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The Week In Russia: What To Expect From The Trump-Putin Summit

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last year.
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last year.

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On July 16 in Helsinki, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin hold their first full-fledged meeting since the U.S. president took office 18 months ago. This week, the Week in Russia takes a look at what to expect from the summit.

First, here's what not to expect: A big breakthrough deal with binding commitments.

Why not?

Because Putin doesn't need one, and Trump probably cannot afford to make one with a leader his foes and his own administration accuse of "malign activity" against the United States and the West.

No Big Deal

For the Russian president, it's a win going in -- after Kremlin hopes for a meeting early in Trump's term faded amid tightening sanctions and U.S. investigations into Moscow's alleged meddling in the election he won, the summit finally puts Putin back at the table with the head of the other former Cold War superpower -- and in the evocative setting of Helsinki.

Trump arrives in Finland with the baggage of those probes -- which also address whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russia – as well as questions about his past praise for Putin and concerns across the West that he might make deals that would benefit Moscow more than the United States and its allies. A good indicator of the unusual atmosphere that forms a backdrop for the summit: a New York magazine article that asked "What if Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987?"

Souvenirs depicting Putin and Trump on sale at the airport in St. Petersburg earlier this month.
Souvenirs depicting Putin and Trump on sale at the airport in St. Petersburg earlier this month.

"For Putin, everything that is not a clear failure will seem like a success, while for Trump everything that's not an obvious victory will be interpreted by his critics as a failure, so there will be no firm commitments," an analysis in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti said.

"Of course, we cannot expect breakthroughs like at the meeting of the heads of the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. in Reykjavik in 1986 (and Putin and Trump are not Gorbachev and Reagan)," it said, referring to a meeting that is seen as a turning point in the Cold War.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analysts also concluded that the summit is unlikely to bring a sea change, writing that "there is very little chance of a reset, and the current state of affairs between Moscow and Washington is here to stay."

Both sides have taken steps to manage expectations.

After meeting with Putin in Moscow to set up the talks with Trump, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said that "the fact of the summit itself is a deliverable." Trump said on July 12 that the summit would be "just a loose meeting" and that he would go into it "not looking for so much."

Pressure Or Praise

But both Trump and Putin clearly want to turn a page in the relationship and will be looking for some concrete result -- even one as modest as a declaration. So from body language to spoken words and any formal declarations, the Donald and Vladimir Show will be watched for signs of how far the two presidents are willing to go to get efforts to mend severely strained ties under way.

Trump And Putin Get Set For Summit In Helsinki
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With the alleged Russian election meddling on his behalf in the background, and his vocal criticism of Western allies at contentious Group of Seven (G7) and NATO summits fresh in memories from Ukraine to North America, Trump's approach to Putin will be under particular scrutiny: Will he be deferential or demanding, full of praise or heavy on pressure?

"Having hit a post-Cold War low, the U.S.-Russia relationship could use a push toward a better state. A summit could do that, but only if Trump is disciplined in how he prepares for and deals with Putin," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote on July 2.

"A successful summit in Helsinki requires that Trump confront Putin candidly on issues where Russia is misbehaving," Pifer wrote. "That is important if he wants to earn Putin's respect. It is also important for how the summit will be seen back home."


One of the biggest issues is Crimea.

Trump put Kyiv on edge and startled European allies by suggesting he would consider recognizing Russia's claim to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014, telling reporters aboard Air Force One on June 29 that "we're going to have to see."

But the White House worked hard to walk that back, with spokeswoman Sarah Sanders saying that the United States does not recognize "Russia's attempt to annex Crimea" and that sanctions imposed in response "remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula" to Ukraine.

Comments on Crimea by President Trump, seen here with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, have been causing unease in Kyiv.
Comments on Crimea by President Trump, seen here with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, have been causing unease in Kyiv.

That's good news for Kyiv, but a phrase used by both Sanders and Bolton sounded less reassuring. Both said Washington would "agree to disagree" with Moscow on Crimea -- wording that could mean the United States will let things stand rather than really pushing Russia to return Crimea. Putin may hope such an attitude could lead, eventually, to recognition or a relaxation of sanctions.

Still, the U.S. comments suggest that the kind of "grand bargain" that Putin has long been said to be interested in -- concessions by Russia in Syria in exchange for the United States giving Moscow a free hand to expand its influence in Ukraine is not in the cards in Helsinki.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has professed disinterest in a deal involving Crimea or even discussion of the matter, saying Putin is open to searching for compromises with Trump on "all" issues except the status of the peninsula.


Ahead of the summit, there has been plenty of talk about a potential agreement on Syria, where both countries have roles in a more than seven-year-old war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned millions into refugees. The United States and Israel want Iranian forces out of Syria, and Bolton has suggested Trump could seek Putin's help on that score.

"We'll see what happens when the two of them get together," Bolton said on July 1. "There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward."

While President Barack Obama's administration long advocated Assad's ouster and said he could play no role in a political transition, that stance softened over time -- and Bolton made it clear that the Syrian president's future -- or lack thereof -- is no longer Washington's main priority.

Instead, he said, the "strategic issue" in Syria is Iran. That shift of emphasis could point to a trade-off that the Russian newspaper Kommersant described as "Iran in exchange for Assad (or at least his rule during a transition period)."

But there are obstacles to such a deal.

Putin welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in Sochi earlier this year.
Putin welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in Sochi earlier this year.

For one thing, Russia cannot openly advocate Iran's exit from Syria without risking a rift in its ties with Tehran, unless other it comes as part of an arrangement under which all foreign forces including its own are ushered out. More important: Russia may not have the ability or the desire -- or both -- to push Iran out. And with Assad's forces closing in on rebels in the cradle of the 2011 uprising against his government, in southwestern Syria, the Syrian president may also be hard to pressure.

"A proposal is not a wedding," Moscow-based foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote on Facebook, turning to a Russian saying that means people don't always make good on their promises.

The possibility of reaching a deal that Russia cannot or will not deliver on has fueled concerns in the West that Trump could come out of the summit -- as critics said he did from his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un -- touting a breakthrough but actually leaving emptyhanded. Or worse, with an agreement that bolsters Russia while shortchanging the United States.

Some analysts say his chances of a meaningful deal on Syria are slim.

"The end result could well be a statement that speaks loftily of a complete foreign-force withdrawal and the noble goal of a political solution, followed by few if any changes on the ground," Robert Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, wrote in an article published by Axios on July 3.

No More Meddling?

Trump's presidency has been haunted by evidence that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election, partly in the hope of helping him win, and by accusations that his associates colluded with Russia in what U.S. intelligence agencies called an "influence campaign" ordered by Putin.Russia denies meddling and Trump says there was no collusion.

But Trump could seek a pledge from Russia that it will not interfere in future elections -- a deal that he could use to tell critics: "You say Moscow meddled -- well, I have won a pledge from Putin that it will never happen again."

Putin (left) and Trump at the APEC summit in Vietnam in 2017.
Putin (left) and Trump at the APEC summit in Vietnam in 2017.

If he does try for such a deal, though, Trump will have to be careful to avoid an outcome that would please the Kremlin while failing to convince his own critics at home.

Putin would probably be fine with a mutual pledge to avoid interfering in elections: It would cost him little or nothing, if done without admitting Russian guilt, and he could sell it as supporting Russia's long-held claim that the United States is the real culprit when it comes to meddling in other countries' domestic affairs.

Putin could sign such a statement with Trump, Kommersant quoted Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin as saying. "Then, at the press conference, the Russian president could say something like: 'We have never meddled and do not intend to do so going forward.' That would be enough for Trump, but not for his opponents."

Nuclear Arsenals

Another area where there's room for an agreement – or at least an agreement on more talks -- is arms control. Any such talks would add color to superpower-summit imagery that is crucial for Putin. The site itself, Helsinki, helps create that mystique, and discussions that draw attention to Russia's nuclear arsenal are its best chance of appearing on a par with the United States.

(See also: Big Weapons, Big Meeting: Could Trump, Putin Agree On New Arms Control Deal?)

Trump said on July 12 that he will raise arms-control issues with Putin, including what the United States says are Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the possibility of extending the terms of New START, a 2010 pact that was the centerpiece of Obama's abortive Russia "reset" -- and which Trump once told Putin was a bad deal for the United States.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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