Experts: Summit with Trump a win-win proposition for Putin

Posted at 4:19 AM, Jul 16, 2018

As Vladimir Putin prepares to meet President Donald Trump Monday in Finland, in Moscow the first summit between the two men is widely seen as tilted in the Russian president's favor -- an opportunity for him to rebalance relations with the U.S. and break out somewhat from the isolation imposed on his nation since invading Ukraine in 2014.

The summit has sparked unusual predictions, in part because of an agenda that in some ways focuses on everything and nothing. No major, concrete outcomes are expected, but many in the U.S. and Europe have been nonetheless attributing epochal significance to the meeting, arguing it could mark the beginning of the end of the Western security order and the eventual unraveling of NATO.

Now added to that, the 12 new indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller against Russian intelligence agents for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have ignited a political storm at home as Trump meets with the man accused of ordering the operation.

The result is that the summit itself has been described as a win for Putin, with the risks disproportionately on the American side. In Moscow, many experts agree that the summit is a win-win for Putin, with things to gain and very little to lose, but they also said warnings and predictions emanating from Europe and the U.S. are overblown.

"Unlike what many assume in the West -- that Putin is sitting and laughing and expecting NATO to collapse -- it's not the case," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, who sometimes advises the government.

Trump's rancorous NATO summit in Brussels this week, where reports surfaced that he'd warned the U.S. could "go it alone" if allies didn't contribute more, sparked dire warnings that the alliance's foundations were weakening.

But Russian observers see the drama around NATO more as political theater and an internal squabble than as something profoundly affecting Russia -- not least because ultimately Trump is pushing for a better-funded NATO.

"I think the perception here, widespread among both politicians and experts, is that the West will survive, NATO will survive," Lukyanov said. "There might be a lot of internal quarreling. "But, in general, no one expects this community to disappear."


Instead, experts said, the most realistic win for the Kremlin is restoring more-normal relations with the U.S., portraying Russia as turning a corner following its 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The priority for the Russian side will be restore regular communication channels with the U.S. government that were effectively cut off by the Obama administration. For the past four years, those have been mostly frozen except for occasional talks between top-level officials and communications between the two countries' militaries to prevent clashes over Syria.

In Moscow, some believe there is a desire to break out of that.

"Helsinki will mark the first détente in the four-year-old Hybrid War between Russia and the United States," Dmitry Trenin, the influential director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote this week.

Trenin, like many experts and officials in Moscow and Washington, believes Russia and the U.S. have effectively been in conflict for four years, but in a conflict fought with unconventional means -— cyber-attacks, propaganda, espionage and economic sanctions, as well as through a proxy war in Syria.

The conflict has been compared to the Cold War, but some observers warn it currently lacks the diplomatic guardrails and understandings that managed that confrontation. Some experts therefore see Helsinki as set to play the role it did during the Cold War, as a place where U.S. and Russian leaders can bring down tensions in a longterm confrontation that's threatened to get out of control, producing a 21st-century detente for this 21st-century conflict.

"Make no mistake: U.S.-Russian relations will not be miraculously transformed as a result," Trenin wrote. "The Hybrid War will continue. But some rules will be laid down, and a measure of dialogue will be taking place."

Russian officials have been candid about re-establishing communication as a priority for the summit. On Saturday, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said, "Ideally, we would like to agree on the restoration of communication channels on all the difficult questions where our positions diverge."

"Success would be if we start to communicate normally," he said.

John Bolton, Trump's national security adviser, has justified the summit on similar grounds, saying the two powers ought to be talking to one another.

The Kremlin is not aiming at friendly relations, experts said, but at a more realistic lowering of tensions, where they play less of a role in the relationship with Washington.

"There will be no major breakthrough. President Putin regards a meeting with the U.S. president not as a reward but as a resumption of normal business," Trenin wrote.

Officials and foreign policy experts in Europe and the U.S., however, believe that restoring normal ties though would reward the Kremlin when it has not changed its behavior -— more of a capitulation rather than a de-escalation.

But even among those advocating for Russia's continued isolation, many say more communication is desirable, particularly around nuclear arms control.

The Kremlin has also signalled it hopes the summit can help start building stronger economic ties to the U.S., with an aide to Putin telling reporters this week the Russian president will put some specific economic proposals to Trump. Syria also has been suggested as an area for renewed agreement despite Russian-backed offensives there that have violated the de-escalation zones previously agreed on by the U.S. and Russia.

Putin may well also coax Trump on his hints that he considers Crimea should be viewed as Russian, although it will be aware that Trump's ability to formally recognize Russia's annexation is limited given Congress has legislated never to do so.

Therefore the menu of potential benefits for Putin from the summit is broad even if expectations in Moscow remain restrained. The risks are largely on the U.S. side, Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council that has links with Russia's foreign ministry.

"There is a risk that Trump will promise something not quite so, or do something not quite so. Naturally, Trump needed to invest more political capital in this meeting," Kortunov said.

Potentially throwing a wrench into any detente, however, are new special counsel indictments against 12 Russian military intelligence hackers that lay out how they allegedly meddled in the 2016 election. The indictments have reignited a blaze under an issue that Trump already was under pressure to raise.

Russia, again, has already denied any involvement. Its foreign ministry denounced the indictments in typically florid tones, with Lavrov saying the investigation provides "no facts." Putin appears certain to repeat the same when he meets Trump.

Sticking with its blanket denial, the Kremlin sees election meddling as a distraction from its goals at the summit, even as it has become a political priority in the U.S.

U.S. officials have suggested Trump will push for a guarantee that Russia will leave the November midterms alone. Trenin suggested that with little real reason to target the vote, it could be a concession Putin is happy to make.

But the uproar in the U.S. around the indictments underlines why some observers in Moscow are skeptical over how long-lasting any possible détente from the summit can be.

"Remember what happened a year ago after their first negotiation," Lukyankov said. "The situation deteriorated abruptly and dramatically."

Their first full summit may bring down tensions briefly, he said, “but the temperature will be up again after, I don't know, two weeks' time."