By Caroline Caywood
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet at the 2017 G-20 Hamburg Summit by Kremlin.ru
On July 16 the world will watch as President Trump initiates his fourth meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Located in Helsinki, these negotiations will come on the heels of a NATO summit in Brussels just days before where allied leaders have come together over common concerns of trade, defense, and avoiding potential aggression. With this upcoming meeting comes much trepidation from Europe, especially from Poland and Baltic states bordering Russia who feel that closer U.S.-Russia relations may lead to concessions from Trump and increased threats to their sovereignty from Putin. Many political analysts appear to be echoing this sentiment in reporting that a Trump-Putin summit will weaken the security of the current transatlantic alliance facilitated through NATO. However, an analysis of the situation shows that cultivating stronger relations between the world powers will in fact be mutually beneficial in securing global peace and security.
The first question to address is what will be on the table for these talks between two of the world’s most powerful leaders. Perhaps the most critical aspect of the summit for both parties is the question of post-withdrawal settlement in Syria and how to balance the instability of the Assad regime while minimizing further American involvement in the conflict. Pulling U.S. troops from the war-torn nation has long been one of Donald Trump’s most substantial foreign policy goals and could pave the way for further military withdrawals from the Middle East as a whole. The United States recently relinquished its insistence on an Assad-free Syria and shifted its focus to minimizing Iranian influence in the country. According to a report from Bloomberg, Putin many be willing to help with that goal. One of the main benefits for the United States in the upcoming meeting will be securing Russian guarantees that Iran will have no leverage in Syria, mitigating extremism and paving the way for a more stable regime under Assad. A second focus likely to emerge from the negotiations will be continued support for existing arms control agreements like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) – set to expire in 2021 if not renewed. Investing in arms control benefits both the United States and Russia by minimizing the potential for future miscommunication and miscalculation, saving each country billions in arsenal maintenance costs as the need to build up a nuclear arsenal is diminished. Finally, some Russian experts have also signaled that some sort of deal on cybersecurity is possible.
In short, although the benefits of the summit are far from guaranteed, they are substantial. The United States has an opportunity to help regulate one of the world’s most destabilizing and horrifying conflicts while also limiting the regional clout of a major rival. Moreover, agreements on nuclear weapons limit the likelihood that these devastating weapons will ever be used. The United States has an existential interest in finding common ground on this issue with the only country that possesses the capacity to wipe it off the face of the earth. While it is understandable that many are hesitant about Russia’s willingness to uphold a cybersecurity agreement, having formal regulations in place is preferable to an atmosphere where both sides operate without limitations on the conduct of cyberwarfare.
Despite numerous claims that the upcoming summit threatens pre-existing U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia, there is little evidence to show that the lifting of economic sanctions will be on the agenda for the two leaders. Dr. Anton Fedyashin, Director of the Carmel Institute at American University, notes that economic sanctions have in fact increased Putin’s popularity in his country by allowing him to blame the West for Russia’s languishing economy despite real systemic issues at fault. Although lowering oil prices have caused a large part of the economic slowdown, this scapegoat has offered Putin a boost in approval ratings as he paints the West as the culprit for Russia’s suffering and himself as the sole leader who can counter such aggression. Lifting sanctions would thus not be in Putin’s benefit as it would leave him vulnerable to a waning Russian market with nowhere to pass the blame. Further, even if Trump was looking to pull back on Russian sanctions, it is doubtful that Congress would allow this to happen, especially considering American wariness when it comes to Trump’s relationship with Russia.
However, proponents of sanctions should question the level of success these punitive measures have had thus far. Russia shows no signs of pulling back in Crimea or halting support for Donbass rebels while sanctions imposed in 2014 failed to stop Russia from intervening in Syria one year later. If the litmus test is changing Russian foreign policy, the sanctions are a clear failure. When a policy is not succeeding, we should at least be open to reconsidering it. Especially, if removing sanctions can bring important Russian concessions in other areas.
A topic of discussion that falls in a gray area is the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Along with lifting sanctions, this is an area which Russia has not agreed to negotiate on and which appears to be without a clear solution for the time being. In the four years since aggression began in Eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have made significant progress in holding ground on the border and can easily mobilize troops if needed. This puts Russia in a position where they have little to lose and little incentive to hold up their half of the Minsk Protocol until Ukraine does the same. Further, Trump has given assurances to Ukrainian leaders that their interests will be protected in any negotiations between himself and the Russian president. Although in the past, President Trump has suggested that the United States could recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, actions speak louder than words. If Trump had grand plans of making major concessions on Ukraine, it is unlikely that he would begin shipping lethal arms to Russia’s neighbor. Moreover, it is worth noting Russian analysts viewed Trump’s comments on Crimea as aimed at scaring the Europeans into spending more on NATO rather than a sign that he’s willing to reconsider America’s position on Crimea.
Political analysts have also claimed that a meeting between the two leaders could spell certain disaster for NATO members as both Trump and Putin have never shied away from making their grievances known with the transatlantic alliance. These assertions are based on the idea that many European nations bordering Russia will feel threatened if the United States appears to be getting overly friendly with Putin all while undermining NATO’s role as their protector. According to Dr. Anton Fedyashin, however, these claims are unfounded. It is unclear at the moment what exactly Trump could concede to Russia in order to weaken the alliance and further, he notes, the biggest threat to NATO’s survival at the moment comes internally from member states that have failed to contribute their promised 2% of GDP to defense. If America’s allies want to show that their security concerns about Moscow are genuine, they should demonstrate this by investing in mutual defense and sharing the burden of funding NATO’s protection.
Some analysts have considered that Trump might promise to cease U.S.-led military exercises in Baltic states in order to curry favor with Russia. It is important to recall that the expansion of NATO up to the Russian border is a major reason why Russian goodwill towards the United States dissipated by the mid-2000’s. In hindsight, incorporating the Baltic States into NATO played a key role in fueling Russian anxiety about America’s intentions. However, now that the United States has taken on an obligation to the Baltic States, it should be honored and critics of the summit should keep in mind that Trump can signal his desire for better relations with Russia without betraying the Baltic States. For example, if Trump declines a recent Polish proposal to establish two permanent Americans military bases, he can send a clear message to Moscow that in the spirit of earnest dialogue, he will hold off from advancing more American military personnel and infrastructure towards Russia’s border. By agreeing to terms such as this, the United States can continue their integral role in protecting vulnerable NATO member states and avoid exacerbating tensions with Russia.
As we await the coming meeting between the two world leaders, it is crucial to recall the great progress that has been made in the last few decades to restore healthy U.S.-Russia relations. From the tensions of the Cold War a new global balance has emerged that can only be maintained through careful diplomatic engagements with world powers like the Russian Federation. Despite concerns in the media that meeting with Vladimir Putin could harm the fragile international order, a look into the agenda and goals of the negotiations demonstrates that investing in relations with Russia brings security to the United States and, in turn, to the world as a whole.