Author: Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
In recent times, the Helsinki Summit held on July 16 has been a hot topic in international politics. The meeting was indeed noteworthy and unordinary. The simple fact that Presidents Trump and Putin met for over 2 hours behind closed doors with no one but translators present attests to this. Only after this did the meeting that involved each country’s delegations and actually resembled a more standard, internationally accepted format begin.
The Helsinki Summit confirmed once again that Washington and Moscow have quite differing views on many issues of international politics. As expected, it also became evident that improving US-Russia relations is no easy feat. Nothing of the sort happened at the Helsinki Summit and it didn’t even show any signs that this process could be underway. Despite the stated interest of Russia, there was no joint declaration made at the summit as it was limited to just a joint press conference, which once again highlighted the significant difference in positions.
It became evident from comments made after the summit and other publicized information that many issues were discussed at the summit. Among these were such major international matters such as the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, denuclearization of North Korea, the Iran Nuclear Deal and others.
Based on statements made during the press conference held after the summit, two major topics emerged, which could become subjects of US-Russia negotiations. They are: non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and Syria. Below, we will try to evaluate these matters in more detail.
Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction
President Putin said at the press conference that the US side was given a package of specific proposals on matters of strategic stability and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is likely to include an extension to an agreement on “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty” which expires in 2021. In addition, it should be assumed that the aforementioned package also includes Moscow’s position on the “Antiballistic Missile” (ABM) agreement, which the US left back in 2001, during George W. Bush’s administration.
Russia believes that the absence of the ABM agreement allowed the United States to push for missile defense systems in Poland and Romania. Moscow estimates that these systems are directed against Russia. Consequently, it raises the issue of neutralizing this process and having the US return to the ABM agreement quite frequently.
Moscow’s attempts, however, have been so far unsuccessful because neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations considered this matter and despite the fact that Trump’s approach to Russia are quite different from his predecessors’, it should be noted that returning to the ABM agreement has not been considered during his presidency either.
It appears that the issue of Assad was not discussed at the meeting because neither Trump nor Putin made any mention of it during the press conference. The main issue was related to Israel’s security concerns with regards to control of the Golan Heights and the strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria.
President Putin said at the press conference that “Also, crushing terrorists in the southwest of Syria: The south of Syria should be brought to the full compliance with the treaty of 1974 about the separation of forces, about separation of forces of Israel and Syria. This will bring peace to Golan Heights.”
The fact that this issue would be front and center during the Helsinki Summit was evident even prior to the summit because Moscow held high-level consultations with Israel and the Iranian side.
Apparently, Israel is not satisfied with the situation, because shortly after the Helsinki Summit, it was reported that Israel downed a Syrian military plane near the Golan Heights.
In addition, a Russian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and also including the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Gerasimov, visited Tel-Aviv on July 23. The delegation held a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli delegation also included the Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
Moscow is apparently well aware that Israel’s security concern is one of the key issues in the Syrian crisis. It is also clear that Israel is not going to step back on this matter. It is also unlikely that any kind of concession can be received from President Trump, who is a staunch supporter of Israel. It is also debatable, whether Moscow has any solid leverage to force Iran to take Israel’s interests into consideration.
Other Important Issues
In addition to the aforementioned, there may be some other important conclusions that can be made from the summit itself and subsequent developments on the periphery.
It has been proved that there is high resistance in the US to normalization of relations with Russia. Not only members of the opposition, but also Republican congressmen who are typically hesitant to criticize the president, made sharp critical statements against him. It should be mentioned that even FOX News, which has a reputation for offering unwavering support to the Republican Party and Trump personally, was critical of the US president.
This criticism initially forced Trump to make a statement “clarifying” certain remarks he made at the press conference with Vladimir Putin on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, and subsequently it forced the American president to reschedule a meeting with Putin that should have been held in Washington in October at Trump’s invitation for next year.
Trump’s Russia policy has been criticized beyond political establishments and media outlets – according to polls, Trump’s Russia policy has little support, and this is no small matter ahead of the Congressional mid-term elections scheduled for November.
As for Russia, one thing has been clearly shown: Russia is still loudly declaring that Western sanctions have not hurt it and it is not going to revise its foreign policy decisions, but at a minimum, it is obviously uncomfortable. Consequently, Russia is trying to achieve some type of breakthrough, to improve relations with the West, and most importantly, get sanctions removed. This is not going to be an easy task, because Moscow is not going to make concessions in Ukraine, or in its foreign-policy interests in general. Thus, the prospect of a breakthrough in relations between the West and Russia looks as bleak after the Helsinki summit, as it did before it.