Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Exclusive -The Helsinki Summit: Who has the Stronger Hand?

Exclusive -The Helsinki Summit: Who has the Stronger Hand?

Saturday, 7 July, 2018 - 05:45
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
London - Amir Taheri
After months of speculation, US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are scheduled to hold a summit, their first, in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, on July 16 as relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest point since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The idea of a US-Russian (at that time the Soviet Union) summit first rose in 1954 after the Soviet leadership had sorted out its power-struggle by dislodging Georgy Malenkov with the emerging duo of Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin consolidating their hold on power. The fact that the USSR had become a nuclear power a couple of years earlier persuaded the Eisenhower administration that the old tripartite summits - started during the Second World War, with Great Britain also present - no longer reflected the reality of power on global scale; the world was becoming a bipolar construction in which the United States and the Soviet Union could set the agenda on many issues. The first summit between President Dwight Eisenhower and the Soviet duo of Khrushchev and Bulganin was held in Geneva in July 1955. Very soon, however, Bulganin was scripted out in a new round of power struggle in the Kremlin with Khrushchev emerging as the sole top decision-maker in the USSR.

22 Summits

After President John F Kennedy US-Soviet summits became part of the routine of international diplomacy as a vehicle for managing crises during the Cold War. The tradition lasted through 22 summits of which nearly half were held during Mikhail Gorbachev’s captaincy of the wayward Soviet ship. With the fall of the USSR, successive American administrations kept up the tradition but largely as a relic from the past and as a means of soothing Russia’s bruised ego without attaching much importance to it.

Closing the Boris Yeltsin era as a parenthesis in which Russia was in search of a new seat at the high table, Vladimir Putin has seen the summit tradition as an important element in his grand strategy of restoring Russia’s status as a great power that must be granted a decisive voice on all major international issues.

Under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, Putin could not advance his ambition. Bush treated Russia as, at best, an interested by-stander. He feted Putin but gave him nothing. For his part Obama trying to deflate the United States’ pretension as a globally decisive power could not bestow on Putin the status that he denied America.

Helsinki Merits Closer Attention

This would not be the first encounter between the two leaders who have held brief tete-a-tete sessions on the margins of the G-20 and Asia-Pacific conferences, coming out with flattering comments about each other. However, the Helsinki merits closer attention for a number of reasons. To start with it is the first full summit.

In Helsinki things could be different as the standard-bearer of “Make-America-Great-Again” meets the ringleader of the “Russia First” elite.

The choice of Helsinki is also interesting as it reminds the world of previous summits in the ”good-old-day” of the Cold War when Washington and Moscow set the tune. However, the Finnish capital is also the place where the famous Helsinki Final Act was enacted in 1975 by the leaders of 35 nations, including the USSR and the US, bringing the Cold War to an end for all practical purposes by freeing in time the situation in the European continent. The coming summit could well become the closing chapter of the Helsinki Final Act as both sides would acknowledge the new realities that have emerged since then: the USSR has been broken up and the Warsaw Pact gone for good while NATO has expanded further in Europe, and Russia, under Putin, has used force to project power in Georgia, Ukraine and, in different ways, in Transcaucasia and Central Asia.

Putin’s aim may well be a return to the period before the Helsinki Final Act. And, if he succeeds, we may witness the emergence of a “Lukewarm War” if not a new Cold War, a prospect that worries many Europeans who suspect Trump of having a soft spot for Putin as the two men favor a more personal style of leadership.

Whether one likes Trump and Putin or not, the fact that the two leaders are meeting could help reduce international tension, most notably in the war-torn Middle East. It could also signal a new start towards the solution of some problems notably by promoting consensus wherever possible.

Despite its internal problems, the US remains the indispensable player in most theatres of global politics while Russia, having re-cast itself as the challenger, plays the nay-sayer in chief.

The last US-Russia summit happened in September 2016 in the sunset phase of Barack Obama’s presidency, at time Putin had decided to wait for the outcome of the US presidential election. Thus the Obama-Putin summit, held in Hangzhou, China, was little more than a duet of boasting and grand-standing. Obama tried to appear tough at the 11th hour while Putin did all he could to humiliate him. Rather than contributing to a reduction of tension, the meeting ended up heightening it by several degrees with Obama accusing Putin of trying to affect the outcome of the US presidential election in Trump’s favor. Remarkably, Trump, although aware of the Damocles Sword that is hanging above his head in the shape of the Muller Enquiry into Russian meddling in US presidential elections, is set to go to Helsinki in search of yet another of his “big deals”. In contrast, Putin isn’t looking for a big deal of “grand bargain’, that is not his style. He hopes to achieve incremental progress towards restoring Russia’s status as a major global player. His key aim would be to persuade Trump, and through him oblige the Europeans, to admit Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli not worth a full confrontation with Moscow.

Washington, Moscow ... and Europe

According to some sources, the US may opt for a diplomatic version of the ”grin-and-bear-it” stratagem that allowed the Western powers to swallow the annexation by Russia of the Baltic States after World War II and the enforced neutralization of Finland. Between 1945 until the fall of the Soviet Empire, Western powers, led by the US, refused to recognize the Baltic States as part of the Soviet Empire but did nothing to “liberate” them. They also did nothing to pull the pro-Western Finland into formal alliance with the Western democracies.

If selling the “grin-and-bear-it” stratagem is Putin’s priority, Trump’s priority, as spelled out by his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his National Security Adviser John Bolton, is to clarify and quantify Russia’s ambitions especially with regard to Europe and the Middle East.

The current Russian policy appears to be aimed at driving a wedge between the US and the European Union while doing all it can to undermine NATO and the European Union. The Kremlin’s financial and propaganda support for populist parties of both right and left with anti-American and anti-EU agendas is no mystery.
Putin may claim that his anti-EU stance is in self-defense and a response to sanctions imposed because of Ukraine.

The Europeans, however, would argue that sanctions were imposed in response to Russian aggression, the annexation of Crimea and thinly disguised military intervention in Donetsk, and, more recently, a poison attack on a Russian former double-agent and his daughter in Salisbury, England.

The second thing Putin wants is a stop to further enlargement by NATO, especially in Europe and Transcaucasia. Trump would have little difficulty to concede that the Pentagon is no longer as enthusiastic about the scheme as it was under President George W Bush. In any case, Trump himself has been ambivalent on NATO, especially insisting that the allies raise their defense expenditure to at least 2 per cent of their GDP as agreed in 2007.

Putin is concerned about the possibility of Russia being dragged into a new arms race of the kind that broke the Soviet economy and accelerated the demise of the USSR. Putin already has to keep an eye on China’s massive rearmament project, including the construction of a huge blue-water navy which Russia cannot afford or deploy. The prospect of Japan and, later maybe even Germany, starting to re-arm is another source of concern in the Kremlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remark that Europeans should no longer rely on anyone except themselves may have been prompted by concerns about a Trump-Putin deal at the expense of the EU.

Syrian Crisis

The next key issue on the agenda would be Syria in the context of Russia’s renewed ambitions in the Middle East. Putin is anxious for Trump to acknowledge Russia as the principal foreign influence in Syria while accepting zones of influence, known as “de-escalation zones.” He is also squeezing Iranians out of Syria, by refusing to give them air cover against Israeli air attacks. By distancing Iran and its mercenaries from populated areas in Syria, Putin is achieving what the US and its allies would have needed direct military intervention to achieve.

In exchange Putin hopes to persuade Trump and through him the West in general to share the burden of stabilizing and, later, rebuilding Syria.

Putin wants to keep the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, in power for a brief period during which Russian presence and influence in Syria strikes roots that no future Syrian regime would be able to ignore. To sell his package to the West, Putin will dangle the prospect of easing the Iranian mullahs out of Syria while helping Turkey, a NATO member, establish “monitoring rights” (droit de regard) inside Syrian territory along its border.
Here, too, Putin needs quick results while the West and regional allies could let him have as much Syrian rope as he covets.


The third issue on the agenda would be cyberwarfare which must be added to land, naval, submarine, and air war as a fifth form of war.

In this new form of warfare, so far, Russia has had the advantage by taking risks that Western democracies find difficult to take because of domestic opposition. In the mid and-long run, however, Russia would never be a match for Western powers’ immense scientific and technological resources. As was the case with the space-race in the 1950s and 60s, Russia may have stolen a march on the West for a while. In the end, however, it is bound to fall behind before hitting the finishing line.

Putin may try to grab a few positive headlines by proposing a new mechanism for monitoring and destroying stockpiles of chemical weapons plus a modified version of a verification scheme suggested by Britain.

A revival of arms control talks, especially with regard to the new generation of miniaturized nuclear warheads may also feature on the agenda as both sides will try to pretend that something more than transient issues was involved.

To give the summit a chance of success Putin has already offered sweeteners to Trump. Apart from watering down support for Assad and the start of Russian troops withdrawal, Putin has also agreed to increase Russia’s oil output as Trump has publicly demanded. More importantly, perhaps, Putin has refused to throw Russia’s support behind Iran to challenge Trump’s position on the so-called “nuclear deal” concocted by Obama.

Flush with the unexpectedly triumphant performance of the Russian national football team in FIFA’s 2018 World Cup, Putin heads for Helsinki as a winner. The media he controls are hailing him as “the man of victory”, pretending that he faces Trump for a position of strength because the US, if not the West as a whole, needs Russia more than Russia needs them.

However, hubris aside, Russia’s economy is ailing and social tension rising and Putin isn’t in such a good shape. No one in Russia is in a position to challenge his position as yet. But he may well be running out of new ideas in a new and more complex emerging configuration. In contrast Trump may appear harassed in his position while the US is doing well economically and relaunching the military modernization scheme halted by Obama.

Whichever way you look at it, “Tsar” Vladimir needs the West more than the West needs him. In Helsinki, Trump will have the stronger hand. The question is whether he will be able to play it well.

Editor Picks