The two leaders displayed an easy cordiality and mutual respect.
America’s President Donald Trump arrived in Helsinki on Monday after a dust-up with the US’ Nato allies about their inadequate commitment to Nato’s defence expenditure, berating Germany for its multibillion-dollar Nordstream-2 gas pipel-ine deal with Russia and criticising British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit negotiation strategy. No such friction attended his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders displayed an easy cordiality and mutual respect. Their chemistry was unaffected by their frank disagreement on various issues.
Though Mr Trump had repeatedly argued during his election campaign for a “reset” of US-Russia relations, this first bilateral summit (they have met before on the margins of international events) has taken a long time to materialise. There is significant political opposition in the United States to his view that long-term US strategic interests lie in accommodation with Russia and confronting China’s challenge to America’s status as the sole superpower. The ongoing investigations into alleged Russian “meddling” in the 2016 US presidential elections, with the possible collusion of the Trump campaign in it, may have also had an impact.
Mr Trump is regularly portrayed in the American media as being “soft” on Russia; yet during his 18-month tenure, US-Russia relations have been far worse than during the Cold War. Tensions over Ukraine sharpened after a US special envoy was appointed, thereby hijacking the mediatory role of France and Germany. In Syria, after initially promising to withdraw US troops, a new muscular policy was announced, which scuttled Russian efforts for a political settlement and resulted in a tense military standoff betw-een US and Russian pro-xies across the Euphra-tes River. Mutual recri-minations are regularly exchanged on Afghanist-an, where the US and Russia accuse each other of supporting different jihadi elements. The Trump administration’s economic sanctions on Russia, including their extra-territorial application, are far harsher than those imposed by the Obama administration. The US expelled a large number of Russian diplomats for an alleged (still unproven) Russian involvement in a nerve agent use on a former Russian spy living in England.
The dichotomy between Mr Trump’s stated desire to resume the dialogue with Russia and his administration’s Russia-bashing has often been attributed to the influence of the “deep state” in the US. That may well be so, but it does not quite gel with the image of a President who has ruthlessly got rid of errant political and official aides (with the exception of some in the intelligence agencies). An alternative explanation is that it is an element of the famous Trumpian art of the deal — a “good cop, bad cop” routine to develop bargaining chips for eventual negotiations.
American commentators predicted in the run-up to the Helsinki summit that the “novice” President would end up making unilateral concessions to his seasoned counterpart. Their joint press conference did not validate this apprehension. There was no hint of easing of sanctions. President Trump maintained the US position that the Russian annexation of Crimea was illegal and did not react to President Putin’s request for US pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk Agreements (brokered by France and Germany). He was silent on the idea of the Astana process (of Russia, Turkey and Iran) and the US-led group (including France, UK, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) working together for a political settlement in Syria. President Putin expressed concern at the US withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Iran. In his turn, President Trump cautioned that ISIS’ defeat in Syria should not result in an enhanced Iranian role in that country. Afghanistan was not mentioned. Mr Trump was blunt in his opposition to the Russo-German Nordstream-2 project.
The leaders did, however express convergence on some important issues. They agreed to work towards a strategic arms reduction treaty. They noted the successful arrangements between their militaries and intelligence agencies in Syria to avoid direct conflict. President Putin appreciated the intelligence cooperation with US agencies during the just-concluded Fifa World Cup. They agreed to operationalise the separation of Israeli and Syrian troops in the Golan Heights in southern Syria, partially addressing Israeli concerns about the Iranian presence in Syria. Even more significant was an agreement to cooperate in extending humanitarian assistance to Syria, which apparently changes the earlier US stand that it would support humanitarian assistance only to Syrian regions not under the control of the Bashar al-Assad government. If this assistance creates conducive conditions for the return of Syrian refugees, it would have a beneficial impact on Europe’s refugee problem. The two Presidents agreed to set up a joint working group of captains of business to generate suggestions for enhancing economic cooperation. How this initiative can progress in the present environment of harsh sanctions was not explained. Finally, it was stated that the National Security Councils of the two countries would follow up on the issues addressed at the summit.
As expected, the issue that most exercised the American media was whether Russian meddling in the US elections had figured in the leaders’ discussions. Mr Trump’s responses on this question were robust. He cast doubt on the US intelligence agencies’ conclusions, reiterated that his campaign had not colluded with Russia and seemed to endorse President Putin’s offer of Russian help in the investigation. This most unorthodox (to put it mildly) act of belittling his own intelligence personnel on foreign soil — and standing alongside the leader of a country which most Americans consider their principal adversary — has predictably created a furore in American political circles, which has overshadowed all other results of the summit.
In sum, therefore, chemistry dominated over substance in the Trump-Putin interaction, with Russian election meddling still ominously looming in the background. The two National Security Councils will have to navigate through difficult waters to achieve progress, perhaps in small doses. However, the fact that dialogue has recommenced is of great significance. India will have to wait to see how this nascent thaw eases the pressure on its defence cooperation with Russia and energy links with Iran, and impacts on its interests in Afghanistan.