Exclusive - Victors and Losers in the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit

Exclusive - Victors and Losers in the Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit

Wednesday, 18 July, 2018 - 07:30
US President Trump and Russian President Putin hold a joint news conference in Helsinki on Monday. (Reuters)
Helsinki – Kamil al-Tawil
Now that the dust has settled over the Helsinki summit, can we say that one of either US President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin had emerged as the winner or the loser from Monday’s talks?

At first glance, it appears that Putin had emerged the victor for the very fact that the summit with the leader of the most powerful country in the West was even held. The Russian president succeeded in breaking the isolation that several sides were trying to impose on his country. Added to this sense of victory was Trump’s criticism of his own intelligence agencies when he questioned their findings over a probe in Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.

The truth of the matter is that the factors in determining a winner or a loser cannot be based on what was said at the press conference following the Trump-Putin meeting. The main factor may not be so clear to the naked eye. The main factor of the summit is tied to what was said between the two leaders during their nearly two-hour closed-door talks that no one was privy to except their translators.

Winning and losing is based on what each side offered the other in concessions and vows over various issues, such as Syria, Iran, Ukraine and Russian meddling in western affairs.

Syria, for instance, was clearly an issue that Trump and Putin had both agreed upon when discussing the Middle East. These discussions particularly focused on Iran and its militias’ activities in southern Syria. Trump revealed that Putin had said that he takes into consideration the security of Israel when addressing the situation in Syria. The Russian president later confirmed this when he stressed the need to re-implement the ceasefire and withdraw Syrian forces from the buffer zone in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Even though Putin did not explicitly speak about withdrawing Iran and its militias from southeastern Syria, the very fact that he spoke about ensuring “peace” on the Israeli border entails keeping the Iranians out of the region. This is a demand that has been frequently made by Israeli officials. Putin likely informed Trump of the details of alleged negotiations that were held last week in Moscow between Israeli and Iranian officials when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top aide to the Iranian supreme leader Ali Akbar Velayati paid separate visits to the capital. Israeli and Iranian talks most likely centered on Tehran withdrawing its militias from southern Syria.

Trump and Putin did not appear to have addressed political transition in Syria or the fate of regime leader Bashar Assad. Trump, however, was clear when he said that he will not allow Iran to exploit the efforts of Washington and its allies in defeating the last remaining ISIS pockets in the country. This was a sign that the Americans will not allow Iran to expand beyond east of the Euphrates River. This does not, however, clarify whether American troops will remain there or withdraw in the near future, as Trump had pledged months ago.

Trump and Putin did agree on continuing military cooperation in Syria and providing humanitarian relief to refugees.

On the Iranian nuclear agreement and Washington’s withdrawal from the deal, it seems that the two leaders did not reach any form of understanding. Putin for his part, remained committed to the deal and defended its benefits despite Trump’s pullout and re-imposing of sanctions. It was also not clear whether they had addressed the US plan to bring to zero Iranian oil exports and impose sanctions on any companies dealing with Tehran. It was significant, though, that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate to ensure the stability of the global oil and gas market.

They also appeared to be in agreement over intelligence and security cooperation, especially in confronting the threat of extremist groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Such an agreement is probably not comprehensive given the lack of trust between American and Russian intelligence agencies. Counter-terrorism cooperation may therefore be limited to security threats whereby Americans would inform their Russian counterparts of any threat and vice versa. Such cooperation was demonstrated in 2017 when Russia thwarted a terrorist plot in St. Petersburg based on American intelligence.

It still remains to be seen whether Trump and Putin reached any understandings on Ukraine. The Russian president did say that the American leader disagreed with him over Crimea and its annexation by Moscow.

In addition, the two leaders did not address British-Russian disputes that erupted in wake of the March poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in the English town of Salisbury. The development sparked a diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow and its repercussions have still not ended. Just days ago, the same nerve agent that poisoned the Skripals claimed the life of a woman and left her friend in critical condition in the town of Amesbury, 11 kms north of Salisbury.

Trump must have certainly brought up the affair given that he traveled to Helsinki straight from London where he had met with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

The most sensitive issue tackled at the Helsinki summit was Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. Trump shocked the US when he questioned the findings of his own intelligence agencies that concluded that Moscow had indeed meddled in the elections. He has since clarified his statements, saying on Tuesday that had misspoken and that he has complete faith in American intelligence.

Several other issued were addressed in Helsinki, but they were not revealed during Trump and Putin’s press conference. These undisclosed files would have likely been the subject of agreements and differences.

To view the summit from a winner or loser perspective, one must take into consideration that at the end of the day Trump did not hesitate to take on the challenge of reviving Russian relations despite widespread opposition back home and from western countries. Trump, therefore, took a short-term risk, but succeeded in averting global crises and resolving or easing some of their repercussions. This means that Trump, ultimately, emerged as the victor in Helsinki because he adopted the policy of dialogue rather than confrontation. Trump’s success, however, depends on Putin’s cooperation and then, they both can claim victory.

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