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Trump-Summit: Feverish Expectations On An Empty Shelf

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Thirty-five nations, called together by the United States and the Soviet Union, begin a summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland, to discuss some pressing international issues. The meeting temporarily revived the spirit of detente between the United States and Russia.

In 10 days from today, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will be meeting. This meeting is coming, a month after Trump and Kim Jong Un had similar meeting in Singapore.

As is the usual in politics, Trump has been accused by political opponents of riding on the gain of his summit with Kim to gain popularity.

Ultimately, Trump and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, are not going to come up with the solutions to pressing issues such as Ukraine and Syria in one meeting. International Affairs analysts say, “We can expect polished statements,” from both sides, but it is more symbolic than anything, said Mathieu Boulegue, research fellow at independent policy institute, Chatham House.

That doesn’t mean the meeting would purely be a public relations stunt or simply a photo opportunity, however, as a summit could serve as a springboard for the two countries to thaw their relationship.

In recent years, bilateral relations have devolved with Moscow increasingly flouting international laws, beginning with the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. While Putin insisted that the incident was legal, the wider community has condemned Moscow’s actions as an illegal invasion and annexation of a wholly sovereign land — responding with sanctions on the country.

Syria is another contentious topic between the two countries, with Putin supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, while the US backs other factions in the country.

More recently, Putin was alleged to have interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, which has so far, resulted in an ongoing probe in the US. Both countries have expelled 60 diplomats in response to a March nerve agent attack against a former Kremlin spy in the UK.

With that recent history as a backdrop, Russia will be looking to gain something from any dialogue with the US. That could include relief from economic sanctions imposed on the Kremlin by the US, Europe and others.

“The question is whether the US is willing and able to give any concessions to Russia,” Chausovsky explained, adding that Trump has shown a willingness to lift the penalties against Moscow, but he has so far been hamstrung by Congress.

While the meeting will be significant due to the global importance of Russia and the US, it may ultimately result in little more than a public relations event, Chausovsky, said.

“If nothing else, it will be good for the two leaders to sit down and touch base,” Chausovsky said.

Although there are a number of issues for them to discuss, it will be challenging for the leaders to make any form of progress from the meeting, the analyst said.

“Whatever comes out of it will probably not be relevant as this is not where the hard stuff will be discussed or decided,” Boulegue said.

He added that modern summits between political leaders tend to produce few tangible results, and so there is too much importance attached to them.

The most pressing concern from a US foreign policy standpoint will be to avoid miscommunication with Russia, as any misunderstanding regarding intent and policy resolutions would increase the potential for error, which could rapidly escalate between the two military powers.

But there’s a difference between the US relationship with Russia and the personal dynamic between Trump and Putin.

In light of the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, the meeting could serve as an opportunity for Trump to show his domestic audience that he is tough on Moscow. On the other hand, he could also seek to reassure Putin that he is still looking to strengthen the US relationship with the Kremlin.

Analysts said Trump will likely look to further develop a personal relationship with Putin while the overall administration remains hawkish on Moscow, further enhancing his reputation as a bilateral dealmaker — as he sought to do with North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

“Reassurances to Russia will send a mixed signal to everyone else, however. This is where US policy stops and Trump’s personal agenda starts,” Boulegue said.

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said on Wednesday, that he is confident that the topic of the election meddling will be addressed during the summit. He claimed that the Trump administration has been harder on Russia than many previous administrations, but said Trump would look to conduct “productive conversations” that can lead to improvements for both countries.

Trump has been consistent in his desire to make a “deal” with Vladimir Putin since he first began campaigning for president and in his conviction that, unlike his predecessors, he can pull off a successful reset with Russia. For the past 18 months, the various “Russiagate” investigations—and the skepticism of his secretaries of state and defense and his National Security Advisors—have constrained his ability to pursue his agenda with Russia. But, fresh from what he views as a successful summit with Kim Jong-un, his determination to meet with Putin for a bilateral summit has prevailed.

Given the tense state of US-Russian relations and the paucity of high-level contacts, there are strong arguments for Trump to hold a summit with Putin. However fractured the relationship, it makes sense for the world’s two nuclear superpowers to sit down together and re-establish some of the channels of communication that were cut off after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in southeastern Ukraine. The list of issues on which there needs to be dialogue is long: Ukraine, Syria, Iran, North Korea, terrorism and cyber interference. The Russian side would clearly also like to discuss sanctions—although since the US Congress passed the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions) Act last August, the president’s ability to lift sanctions is limited.

What is in this summit for the two presidents? Trump would like to show that, unlike Barack Obama, he can have a productive relationship with Putin who, he has said, deserves a seat at the table on all important international decisions—which is something that Putin also believes. It is less clear what Trump seeks from Putin beyond general agreement that the two will cooperate on the issues on the agenda for the summit: Syria, Ukraine and “bilateral relations.” For Putin, the summit means the end of the isolation that the United States sought to impose on Russia for its actions in Ukraine—although the war in the Donbas continues, with over 10,300 casualties so far. The very fact that the meeting is taking place is a vindication for Putin.

The situation in Syria is a priority. The deconfliction talks have mostly prevented direct US -Russian clashes. But the battle between US-led forces and Russian mercenaries trying to seize an oil field in the Deir Ezzor region last February—with more than 200 Russian casualties—is a reminder of how dangerous the situation is, given the proximity of Russian and US-led forces.

Iran will no doubt be a topic, both because of its role in the Syrian civil war and because of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement, of which Russia is also a signatory. Putin has criticised the US actions, but could seek to play a role in finding a solution for the Iran issue that the United States might accept.

One area where Trump and Putin could make progress is arms control. The New START treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons, expires in 2021. Since there is little appetite on either side to negotiate a new treaty, the two presidents could agree to extend the treaty for five years by executive action, which the treaty’s provisions entitle them to do.

Of course, the summit could also produce surprises. Trump will come to the meeting after attending a NATO meeting, which already has US allies concerned both by his criticism of the alliance and by his assertion that Crimea belongs to Russia. They would like to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier this month, when Trump left a contentious G-7 summit refusing to sign the final communique, and proceeded to heap praise on Kim Jong-un. Allies worry about what might happen in the closed-door sessions in Helsinki.

The most likely outcome of the summit is that both presidents will declare it a success and agree that their officials will begin work on resolving a number of difficult issues. But, given the track record of both leaders, any prediction is made at the author’s peril.

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