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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The meeting of the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki became a hit of the summer political season, overshadowing even the recent US-North Korean summit. The first full-fledged round of bilateral talks between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump evoked a wide variety of emotions — from bright hopes for restoring the strategic weapons control mechanisms to the panic fears about the future of transatlantic relations.

The meeting of the Russian and American presidents in Helsinki became a hit of the summer political season, overshadowing even the recent US-North Korean summit. The first full-fledged round of bilateral talks between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump evoked a wide variety of emotions — from bright hopes for restoring the strategic weapons control mechanisms to the panic fears about the future of transatlantic relations.

But nothing really happened in Helsinki — neither in a dramatically positive, nor in a negative sense. It could not happen due to the objective situation not only in relations between Moscow and Washington, but between the leaders of the two countries. This position fits into a simple formula — "Trump is not in a fit state, but Putin does not want to help him."

Andrey Kortunov:
Trump, Putin and China

The first part of this formula is connected with the continuing domestic political weakness of the American president. Perhaps, Donald Trump would like to change radically the vector of relations with Moscow, to turn Vladimir Putin if not to a friend, but at least to one of the main partners of the United States. But he cannot do this. Many opponents, skeptics and ill-wishers in the US Congress and inside his own administration would interfere. The anti-Russian sentiments in the political establishment and in the American society in general prevent this. Any concession to the Kremlin and even any manifestation of flexibility in the Russian direction is another welcome trump card in the hands of those who have not reconciled themselves with the results of the 2016 presidential elections. The old truth is confirmed: only a very strong president can successfully manage relations with Moscow: Donald Trump, for all its self-confidence and assertiveness, is not such a person yet.

The positions of the Russian leader in this sense look clearly preferable. He has no reason to doubt the loyalty of the Federal Assembly, to suspect officials in the presidential administration or in MID with attempts to sabotage the decisions he has taken, or fight for support from the skeptical public. Unlike Trump, Putin is in a fit state. But he does not want to become generous Santa Claus with a bag of gifts for the American colleague in the form of serious preemptive moves in the Russian positions on issues, important for Trump. Apparently, the Russian leadership has the conviction that time is working for Moscow and there is no need to hurry. For Vladimir Putin Donald Trump is like an unreliable political investment with too high and unjustified risks. Anyway, for the moment.

The current situation essentially excludes the possibility of a breakthrough in Russian-American relations. Can it change? Of course, it can. But one of two things must happen. Either Trump must "be able" to consolidate his positions in Washington, to become a truly strong leader capable to impose his presidential will on the political establishment, including the Russian issue. Either Putin must "want" — that is, under growing Western pressure and with increasing costs of the current course, the Kremlin will sooner or later be forced to review its positions on a number of key foreign policy issues, be it Ukraine or Syria. Neither the first nor the second options are currently visible on the horizon.

This means that after the meeting in Helsinki Russia and the US will have to focus not on finding the parameters of some "big deal", but on a very specific, routine and not very inspiring work to stabilize the current bilateral relations, which are far from optimal. The summit in Helsinki created all the necessary preliminary political conditions for such a work. Officials, diplomats, military on both sides will no longer be able to refer to the lack of understanding at the highest level to justify their slowness or inaction. But there could be still a very long time to expect a fateful moment, when the opportunities of Donald Trump will finally coincide with the wishes of Vladimir Putin.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.

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