Trump-Putin summit an appetizer for future relations

Trump-Putin summit an appetizer for future relations

The leaders of the United States and Russia are preparing to meet in the middle of the month for a summit in Helsinki, Finland. Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin surely have a wide of range of topics they could discuss and important issues of contention between the two countries to resolve. US National Security Adviser John Bolton has said the two world leaders will spend time alone, which means that no one (other than the interpreters) will know what is said. Yet the world wants to know, with so many key issues at stake between the world’s only superpower and its rival.
 
Neither leader will divulge plans and goals for the meeting, but the chances are it will be more about relationship-building than thrashing out the details of any agreements. Trump said just last week: “I’ve said it from day one, getting along with Russia and with China and with everybody is a very good thing. It’s good for the world, it’s good for us, it’s good for everybody.” Trump wants time with Putin to see whether the two can “get along” and work together in the future. The US president has been married three times, and he knows not to get engaged on the first date.
 
According to Russia, one subject not up for discussion is its 2014 annexation of the Crimea. The US under President Barack Obama opposed Russia’s expansionist actions in Ukraine from the start, but did virtually nothing to prevent them and did little to help the people of Ukraine. Trump’s administration has done more, such as its 2017 decision to approve the largest US arms sale to Kiev since before the invasion. However, Bolton met with Putin last week and the Russian made it clear there were no negotiations to be had on this topic. Bolton’s response was: “We’re going to have to agree to disagree on Ukraine.” This does not mean Trump will not bring up Crimea, but it seems that no agreement is possible on that topic.
 
We are not likely to see any grand agreements come out of Trump-Putin Summit but the tone will tell us a great deal about the future of Russia-US relations.
Ellen R. Wald
 
Iran is an important issue between the US and Russia, but it is likely that the focus will be on Iran’s involvement in Syria, rather than the reinstatement of US sanctions on Tehran. Russian oil giant Lukoil recently suspended all operations there in response to the coming sanctions. Lukoil had been interested in partnering with an Iranian oil company to develop an oil field, but has since put all plans on hold. The Russian state-controlled company Zarubezhneft did sign a deal to develop a small Iranian oil field, and it is possible that Trump may bring up the matter, but it is unlikely as the deal is relatively minor.
 
Reports say that Trump will pressure Putin to push Iranian forces out of Syria. Russia is the most important ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the US does not support him. However, Bolton recently said: “I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue.” Trump might very well push Russia to help with the goal of dislodging Iranian interests from Syria, but that is a big request for a first meeting. Surely the topic will be broached, but it would be too optimistic to expect Putin to leave Helsinki committed to the expulsion of Hezbollah and Iranian forces from Syria.
 
The two could discuss the allegations roiling Washington that Russia “interfered” with the 2016 election. However, that conversation is not likely to get very far. The Democratic Party in the US is accusing Trump of working with the Russians to steal the election. The president vehemently denies this, and no evidence has been presented to justify the allegations; yet they persist. It would be awkward and a politically fraught move for Trump to even discuss the topic with Putin. He would be best to leave that to others who will not be accused — no matter how incredibly — of meddling in an investigation or coordinating with an accomplice.
 
NATO, on the other hand, is a likely topic. NATO is a joint defense organization established by European and North American countries during the Cold War to counteract the Soviet Union. Russia, like its Soviet Union predecessor, takes umbrage at NATO military drills and the presence of bases and missiles in Eastern Europe. This is an issue Russia would surely like to address, and perhaps Trump will hint at reducing the military exercises — as he did at the other end of the world during his summit with North Korea — but he will not withdraw NATO troops and weapons from Eastern Europe. Trump may actually use the Helsinki summit as a prod to America’s European NATO allies to pay a greater share of the cost of defense, a topic he regularly raises.
 
Energy markets are likely to occupy some of the discussion. Trump is concerned about the price of oil rising too fast and may pressure Russia to increase its production to help lower global prices. This is a topic the two leaders can agree on — keep that oil flowing from Russia. One energy issue they do not agree on is Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. The US is seeking to export more liquefied natural gas to help European countries diversify their sources of energy. Russia, on the other hand, is building more pipelines to deliver that natural gas to Europe in the hope of keeping its customers addicted to its supplies. Both sides will likely be interested in learning any details about the other’s natural gas plans.
 
We are not likely to see any grand agreements come out of this Helsinki meeting, but the tone will tell us a great deal about the future of Russian-US relations. Both men will try to gauge each other’s character. They are used to big stakes negotiations and high-level talks, but this meeting will just be an appetizer. 
 
  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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