U.S., Russia: What to Make of the Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki

4 MINS READJul 16, 2018 | 17:24 GMT

U.S. President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. The meeting was the first official summit between the two leaders and included a one-on-one session as well as a group-level discussion with senior Cabinet officials from both sides.

The Big Picture

As Stratfor stated in the 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast, Russia will attempt to break a negotiating stalemate with the United States to talk sanctions, military build-ups and arms control. Moscow will likely promote its ability to mediate in the Syrian conflict, but as we previously stated: Don't hold your breath for a breakthrough.

As Stratfor anticipated, no major agreements came out of the summit, though some of the key topics of discussion were highlighted in a joint press conference following the meeting.

Addressing Nuclear Arms Control

Arms control is a major point of contention between the United States and Russia, and the matter was high on the agenda. As expected, both leaders called for closer cooperation. Putin publicly stated his country's support for New START (a revamped Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) as well as addressing Russian and American differences over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Moscow has reportedly handed a list of proposals to Washington addressing nuclear arms reduction, though actual progress hinges on meaningful political and military talks between both. Follow-up meetings, especially between senior figures with defense portfolios, will be a key indicator of progress on this issue.

Raising Syria and Ukraine

The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine inevitably came up, though specific details were sparse. On Syria, Trump referenced working with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and it is worth noting that ahead of the summit, Putin met separately with Israeli and Iranian leaders. Beyond talk of working together to manage the conflict, it is important to see whether anything more substantive comes out of the Trump-Putin dialogue, such as Russia stepping up efforts to contain Iranian activity in southwestern Syria. It is also important to gauge what Washington could potentially offer in exchange. On Ukraine, the conflict in the divided country was not mentioned beyond a recognition of the need to implement the Minsk peace accords. Putin did say, however, that Russia would not seek to eliminate Ukraine's role as a transit state for the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline and that Moscow would honor contracts in accordance with Stockholm arbitration rulings.

Talking Economics

The issue of U.S. sanctions against Russia was not addressed directly, but Putin said that a high-level working group would be established, involving economic and business leaders from both countries. Russia's president also pointed out the notable participation of U.S. businessmen at the recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum. The easing or lifting of U.S. sanctions against Russian aluminum giant Rusal is possible and currently up for negotiation with the U.S. Department of the Treasury. However, the U.S. president is likely to face significant constraints from Congress when it comes to lifting broader sanctions against Russia.

Russia's Alleged Interference in U.S. Elections

The matter of Russia's inference in the U.S. 2016 presidential race took up a substantial part of the meeting, with Putin defending the election and stating outright that he wanted Trump to win. As well as condemning the ongoing special investigation by Robert Mueller, Putin offered joint cooperation in the investigation and suggested forming a group to battle cybersecurity threats. Such statements are unlikely to assuage those critical of Russia's meddling in the electoral process in the United States and could even have the opposite effect.

To wrap up the press conference, Putin referenced the recently concluded 2018 World Cup in Russia and offered his counterpart a soccer ball, saying as he did so: "The ball is now in Trump's court." While this memorable line capped the inaugural summit between the two leaders, it raises the question: What substantive exchange in concessions can actually take place?

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