The announcement that President Donald Trump will meet President Vladimir Putin on 16 July in Helsinki met considerable skepticism in the US. Both members of Congress and influential experts doubted the wisdom of the meeting for several reasons. In the aftermath of Trump’s 12 June meeting with Kim Jong-un, many American elites fear that the US president will make unwise concessions to Russia. They fear that Trump likes reality TV summits so much that he’s motivated to give unwarranted concessions to his interlocutor. Their prime example is his suspension of “war games” on the Korean Peninsula, a concession for which the US indeed got no apparent benefit.
Trump’s recent statements about Russia have set off alarm bells both in the US and Europe, and increased skepticism about the summit. He’s called for Russia to re-join the G7, defended Russia’s actions in Crimea, and continued to express ambiguous views on whether Russia interfered in the US 2016 presidential election. Finally, many in the US and Europe are worried because the US-Russian summit will occur right after the 11-12 July NATO summit. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are concerned that the NATO gathering won’t go well, given President Trump’s testy relations with many European leaders. They don’t want a repeat of the tense G7 meeting in June. Trump has continually sent mixed messages about his support for NATO, expressing solidarity but also doubt about its current mission and cost. Last month, the US president sent letters to a number of European leaders complaining that their nations are not paying enough towards NATO’s expenses. Given Russia’s longstanding discomfort with NATO and its continuing expansion, many observers fear a troubled NATO summit could open the door for Russia to further weaken the alliance when Putin and Trump meet.
At the Helsinki summit, we should expect a modest improvement in US-Russian relations. Several issues are potentially ripe for progress. First, the sides might reinvigorate cooperation in Syria. A US-Russia sponsored de-escalation zone in southwest Syria has collapsed, and the leaders may address the humanitarian catastrophe that is occurring in the Daraa region. The two presidents also may well find common ground in circumscribing the Iranian role in Syria. The US wants Iran out of Syria as part of its effort to contain Iran in the region. Russia and Iran have been “allies” in the Syria conflict, and to some extent that will continue. But moving forward, a top priority for Iran will be maintaining its military infrastructure in Syria, while Russia will become more focused on reconstruction and stability. Trump and Putin may find common ground in putting restraints on Iranian policy.
Second, the US and Russia will probably broach how to handle renewal of New START when the treaty expires in 2021. Progress will be slow, given the US commitment to modernization of its strategic forces, as well as an ongoing review of the treaty by the US government. But Washington hasn’t firmly said no to extension of the treaty. Finally, there will be discussion of oil production. With the price of Brent hovering around $78 per barrel, the US is pressing other nations to increase production – which Russia is willing and able to do.
But any warming in relations will be mild. The situation in Ukraine, a key cause of tension, continues to be deadlocked. Resumption of the dialog between the US’s Kurt Volker and Russia’s Vladislav Surkov is probable, but there appear to be key differences over how to revive the Minsk peace process. An agreement on a peacekeeping force would appear to be the first step, but the US and Russian approaches – so far — differ.
When it comes to Ukraine or corresponding sanctions, Trump’s hands are, in part, tied by US domestic politics. Congress remains hard line on Russia, has a veto over the removal of sanctions, and will create an uproar if Trump “goes too far.” The Mueller probe is at a sensitive stage, as it will probably be completed in several months. That will make Congress even more sensitive about overtures toward Russia at this time, and may even bound how far President Trump himself is willing to go.