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Andrey Kortunov

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Donald Trump has already invested a lot of personal political capital by agreeing to meet with Vladimir Putin despite the warnings of many of his advisers, associates and allies. Trump will have at least two opportunities to achieve an impressive historically significant victory. First, he could secure a promise from Vladimir Putin that Russia will not interfere in the midterm Congressional elections later this year, set to take place just five short months from now. Second, the sides could draw up some kind of framework document on Syria. This is particularly relevant as Trump is not especially interested in Syria and has been threatening to wrap up the U.S. operation in the country for a while now.

The agreement with North Korea is being spun as a personal achievement of Trump, rather than the fruit of U.S. policy that has been implemented over the course of several years. According to Trump’s version, it was he who managed to “solve” the problem that his predecessors had been unable to deal with for decades. Every possible “deal” with Moscow will be considered separately. If Russia’s friend Donald has the opportunity to press his friend Vladimir on the global arms market, then he will do so to the fullest extent.

The final declaration, if there is one, will inevitably be an extremely general, concise, and at the same time vague document. Trying to get something more concrete from Trump at this stage is a hopeless affair and a waste of time and energy.

The existing balance of power within the administration, and within the U.S. political establishment as a whole, does not yet favour a departure from the course of tough confrontation with Russia. And Trump’s mood, as the experience of North Korea demonstrates, tends to fluctuate wildly.

Nevertheless, the summit in Helsinki presents the most realistic opportunity for Russia to open a meaningful conversation with the United States on issues that are of great importance to both countries. It will likely be a long time before another chance like this presents itself.

Helsinki has little in common with Singapore. And Russia is vastly different from North Korea. On the international stage, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un play in different leagues and by different rules. Nevertheless, the recent U.S.–North Korea summit in Singapore is of some interest in the context of preparations for the meeting between U.S. and Russian leaders on July 16. The impressive political show that took place on the island of Sentosa allows us to make some assumptions about the diplomatic style of Donald Trump in dealing with “difficult” partners who are not inclined to easily succumb to overt pressure and are not prepared to unconditionally accept American superiority.

“What I need is to win. Nothing else! ”

It is well known that Donald Trump has a soft spot for strong leaders, even those who cannot be considered friends or allies of the United States. America’s traditional partners rarely receive the kind of attention from the President that Kim Jong-un was afforded in Singapore on June 12. This is precisely why Trump desperately needs a win, or at least something that looks like one. Getting into yet another squabble with Justin Trudeau or sending Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron home empty-handed – this is all par for the course for the current President of the United States. Failure, however, was simply out of the question during the summit in Singapore. This is why the strictly preliminary and extremely vague agreement on nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula has been declared an unqualified “historical triumph” of U.S. foreign policy.

What could happen in Helsinki that would put the meeting on a par with this win for Trump? It would seem that Trump will have at least two opportunities to achieve an impressive historically significant victory. First, he could secure a promise from Vladimir Putin that Russia will not interfere in the midterm Congressional elections later this year, set to take place just five short months from now. As Moscow refuses to acknowledge that any interference took place in the presidential elections and has no intention of signing up to any unilateral commitments, such an accord will have to come in the form of a bilateral agreement on non-interference. This is not a simple task, but it is possible. Second, the sides could draw up some kind of framework document on Syria. This is particularly relevant as Trump is not especially interested in Syria and has been threatening to wrap up the U.S. operation in the country for a while now. Of course, it would be better to pull out of the reasonably inhospitable Syria in the form of a deal with Moscow, and if necessary, Moscow could be accused of violating the terms of any agreement signed.

“I’m not Obama, I’m different…”

In his diplomacy, Trump tries to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessors, particularly Barack Obama. Never was the desire to do this more evident than during the summit in Singapore. We could spend hours arguing whose approach to cooperation with Pyongyang was closest to that of the man currently residing in the White House – Barack Obama’s? George W. Bush’s? Or even Bill Clinton’s and Madeleine Albright’s? - but Donald Trump has no intention of sharing his successes with anyone. The agreement with North Korea is being spun as a personal achievement of Trump, rather than the fruit of U.S. policy that has been implemented over the course of several years. According to Trump’s version, it was he who managed to “solve” the problem that his predecessors had been unable to deal with for decades.

We can expect the same approach during the meeting in Helsinki. For example, the START III agreement between Russia and the United States is now seen as a bad thing because it was negotiated by the Obama administration, and extending it cannot feasibly be spun as a personal victory for Trump. Similarly, we are unlikely to see a return to some of the elements of the agreement reached between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry on Syria, primarily because it was signed by a Secretary of State from the Democratic Party that Trump hates so much. Consequently, we need to move away from continuity, emphasizing the novelty and revolutionary nature of any possible agreements. Even if, de facto, we are talking about a return to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or to START III, it is very important to integrate this conversation into the context of the search for new foundations of strategic stability in the 21st century world.

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Andrey Kortunov, Matthew Rojansky:
These are the Benefits of a U.S.-Russia Summit

“Details? Throw ‘em on the furnace! ”

Many observers believe, incorrectly, that the American side did not properly prepare for the meeting in Singapore, and this is the reason why a more substantive and detailed agreement on the North Korean nuclear issue was not reached. In actual fact, the U.S. experts, whose professionalism we have no reason to doubt, worked conscientiously on the issue. What happened was that the President once again revealed his traditional dislike for detail, and the two leaders confined themselves to a general – and in places ambiguous – final document. As far as we can judge, Trump had no desire whatsoever to trade back and forth endlessly on what the wording of the document would actually be. This tactic is, to some extent, justified, as a joint document creates fewer obligations and is less vulnerable to criticism from political opponents at home.

This is probably what will happen in Helsinki too. The final declaration, if there is one, will inevitably be an extremely general, concise, and at the same time vague document. Trying to get something more concrete from Trump at this stage is a hopeless affair and a waste of time and energy. And it does not even matter whether the attempts come from the Russian side or Trump’s own team. Any kind of concrete agreement will create a pretext for the opposition to accuse the President of pursuing a policy of appeasement, while there will be no shortage of members of Congress willing to somehow block the practical implementation of such an agreement. A very general declaration, however, would be a great achievement in the current climate, opening the way for further elaboration and more concrete and practical agreements.

“The show must go on.”

Any somewhat significant political movement by Trump is in no small part an effective and colourful show designed to attract as much attention as possible, primarily within the United States but also around the world. This public side of Trump’s diplomacy was demonstrated in all its glory in Singapore, starting with the choice of exotic venue for the meeting, the threat that it would not go ahead and the subsequent confirmation, followed by the numerous presidential tweets, showy photo shoots, flashy press conferences, etc. The attention of the whole world was riveted once again on the President of the United States, which, as far as he was concerned, was an important foreign policy achievement in itself.

It is clear that Helsinki promises even greater opportunities than Trump was offered in Singapore. The first meeting between the U.S. and Russian leaders is an ideal opportunity for the Donald Trump brand to be promoted on a global scale. It should be furnished in the correct manner, like the Tilsit meeting between Napoleon and Alexander I on a raft in the middle of the Neman River in June 1807. The excellent stage direction of the show could more than make up for any modest practical results that may come out of the summit. At the end of the day, Donald Trump has already invested a lot of personal political capital by agreeing to meet with Vladimir Putin despite the warnings of many of his advisers, associates and allies. Surely he has the right to count on the appropriate political dividends. It would probably be wise for the Russian side to play up to Trump, especially because the meeting has particular symbolic significance for Russia too, given the current circumstances.

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The summit in Singapore, as well as the many other high-level meetings held by Donald Trump, allow us to make the following conclusion: “friendly” personal relations with foreign leaders, handshakes, hugs, pats on the shoulder, and mutual compliments – none of this means that the President of the United States is willing to make compromises on issues that he sees as being truly important for himself. Not a word has been said about easing international sanctions against Pyongyang since that romantic meeting on the island of Sentosa. In a similar vein, the demonstrably friendly personal relations Trump enjoys with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping did not prevent him from increasing economic pressure on Tokyo and declaring an economic war on China.

For Russia, this means that any possible agreement signed in Helsinki concerning strategic stability or the Syrian settlement, for example, will not lead to Trump easing pressure on Moscow in areas where he believes applying pressure is in the interests of the United States. In this sense, Trump, as far as we can tell, is not prepared to follow the tactic of positive alignment of certain aspects of U.S.–Russia relations with others, a tactic pursued by many U.S. presidents before him. Every possible “deal” with Moscow will be considered separately. If Russia’s friend Donald has the opportunity to press his friend Vladimir on the global arms market, then he will do so to the fullest extent. If he gets the chance to twist the arms of the United States’ allies in Europe and force them to buy expensive American gas instead of the cheaper Russian gas, not a single summit will help change his mind. If some kind of agreement on Syria comes from the meeting in Helsinki, this will do little to facilitate a deal on Ukraine. As the saying goes, “It’s just business, nothing personal.”

“A promise means nothing.”

The weeks following the meeting in Singapore demonstrated that Trump is selective when it comes to keeping his promises – especially if they are formulated in general terms and can be interpreted in many ways. In all honesty, we already knew this. Let us recall, for example, the infamous story of the plans discussed by the Russian and American leaders on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Hamburg in July 2017 to set up a U.S.–Russia working group on cybersecurity, plans for which have yet to materialize. In response to his many critics back home who accuse him of making “unilateral concessions” to Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump fires back confidently that the United States can easily renege on any of these “concessions” (including the moratorium on joint U.S.–South Korea military exercises) if it is not satisfied with Pyongyang’s actions moving forward. It’s not that the President of the United States deliberately and cynically went against his word, but that unpredictability is an organic part of his diplomatic style.

This means that any agreement reached in Helsinki cannot be regarded as final and irreversible until it has acquired the form of a concrete and detailed treaty, a roadmap detailing the responsible officials, timeframes, enforcement mechanisms, etc. The White House will always find a pretence for going back on preliminary obligations it has agreed upon with Moscow. This is why we should probably not attach any kind of sacred meaning to formulations, terms, and figures of speech that might make their way into any joint U.S.–Russia agreements signed in Helsinki. Nor does it make any sense to cling to anything the President of the United States says during the summit. It is far more important to try and change the general atmosphere in the bilateral relations and instil a positive “spirit of Helsinki” that would allow the two countries to move forward in specific directions at lower levels of interaction.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom.”

As far as we can tell, theUS agreements with North Korea in Singapore did not stop the fierce conflict within the United States regarding possible options for resolving the Korean nuclear problem. The struggle continues as bitterly as ever. This conflict is not only between Trump and his opponents on Capitol Hill; the administration itself does not seem to have a coherent plan in this regard. Rumour has it that there are at least two groups vying for Trump’s ear on the Korean issue. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s doves oppose National Security Advisor John Bolton’s hawks. It is difficult to say whether this bureaucratic tug-of-war is a manifestation of the President’s managerial style or the result of the confusion and uncertainty that have been the hallmarks of the current administration from the very beginning.

In any case, we have to be prepared for the fact that the meeting in the Finnish capital will not be a turning point, but simply the start of a complex process to restore relations between Moscow and Washington. The political and bureaucratic struggle in Washington for the implementation of the Helsinki Accords, whatever they may be, will be complicated and time-consuming. Attempts at bureaucratic sabotage and obstruction of progress on various pretexts cannot be ruled out. Nor can the desire to load the agreements reached in Helsinki with all kinds of additional terms and requirements. The existing balance of power within the administration, and within the U.S. political establishment as a whole, does not yet favour a departure from the course of tough confrontation with Russia. And Trump’s mood, as the experience of North Korea demonstrates, tends to fluctuate wildly.

Nevertheless, the summit in Helsinki presents the most realistic opportunity for Russia to open a meaningful conversation with the United States on issues that are of great importance to both countries. It will likely be a long time before another chance like this presents itself.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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