Hours ahead of Helsinki summit, Washington and allies fear Trump may barter away strategic interests
As Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin summit in Helsinki draws closer, there is speculation that the Russian president may have some ingratiating information on Trump's business dealings which he could put to good use in a one-on-one meet
You can say the world is really in reset mode when the presidents of US and Russia agree on a summit meeting at a short notice, without a pre-decided agenda. With the meeting slated for Monday at Helsinki, Finland, the encouragement seems to have been triggered by the Singapore summit between the presidents of the US and North Korea. Of related interest is the fact that Finland was a neutral country during the Cold War, shares a border with Russia, and Finland's president, Sauli Niinisto, has established some kind of special relationship with Putin. He is reported to have stated that Trump and Putin will "certainly discuss the overall international situation and hopefully also arms control and disarmament issues".
The urgency does not arise out of any crisis threatening situations but simply because Trump appears upbeat with his perception of success of unconventional diplomacy. US diplomatic circles are expecting no historic outcome from the meeting simply because there has been insufficient time to prepare the agenda and internally analyse it to the last before stepping into the negotiating arena.
Yet, they mostly fear that Trump with less preparation and in all probability insisting on at least a single ‘one-on-one’ meeting with Putin, could be a dangerous phenomenon for US interests.
Putin’s negotiating skills are extremely well-known and Trump’s aides expect that the US president could emerge from the negotiating hub with as surprising a concession as the ending of joint military maneuvers with South Korean forces that Trump agreed on with Kim Jong-un.
In an election year when the stakes for the control of the US legislature are high, US officials wanted least footprint of Russia in US psychological space, and, in particular, of Putin, with the Republicans already carrying the stigma of Moscow’s interference in the US electoral process. The issue is very much under investigation and any concessions that Trump may willingly or unintentionally grant to the Russian president could come back to haunt the investigation process.
Putin is accused of ordering an influence operation to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election that allegedly helped Trump's win. US officials are aware of Putin’s charms and KGB training with specific talent as a wily negotiator, and there is speculation that he may have some ingratiating information on Trump’s business dealings which he could put to good use in a one-on-one.
One can hazard a guess what possibly could be on the agenda. Among other topics, there is bound to be the issue of re-admission of Russia to the G7/8 from where it was unceremoniously evicted in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. The economy for Russia is important in the face of sanctions already imposed upon it and keeping Moscow out of the G7/8 only makes it more dependent on China, something the US and European leaders need to remain sensitive about.
In June 2018, Trump irked the leaders of the industrialised countries accusing them of unfair trade practices and threatened to impose taxes on the import of steel and aluminum from them. He left the G7/8 meeting in Canada in a huff and proceeded for the Singapore summit. Now, he is hell-bent on meeting Putin but his European allies and other partners are concerned that he may just barter away their strategic interests.
After his offensive against European leaders at the summit in Canada observers were on the lookout for the Trump mood at the NATO meeting prior to the Helsinki summit. Having pooh-poohed the European opinion on the Iran Nuclear Deal and considering his avowed 'America first' policy Europeans perceive that Trump could be expected to grant Russia the recognition of its annexation of Crimea as also dilute all criticism of Russia’s hybrid war launched on Ukraine to keep it in a state of turbulence. That would be a challenge for the Europeans to manage in terms of future US-Europe relations.
While Syria will be on the agenda too there is little scope for any movement there given Russia’s core interests in the Middle East. The US, France, and the UK did no more than unleash a couple of missiles on Syrian chemical warfare facilities. They have never seriously examined options against Russian presence in the region which continues to retain far more influence in Syria than all these countries put together. The Europeans do not have a major fear in Syria, but it’s the overall approach to international security with lesser consideration for European sensitivity that irks and concerns the European leadership.
To be fair to Trump, he has a much larger ambit to look at but it is not as if the combined European interests and that of a body such as the G7 can be marginalised without dilution of US interests too. Putin would, of course, be happy to be served an opportunity from which he could sow more seeds of mistrust within the US-European unity which will always be strategically advantageous.
Perhaps it’s the Chinese hold on Russia that Trump wishes to reduce before quasi-multilateralism cements the Russians even more firmly with Beijing. The US should be wary of the reset taking place in Asia. The China-Russia strategic ties appear deepening in the face of US attempts to establish linkages and equations to balance China’s rise in the region. Pragmatically, it makes much sense for the US to remain dynamic in its approach towards maintaining the security of the Indo-Pacific region and not push new strategic configurations, or, dilute existing and emerging strategic relationships.
A case in point is the India-US strategic partnership which although emerging may appear to have lost some of its sheen after some of the recent decisions by the US such as a second postponement of the India-US 2+2 dialogue which was slated in early July 2018.
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