12 July 2018

Trump-Putin summit. The D Day of the new world order ?

Niculae Iancu

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation, will meet on 16 th of July in Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, for their highly anticipated historic summit.

Image source: Mediafax


The great turmoil on the international scene, at least since the end of the Cold War, and the huge challenges that our society is facing nowadays, are creating a context of contradictory expectations. From restraint to exuberance, or from hope to fear, the emphasises of the big event observers are increasing significant expectations. Will 16th of July be the “D day” of the new global order? We will have to let the events give us answers, which are impatiently awaited in Bucharest too.


The long-awaited summit between the American president, Donald Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will be on 16th of July, in Helsinki, Finland. It is the first major bilateral meeting between the two, although they met twice during the previous year, at some multilateral international meetings, for the G20 (July) and Asia-Pacific (November) summits.

Not long time ago, a possible Trump-Putin face-to-face meeting, even organized by a third party, it was dealt with a lot of moderation. "I don't think any decisions have been made, or details have been worked out, but I believe both sides are exploring an opportunity to try to do that," Richard Hooker, special assistant to the President and senior director for Europe and Russia in the US National Security Council, told Russia’s news outlet TASS, at the end of June. For this, Hooker suggested Wien as a possible location for such an important event, which seemed to be feasible especially considering that Putin already had a discussion on this theme, with the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, during his visit in Austria, at the beginning of June.

But, as we see, at only two weeks from these assumptions, the White House officially announced the meeting in Finland, in a moment still sensitive for the American political scene, as the investigations regarding the allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election are still moving and the approaching of the midterm elections in the United States. According to the White House, “the two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues.

One could ask why Helsinki and not Wien? It might be a warning coming from the American administration to the current Austrian governance, to lead the attention on the democracy’s liberal principals’ deviation, created by promoting a populist speech on themes regarding the European common security, such as migration, but also as a consequence of the recent criticism of the presumed uncertainty coming from the actual US foreign policy stated by the Prime-Minister Kurz.

Even if the agenda of the Helsinki summit was not published by now, we can anticipate some important security themes that could be discussed during the Trump-Putin meeting.

First of all, the war in Syria. At the beginning of April, president Trump has instructed his military staff to “swiftly wrap up the American military operation in Syria” so that “he can bring troops home within a few months”, as a consequence of the Islamic State’s terrorist group annihilation. As for president Putin, he was announcing, at the end of the last year, withdrawal of the Russian army forces from Syria, as a consequence of defeating “the most battle-worthy gang of international terrorists”, after two years of common military operations along with the Syrian army”. Although the reason of the American and Russian’s military presence in Syria seems convergent, the strategic vision from Washington and Moscow are massively divided. The two parts directly support the opposed forces from the civil war created by the Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. For the Russian Federation, keeping up the Assad regime is a fundamental regional security interest, at least until an alternative appears, to guarantee its traditional influence in Levant, spreading area with geopolitical relevance in the Eurasian space. On the other side, the US is cooperating with the forces that are opposed to the Damask regime in combating the Islamic State terrorist group, without publicly assuming a clear option of taking down the government.

The complexity of the regional security equation gets intense also because Moscow’s interests matches the foreign policy strategic objectives of Teheran in Syria, with which is coordinating to make aerial attacks, on one side, and for supporting the involvement of thousands of combats on the field, on the other side. In these circumstances, according to John Bolton, the national security advisor to the president Trump, the meeting in Helsinki offers the American part the possibility of “doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran” by involving president Putin as a mediator. Such demand can be anticipated, having in background the previous unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement, but also the significant escalation of the Iranian-Israeli tensions as their military collisions in the Syrian war.

Foreign policy and security analysts are skeptics regarding the success of such an endeavour. In her analysis published by Foreign Policy, Amy Mackinnon identifies at least two reasons why a failure may appear, relying on some assessments provided by regional security experts from the two capitals. On one side, Moscow does not have enough influence on Teheran to be able to make major strategic influence changes in the region, as the ex-ambassador of the US at Moscow, Michael McFaul says. And on the other hand, Russia does not give up that easy on its traditional partners, as Yury Barmin claims, an expert for the Middle East of the Russian Council of International Business and an intimate think tank of the political power in Moscow. Anyway, Vladimir Putin may take benefit from such an opportunity, to reconfirm its opinions regarding the way in which the Russian Federation will always reward its loyal and longstanding partners, as a reflection of some kind of historically imperial ethos.

Secondly, the North-Korean nuclear program. President Trump will benefit the occasion to mention the results of his meeting with Kim Jong un, and also to present as a gesture of openness Washington’s agenda for the Korean Peninsula denuclearization. Previously, the Russian diplomacy chief, Sergei Lavrov, saw the Trump-Kim meeting as a “positive step”, only because it simply happened. We are expecting to be discussions on the denuclearization costs and the way in which the international community will assume this millstone, being hard to believe that the US will accept a note with it as the only one payer. Furthermore, the denuclearization process’s rhythm and the supervising of the subsequent phase’s outcomes may lead to the demand of an international framework of action, which should include at least the major regional actors. Moreover, the political and security context seems appropriate to reopening the discussions regarding so long expected peace treaty between the two Koreas. Although such process seems complicated, the US and the Russian Federation may assume a central role, apparently along with China and Japan, but also the EU and the Great Britain.

Thirdly, the militarization of the NATO-Russia zone of confluence and the Russian election meddling in Europe and the US. These topics, that are really sensitive for the European allies of the US, may amplify the tensions between the two Atlantic coasts, as it would create the sensations that the US is ready to make concessions to Moscow on highly sensitive themes as the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014 or a dramatic reduction in the American military presence on the NATO’s eastern flank. The Europeans concerns are actually legitimate, as some media outlets across the oceans are talking about president Trump lack of decision regarding the concrete answers to the questions related to the firmly denounce of illegal Crimea’s annexation, as well as his increasing critics regarding the insufficient contribution of some member states to the NATO budget.

“America First” policy, promoted by the American administration it is seen by the analysts as an advantage that Putin won’t hesitate to take during his meeting with Trump. The recent withdrawal of the United States from a number of economic and political international agreements, as well as placing the cost-benefit philosophy amid the principles and values that govern the international system, can also inflame arguments for a persuasion strategy, that Putin may use to achieve Russian historic aim of pulling the American military forces out of Europe. Obviously, that neither the Moscow’s most conservative strategists are expecting immediate results, no matter how unpredictable Trump’s decisions might be. But, a limitation of the actual American troops in East Europe, as well as a steady pressure of the US against its allies on the inflated issue of financial commitments for common security, will be enough for Russians to feed the breaches of NATO solidarity. These splits will be intensified by the competition between the NATO eastern flank states to gain the dislocation of the American forces elements on their own territory, and the frustration regarding reducing the alliance’s cohesion, in a time when it should be stronger than never before, after the end of the Cold War, and for some, even since the end of the Second World War.

Regarding the Russian election meddling in Europe and the US, we expect that Moscow will continue its negation policy. Such attitude will be awkward, even more when US authorities investigating presumed links or coordination between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government have gathered evidences that the Russian interference involved coordinated open activities by government agencies, state-backed media outlets, and paid internet “trolls,” as well as illicit operations conducted by intelligence professionals, apparently at the direct order of Vladimir Putin. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see how the whole Russian intelligence disinformation apparatus will work, even during the Helsinki’s summit.

Furthermore, officials from Washington D.C. confirmed that it is possible to be also discussed the Ukraine’s fundamental security challenges, as well as the recent so-called economic war waged by the US against China, but also the economic sanctions against Russian Federation, extended by the international community as a consequence of Crimea‘s annexation.

Even so, the Trump- Putin summit from Finland will not lead to remarkable results. At the end of the summit, we will not witness the D Day of the new world order. Actually, the critical conditions for such a historic moment are not even accomplished. Russia is no longer a super-power, as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. The military costs of Russia are almost the 10th part of the US ones. Russia’s economy looks like Italy’s, being the 10th in the world, after China and Japan, but also after the first European economies and Brazil. Moreover, the economy stands under the economic sanctions endured by Moscow. For these reasons, we do not have to add too much colour to the Trump-Putin meeting picture. Any exaggeration could bring more benefits to Russia than it would expect. However, president Trump has circumstantially mentioned that this meeting is nothing more than one of the multiple upcoming international bilateral meetings of the American administration.

As a conclusion, the general note of the expectations regarding the meeting between Trump and Putin presidents is “improving relations between Washington and Moscow”, according to John Bolton’s declarations from the moment before the Helsinki summit he had with President Vladimir Putin, at the beginning of July. Even if it wouldn’t seem that much, a result in this sense would actually be something, as the Russian-American relations got, in the past few years, to the lowest level since the end of the Cold War. The Helsinki moment ought to be seen as a new beginning. As some say, the successes will come after the two parts will discuss, at the beginning, “lower-profile issues”, as Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan did during their first summit, organized as well after years of deep tension characteristic to the bipolar world, according to a crosscheck made over the time by William Courtney, senior analyst at RAND corporation and ex-ambassador of the U.S. in Kazakhstan and Georgia.

Still, time has another significance today. Neither the two leader’s current profile does not seem appropriate for an expectation and exploratory strategy. That is why, the frontal approach of the major international security problem seems much more probable.

All the topics we mentioned above are highly interesting in Bucharest, too. That is why Romania will have to follow carefully the way the summit from Helsinki goes, and to rationally relate at the relevance results from the region, to value from the dimension of the national security strategic objectives, as well as from the perspective of the Romanian presidency of the Council of the European Union, in the first semester of the next year. Nevertheless, we hope that, despite the various challenges of the moment, will be confirmed the commitments of the two states in continuing to respect the rules of the international system.

Such a commitment should nearly lead to “complete, unconditionally and without further delay withdrawal of the Operational Group of Russian Forces and its armaments from the territory of the Republic of Moldova” as is stated by a recent resolution of the UN General Assembly adopted on 13rd of June.