaders might look stubborn, boring and even antiquated, but most of them still appear to be more reliable compared to the flamboyant and unpredictable US President.
Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world. How can President Hassan Rouhani interpret it from Tehran? What should Bashar Assad think in Damascus? Nicolas Maduro in Caracas? Above all, how are they likely react in Beijing? The latter should be of particular concern to Vladimir Putin because the meeting in Helsinki takes place against the background of rapidly deteriorating US — Chinese relations.
In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship. If there is anyone, who might push hard for innovative, out of the box solutions in order to turn the Helsinki summit into an epic event, it should be Donald Trump rather than Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader is more likely to take a cautious approach, keeping in mind that any far-reaching deal between him and Trump would be a risky political investment for both, at least at this particular point. The most important thing for Putin today is to change the overall dynamics of the US — Russian relationship, indicating the beginning of a new period of gradual normalization.
What does this approach mean for the US-Russian agenda? As for the strategic arms control, it is not evident that this issue is a top priority for the Kremlin these days. Judging by Putin’s March Address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian leader is confident that he can assure national security even in the absence of a US — Russian strategic arms control. However, politically strategic arms control is still important for the Kremlin; it gives Russia a very special status in the international system and puts Moscow on equal footing with Washington. This is one of not to many areas where Moscow can significantly contribute to global commons. The Russian military might lack enthusiasm about the New Start and, especially, about INF, but the political considerations can outweigh skepticism of the military provided that President Trump is also interested in salvaging INF and/or in extending the New Start.
It is impossible not to bring regional issues to the table in Helsinki, but here opportunities are limited as well. Looking from Moscow it is very hard to imagine any US — Russian ‘compromise’ on Ukraine, which would fly on the Hill and would be acceptable to the Kremlin at the same time. On the other hand, the predominant perception in Russia is that nothing significant can be accomplished in Donbas until the end of next year’s election cycle in Ukraine. Finally, the United States is not even a participant to the Normandy process and is not a signatory to the Minsk agreements. All the significance of the Volker-Surkov bilateral consultations notwithstanding, they can hardly be regarded as an efficient alternative to the German and French engagement.
Today, Russia has little to offer to US on the North Korean nuclear matter. It could have played a role of an honest broker on the Korean Peninsula when the relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were at historic lows. After Kim Jong-un’s trip to Beijing and the Chinese-North Korean reconciliation in spring, the window of opportunity shut fast for Russia. In the nearest future Moscow is more likely to follow the Chinese line on the North Korean problem rather than to advance its own innovative ideas.
A potentially more promising subject for conversation is Syria. At minimum, Trump and Putin can agree on future arrangements for the Syrian South-West and on a tactical deal regarding accommodating Syrian Kurds, at maximum — they can give a push to the Geneva process on political settlement. Does Trump intend to convince Putin to drop Russia’s current partnership with Iran and to shift to the ‘right side’ of the conflict? If so, the US President is likely to be disappointed: Iran is simply too important for Moscow in places like Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Caucasus to sacrifice this relationship in order to please Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi King Salman. One should also keep in mind that the ability to keep good relations with all major sides to numerous Middle East conflicts has been a key, if not the key Russia’s comparative advantage in regional politics; with this advantage removed the Russian role in the region is likely to decline sharply.
The US sanctions against Russia might also be a part of the conversation though the official Russia’s position is that it does not conduct any negotiations about sanctions and leaves it up to states-initiators to decide on their sanctions’ future. The last round of US anti-Russian sanctions announced in April included RUSAL, Russia’s largest aluminum producer, and had a substantial negative impact not only on this company, but also on the global aluminum market at large. Vladimir Putin should know pretty well about the US legislative process that makes it impossible for Donald Trump to lift the existing sanctions against Moscow. What he can hope for is some kind of informal pledge from the US executive not to initiate any further increase of the sanction pressure on Russia. Another issue that Russians might wish to discuss in this regard is the modalities of the extraterritorial dimension of US sanctions — a politely sensitive matter that can become a nuisance for both sides.
Vladimir Putin is also well aware of the importance that Americans attach to the “Russia’s interference” into the US political system. Under no circumstances will he confess that such an interference authorized by Russian authorities did take place. The odds are that he will stick to his standard narrative about some unspecified independent actors (“patriotic hackers”) who had nothing to do with the Russian state. Nevertheless, one cannot exclude Putin offering Trump to sign a US-Russian “non-interference pact” — a mutual commitment not to mess with domestic affairs of each other. The problem for the US side is that the term “interference” is likely to be interpreted by the Kremlin in the broadest sense possible — it might include international activities of American NGO, foundations, media outlets, think tanks, Universities and so on. It is not clear how the two leaders can possibly reach a compromise on such a divisive issue.
The last but not the least, the Russian side would like to unlock doors to intergovernmental cooperation or, at least, to intergovernmental communication at various levels and in various fields including more contacts between diplomats, military, state bureaucrats, and intelligence agencies. The Russian Embassy in Washington should stop being a besieged fortress, the paralysis in the visa services on both sides should be dealt with. A symbolic progress in resolving the diplomatic property problem would also be appreciated by Moscow. One of the positive outcomes of Helsinki would be a decision of the two leaders to start planning a next summit meeting — either on the margins of a multilateral gathering like the G20 summit in Argentina or another bilateral event later this year.
In sum, the current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.