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The Week In Russia: Summitry And Speculation


U.S. President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7, 2017.

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Vladimir Putin secured a summit meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, and speculation about what Putin will do when his fourth term ends bubbled up just weeks after it began.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Win Going In

U.S.-Russia summits are often seen as zero-sum affairs – contests that have rules and traditions and come down to a simple question when the diplomatic dust settles: Who won?

Before he even sits down with Putin in Helsinki on July 16, Trump is facing questions not only about what the United States has to gain from the meeting but whether it should be happening at all.

For Putin, on the other hand, it’s an absolute no-brainer. No matter what Trump’s summit scorecard looks like, there’s little question that Putin will put a mark in the win column.

For one thing, it puts Putin back in the place he is widely believed to covet more than almost anything: a seat at the intimate, two-person table with the head of the other Cold War superpower.

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The venue only adds to the mystique. There was talk of Vienna -- spy-swap central -- and speculation that Trump might travel to Moscow for a soccer summit of sorts, coinciding with the World Cup final.

But Helsinki -- up the Baltic Sea coast from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, in non-NATO-member Finland -- was also a quintessential Cold War capital. And it has been the site of at least three previous meetings between the leaders of Moscow and Washington – one way back in 1975, when Gerald Ford held what he called “businesslike, very friendly” talks with Leonid Brezhnev that focused on nuclear weapons amid a broader conference that produced a landmark pledge to respect human rights and freedoms.

'Arms Race'

Those last two topics may not be high on the Trump-Putin agenda in Helsinki, but the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals appear likely to be discussed. Trump has spoken repeatedly of an “arms race” -- a term that is profoundly evocative of the Cold War.

And while Trump has warned Moscow that the United States would win such a contest, the terminology is likely to please the Kremlin because it draws attention to Russia’s nuclear arsenal – something Putin is hardly shy about doing himself.

The timing of the meeting also seems like a plus, if anything, for Putin. Coming four days after a NATO summit, it could cast a shadow over that gathering and add to tension among Western nations after a fractious G7 summit that underscored transatlantic rifts.

Even if he doesn’t get anything concrete, Putin may end up satisfied with his summit with Trump.
Even if he doesn’t get anything concrete, Putin may end up satisfied with his summit with Trump.

There are reports of a possible deal on Syria, and Putin may hope that Trump’s seemingly accommodating recent approach to Russia – his call for making the G7 the G8 again, for example -- will segue into concrete gains for the Kremlin. A big prize for Putin would be an actual shift in the U.S. position on Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula whose seizure by Moscow in 2014 is at the heart of the tense relations between Russia and the West.

But that outcome seems unlikely, and a problem for Putin heading into the summit is a lack of chances for concrete gains. In an opinion article for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky wrote that “no give-and-take is possible because Putin has nothing to offer the U.S. as there is no part of the Trump agenda that Russia could help advance.”

Photo-Op?

Aside from the imagery, Putin may not be able to boast of getting what he seems to want: relief from sanctions imposed by the West in response to Russia’s interference in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria, and its alleged meddling in elections such as the one Trump won in 2016, for one thing.

Trump’s power to ease the sanctions is limited, and he cannot single-handedly turn the G7 back into the G8 by bringing Russia to the table – something Putin professes he can live without anyway.

But even if he doesn’t get anything concrete, Putin may be satisfied with the meeting. If nothing else, it could end the embarrassment of being, at the bottom line, a supplicant – unable to get a full-fledged meeting with a U.S. president much of the world suspects he tried to help win the office. It’s far from clear, meanwhile, whether Trump will press Putin on the alleged election interference.

And in any case, as U.S. national security adviser John Bolton headed for Moscow for the June 27 talks that produced the agreement to hold a summit, Russian pundits, politicians, and Kremlin-loyal media outlets got busy telling the populace not to expect too much.

Putin’s 2024 Plans

Also prominent in the Russian media over the past week: speculation about whether Putin will seek to retain power past the end of his term in 2024 -- and if so, how.

Ahead of Putin’s reelection in March to a six-year Kremlin term that could be his last because of a constitutional limit of two in a row, many analysts – and others – said his victory would set members of the ruling elite to sharpening their elbows in preparation for Putin’s scheduled departure from the Kremlin.

Sure enough, the past week brought a fresh round of articles examining his possible future plans.

An article in the Russian edition of Forbes magazine addressed whether Putin might transform and head up the State Council – a body that now has plenty of pomp but no power – in order to keep Russia’s reins in his hands. The conclusion: Maybe not.

Ksenia Sobchak: Heir apparent?
Ksenia Sobchak: Heir apparent?

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, meanwhile, wrote of a possible scenario in which Putin does take the helm of the State Council but relies mainly on a carefully chosen successor.

Among other criteria, the successor “must be not too much like Mr. Putin, so that there is no temptation to make direct comparisons,” Belkovsky wrote. His pick to best fit the bill: Ksenia Sobchak, the journalist, TV personality, and daughter of Putin’s late former boss Anatoly Sobchak.

But Belkovsky described Putin as “a tactician, not a strategist,” and both he and the author of the Forbes article – like many others before them – predicted that Putin will not take any action that might tip his hand until 2024 is much closer.

Editor's Note: The Week In Russia will not appear on July 6. It will resume its regular schedule on July 13.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is news editor of RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on -- mostly on -- since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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