The Helsinki Summit: the Beginning of a Journey
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Igor Ivanov

Former Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs (1998-2004) and former Secretary of the Russian Security Council (2004-2007), is currently President of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, and a member of the Editorial Board of Russia in Global Affairs.

The long-awaited meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has finally happened. The very fact that the meeting took place is a very positive development in international affairs. After all, a situation in which the leaders of the world’s two leading powers do not meet for years cannot be considered normal. Too many problems exist in the world, and too great is the responsibility of Russia and the United States to resolve these issues, for the summit to be endlessly postponed.

We could argue for a long time about why the summit did not take place sooner. But whatever the case may be, the two parties have finally overcome the psychological barrier that has hampered normal dialogue between the two countries for the last few years.

Unlike the recent World Cup, the summit proved unsensational. Politics is not football. Nobody was expecting the Helsinki summit to bring about a radical change in bilateral relations or major breakthrough agreements. The requisite conditions for such developments have not yet been created. While there always has to be a winner in the knockout stages of a football tournament, there is no point in deciding who “won” and who “lost” at the Helsinki summit: neither leader was expecting his counterpart to make unilateral concessions, and neither intended to make concessions.

However, the presidents took a crucial step forward, paving the way for further steps in the future. Without a face-to-face meeting between the presidents, little progress can be made in U.S.–Russia relations. This has always been the case, and the “top-down” scheme of bilateral relations is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

The lack of dialogue with Washington and the open hostility in in US-Russia relations that has been present during the last few years created significant restrictions for Russia’s foreign political manoeuvring. After the Helsinki summit, Moscow’s ability to manoeuvre in both the western and eastern directions will increase.

An equally difficult and important period begins after Helsinki. How can we maximize the huge positive momentum provided by the summit? How can we prevent the cumbersome and sluggish bureaucratic machines of both countries from dragging us — accidentally or deliberately — back into the quagmire of pointless confrontation?

The problems that our countries and the entire world face cannot be resolved quickly. History teaches us that destroying relations is far easier than building or restoring them. Although it should always be present, political will alone is not enough. What is also required is a strategic vision of national interests within the context of objective processes of global development. It also requires professionalism from the parties to talk, patience, readiness for mutual adjustments, and the ability to take into account the legitimate interests and concerns of both sides in order to achieve mutually beneficial arrangements. And even if all the components for success are present, negotiations on complex issues may continue for months or even years.

The Helsinki discussions have shown that security remains the central item on the agenda in U.S.–Russia relations. This will continue to be the case for as long as the two countries are capable of destroying each other and the rest of the world — in other words, for a long, long time. Any agreements on security produce a positive effect, helping to restore confidence and open up opportunities for cooperation in other, “peaceful” areas.

This is why the parties should focus their attention on the agreements reached between the presidents of Russia and the United States on the establishment of permanent mechanisms for military and political talks and consultations. This will require the immediate resumption of “2+2” talks between Russian and the US heads of foreign policy and defence ministries, the formation of an agenda for the most pressing problems, and the initiation of relevant talks. Among priority tasks is the prevention of unprovoked military incidents. In the longer term, the agenda could feature negotiations on prolonging the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the future of the INF Treaty. Moscow and Washington urgently need to establish an expert dialogue on cybersecurity issues, given the associated ambiguity and sensitivity.

As regards Syria, the United States has virtually resigned itself to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power for the time being and is not laying claim to a central role in the peacemaking process. However, for obvious reasons, the United States has no intention of withdrawing from the region, either. Both Moscow and Washington are well aware that the Syrian crisis is here to stay. Therefore, at the current stage, the key thing for both Russia and the United States is to avoid incidents involving the two countries’ militaries in Syria and to continue to exchange opinions on the situation in Syria in order to promote compliance with the 2012 Geneva agreements.

As for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the fundamental interests of Russia and the United States coincide. At the same time, there are serious disagreements between the countries with regard to both a long-term solution to the problem and the immediate priorities. Washington wants to lead the process and reap all the laurels. Donald Trump very much needs at least one visible foreign political success, and Washington intends to achieve this by increasing pressure on Pyongyang. Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to be satisfied with this scenario, and they can be expected to push for a comprehensive settlement within multi-party mechanisms to which they are parties.

Regarding the Ukrainian crisis, neither country is interested in stepping up military confrontation. Therefore, bilateral consultations will be continued. At the same time, it is possible that at a certain stage, the issue of including Washington in the Normandy format will arise. This step would make it possible to avoid the danger of duplicating negotiation mechanisms and incorrectly interpreting various diplomatic signals by all the parties involved in the conflict.

Given the low level of economic cooperation between Russia and the United States, this subject did not dominate the Helsinki summit. Moscow is well aware that the President of the United States cannot independently tackle the issue of lifting or mitigating the sanctions imposed on Russia. Given the open hostility of the U.S. Congress towards Russia, Moscow has virtually resigned itself to living under sanctions for a long time. The reasoning, therefore, is that a gradual resumption of dialogue between the two countries will help at least prevent further tightening of sanctions by the United States and achieve greater clarity in the matter.

Another topic at the junction of security and economy is the energy sector. Russia and the United States are among the world’s largest producers of hydrocarbons. Although there is virtually no mutual trade in the energy sector between these countries, setting up a strategic dialogue addressing this subject would meet the long-term interests of both parties. Russia has never been afraid of competition, but we think that competition between the two countries in the global energy market should be fair and should not involve putting political pressure on partners and allies, forcing them into patently disadvantageous deals.

The Russian proverb says, “Trust, but verify.” This principle applies not only to the relations between presidents, but to the presidents’ own relations with those who implement decisions made at the top. Therefore, the sooner the time and place for a new U.S.–Russia summit is set, the higher the chances are that the important agreements achieved in Helsinki will be put into practice and that U.S.–Russia relations will exhibit positive dynamics.