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Jul 10, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

What to Look for During the Trump-Putin Summit

This photo shows a conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2017 APEC summit.
(MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.
Highlights
  • U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will have the chance to discuss contentious issues, including the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, sanctions, arms control, and military buildups, at their upcoming summit in Helsinki.
  • Though the two leaders may make some compromises in each of these areas, they probably won't reach any strategic breakthroughs.
  • The tone and outcome of the meeting will indicate whether the standoff between the United States and Russia will intensify or perhaps abate.

U.S. President Donald Trump is about to hold his first official summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The event, which the White House and Kremlin announced shortly after U.S. national security adviser John Bolton met with Putin in Moscow on June 27, will take place July 16 in Helsinki following the NATO summit in Brussels. Trump and Putin will have no shortage of things to talk about, including the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the U.S. sanctions against Russia, arms control, and military buildups. Below is a breakdown of where the two countries stand on these issues, and what each side is likely to do in negotiations over them.

The Big Picture

Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast asserted that relations between the United States and Russia would further deteriorate this year, and so far, they have. To try to alleviate the tensions, U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki for their first official summit.

Syria

The Syrian civil war has been a source of much strife between the United States and Russia. But reports suggest that Trump is looking to make a deal with Moscow on various aspects of the conflict. In fact, the U.S. president has indicated a few areas in which Washington may be willing to work with Russia. The United States, for instance, may agree to withdraw its troops from al-Tanf, to overlook Russia's violation of the de-escalation zone in Daraa and Quneitra, and perhaps even to pull back its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In exchange, Trump will reportedly ask Putin for assurances that Russia will help push Iranian troops out of Syria.

 

The Syrian civil war
As concessions go, however, these may not be all that enticing to Moscow. After all, al-Tanf is hardly a critical area for Russia, and by the time Trump meets with Putin, Syrian loyalist forces will probably have taken Daraa and Quneitra. (The United States has warned the rebel contingents in the area that it would not offer them support.) And though Russia would welcome a U.S. withdrawal from SDF-held territory, the Trump administration would be hard-pressed to win the Department of Defense over on the idea. By the same token, Washington has no credible reason to believe that Russia has the power to curb Iran's presence in Syria. It's possible that Russia will agree to pressure Iran to pull at least some of its forces from the country, but Tehran probably won't be willing to give up its foothold in Syria just to appease Moscow.

Ukraine and Sanctions

The conflict in eastern Ukraine — a major point of contention between Russia and the United States for the past four years — will probably prove just as challenging. While negotiations to end the war have stalled, the rate of cease-fire violations and casualties has accelerated. Relations between Moscow and Washington, meanwhile, have continued to sour, in large part because the United States has increased both its security support for Ukraine and its sanctions pressure on Russia.

 

Ukraine, Separatists and Crimea

Still, as with Syria, the White House and the Kremlin have some room for compromise over Ukraine. Trump and Putin, for example, could agree to prisoner swaps or to a more sustainable cease-fire observation. In addition, the possibility of a U.N. peacekeeping deployment to eastern Ukraine is back on the table now that talks among Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France — the Normandy Four — have resumed. Large-scale strategic concessions, on the other hand, are unlikely. Moscow has been clear that it will neither budge on its annexation of Crimea nor will it allow U.N. peacekeepers full access to the Donbas, including the border area through which it funnels weapons and personnel to support the separatists in eastern Ukraine. That means the conflict in Ukraine will continue, and with it, the U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Even so, Trump and Putin may be able to make some headway in discussions over sanctions. U.S. lawmakers passed their strongest restrictions on Russia yet in April 2018, limiting access to the U.S. market for 12 oligarch-owned companies. Since then, however, Washington has signaled it may walk the measures back because of their effect on Rusal — the Russian firm owned by Oleg Deripaska that accounts for 6 percent of aluminum production worldwide — and, by extension, on the global aluminum industry. Washington said it would be willing to ease or lift the restrictions on Rusal, particularly if Deripaska, who is himself subject to sanctions, divested his share of the firm. In addition, the Trump administration extended the deadline for companies and individuals to cut ties with Rusal by more than four months. Deripaska, in turn, resigned from the boards of both Rusal and its holding company, EN+, and a newly appointed board of directors and management team took over — all reportedly in coordination with U.S. authorities. Should the United States deem these efforts sufficient, it may well lift or modify its sanctions on Rusal.

Aluminum Prices and U.S. Sanctions Against Russia
But that wouldn't necessarily indicate a change in its overall sanctions regime on Moscow. The punitive measures against Russia have broad bipartisan support in Congress, which could override a presidential veto on sanctions. And the United States and European Union have stayed the course with sanctions over the past four years, stipulating that Russia must implement the security components of the Minsk peace accords to end the restrictions. To get relief from sanctions, Moscow would first have to make concessions in Ukraine, including granting U.N. peacekeepers full access to the breakaway regions along the Russian-Ukrainian border. (Other sanctions against Russia over its interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, cyberattacks and weapons sales are similarly unlikely to go away anytime soon.) Nevertheless, an agreement between Moscow and Washington over Rusal could relieve the pressure on Russia's economy and perhaps pave the way for greater cooperation in areas of strategic interest to the United States, including Syria and North Korea.

Military Buildups

The meeting between Trump and Putin also could indicate whether the United States and Russia will contain or continue their military buildups in the European borderlands. NATO and Russia alike have stepped up the pace and size of their military exercises over the years, while also beefing up their deployments of troops and weapons in places such as Poland, the Baltic states, Kaliningrad and Crimea. Then in early June, it came out that the Polish and U.S. governments were in talks about establishing a permanent U.S. military base in Poland.

Should the base materialize, the scale of military buildups could reach a new level. Already, Belarus has warned that it would consider hosting a new Russian air base on its territory if Poland agreed to the U.S. base.

Although it will doubtless be a hot topic at the Trump-Putin summit, the prospective U.S. base would take a long time to come to fruition. Washington probably wouldn't make any moves on it until after the U.S. secretary of defense completes a study of defense expenditures under the the National Defense Authorization Act, and rotational deployments will likely continue in the meantime. Russia, likewise, will almost certainly continue restructuring its forces to face the West regardless of what happens in the summit.

Arms Control

Arms control will be another topic of discussion unlikely to produce breakthroughs during the meeting between the Russian and U.S. leaders. Russia and the United States have repeatedly accused each other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty over the years. Though neither side wants to be the first to withdraw from it, the agreement is gradually losing its credibility and importance, in part because it excludes other major powers such as China. It will be important to watch Trump and Putin's meeting for mentions of arm control agreements, including negotiations to extend the New START deal beyond 2021, to limit missile defense (a Russian priority) and to ban the weaponization of space, building on the Outer Space Treaty. Even if Putin and Trump are unlikely to make much progress on arms control, or on the other topics they broach in their meeting, they will have an opportunity to ease tensions. That possibility could give this summit an important role in shaping the U.S.-Russia standoff in the years ahead.

 

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