The summit held in Helsinki, Finland on the 16th July, 2018, between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was held after a NATO summit only a few days earlier within which disagreements between the Americans and the Europeans were clear to see.
So what were the reasons for the summit to finally go ahead after initial avoidance by the American’s? This article will argue that the summit was agreed to by the American’s in order to achieve two objectives, firstly, to put pressure on Europe with respect to NATO and secondly to provide Russia an outlet so she does not turn further to China for courtship and allianace against the US. Analysis After a prolonged period of tension in US-Russian relations over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the subsequent sanctions imposed by America and Europe on Russia, tensions further escalated when the Obama administration accused Russia of interfering in the US elections with the aim of influencing the candidacy of Donald Trump. Officially, America suspended high-level meetings between the two sides, although, the two presidents met twice before this summit on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg, Germany in July 2017, and of the Asian Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Vietnam on November 2017. These brief meetings however were not at the level of summits and no issues were raised of any significance. During the one-and-a-half-year period of Trump’s administration, Russia actively sought a summit between the two presidents, but the US kept postponing as a means of putting pressure on Russia. Russia had been waiting for Trump’s initiative to improve relations between them, but it was aware of the difficulties of doing so because of a major wave of opposition to Trump’s political direction. The impact of this emerged during the open investigations against Russia and the resignations of Trump’s associates over alleged ties with Russia. A full-scale meeting at the summit level became a primary objective for Russia, but one, which she failed to achieve until this point. It only became possible after America agreed to it, with an announcement by the US National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis on the 26th of June, 2018, that national security adviser John Bolton would be visiting Moscow at the end of June with the aim of organising a Russia-American summit (Russian Sputnik Agency 24/6/2018). Questions therefore emerge as to why it was the US and not Russia which took the lead in deciding to hold the summit between the two Presidents and what did she intend to achieve from it? In this regard the following points can be observed: All indicators confirm a continuation of American pressure on Russia. Two days before the summit, she accused Russian intelligence officers of involvement in influencing the US elections through hacking the accounts of Democratic Party officials’ during the 2016 campaign and using phishing and malicious software (The Guardian 10/7/2018). This was quite evident when as soon as the Trump-Putin Summit ended in Helsinki, America announced the arrest of a Russian woman in Washington on charges of spying for Russia. These actions, carried out by the US government agencies, clearly demonstrate that Russia’s expectations of easing pressure on her was not going to be met despite the summit. It also reveals that there are other factors, which moved America to accept Russia’s continuing request for a summit. These factors can be illustrated by observing the circumstances surrounding the summit. The US-Russian summit took place under circumstances in which America is engaged in a trade war against two major rivals, the European Union and China, and it seems that America decided to hold the summit to play the Russian card. As regards the EU, America chose the timing of the summit to coincide immediately after the summit of NATO countries, which was held in Brussels amid acute differences between the EU and America. According to Russia Today, “The NATO summit was launched in Brussels today amid expectations that it will be fraught with tension, especially between Washington and its European allies on the background of differences on trade and defense spending and the Iranian nuclear agreement. The NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the existence of differences and different views among the allies” (RT 11/7/2018). Trump described the European Union as the “opponent” publicly for the first time in the history of transatlantic relations. Consequently, the summit with Russia became one of the most important instruments of American pressure against the Europeans in the following manner; a) Trump has threatened the Europeans with appeasing Russia regarding Ukraine. According to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, “Trump had told him that the motives of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine were of interest to him, Trump admitted that his enthusiasm towards the Ukraine is a lot less (RT, 15/7/2018). Tusk added in his interview with the Polish channel TVN24 that, “in several conversations with me, President Trump did not hide that he felt less enthusiasm for Ukraine and more understanding of what Russia did in Ukraine” (RT, 15/7/2018). What made things worse for the EU was the announcement by Trump at the G7 Summit in June that, “Crimea belongs to Russia, because everyone there speaks Russian” (RT 15/7/2018). This is despite that fact the Ukrainian situation is very sensitive for the Europeans as they view Russia’s actions in Ukraine as interfering with European security and one that cannot be tolerated. Trump’s statement is therefore very dangerous for Europe as Russia can potentially degrade the European border and map from the east. b) Trump also angered Europe by advocating the return of Russia to the G7 after her expulsion post annexation of the Crimea. Trump stated, “They threw Russia out… They should let Russia come back in, because we should have Russia at the negotiating table” (FT, 9/6/2018) c) After the NATO summit, European leaders were concerned about the rapprochement between Russia and America. This was clear from German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s statement when he warned Trump of any unilateral deals at the expense of the Europeans commenting that, “Unilateral deals at the expense of the allies will harm the United States, too. The one who hits his partners risks to lose eventually” (RT, 15/7/2018). The US-Russian rapprochement could damage the EU, as European sanctions imposed on Russia, which are renewed every six months, will be rendered ineffective and hence embolden Russia with respect to the Europeans. d) Trump heavily criticizes the EU publicly, especially Germany, on the issue of the purchase of Russian gas. Sometimes he describes Russia as a ‘rival’ i.e. an “enemy” and other times he incites against the EU, as in his advice to the British Prime Minister Theresa May during their summit meeting in London, wherein, in an interview with the BBC, May stated, “He told me that I should sue the EU rather than negotiate” (BBC 15/7/2018). Despite Britain’s declared intentions to leave the EU, she shares the same view of the European countries on Russia, and it is highly likely that Britain’s extreme provocation of Russia was intended to disrupt the Russo-American summit America’s pressure on Europe with regards to threats of returning Russia to the G7, hints at the American recognition of Crimea as part of Russia as well as indifference to Ukraine and with improvements to US relations with Russia throughout the summit is considerable indirect intimidation on Europe aimed at forcing Europe’s compliance with US demands as well as increasing its defense expenditure in NATO. Hence, America’s rapprochement with Russia in the form of the summit was aimed at pressurizing the EU countries. The Summit’s Motives’ Towards China The US-Russian summit also took place with the backdrop of a US-led trade war against Beijing and after America had exhausted the Chinese into softening North Korea’s position and putting it on the path of peaceful solutions and removing the specter of war from the Korean Peninsula as represented by the American-North Korean Summit in Singapore on the 12th June, 2018. As soon as these events took place, the America implemented the policies announced by Trump against China before he even became President. The US imposed customs duties on Chinese imports worth $50bn a year, China responded by the imposition of customs duties of the same value on US imports. America then announced a new plan to impose customs duties on China’s other imports worth $200bn, which China could not retaliate, because the total imports from America is $130bn, while its exports to America are $500bn, and there China has to think of other methods of retaliation in the trade war. One response adopted by the Chinese was a rapprochement with Russia. The Shanghai Organization held its last meeting in China on the 10th of June 2018 in conjunction with the meeting of the seven industrialized countries-G7 (which Russia was expelled from in 2014) held in Canada on the 9th June 2018. These two meetings have demonstrated a divided world. The West meets in Canada and the East meets in China, which angered America, as it did not conform to its global hegemony after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. America witnessed two active countries in the Shanghai Organization, China, which the she waged a trade war against, and Russia, upon whom she had imposed harsh and growing sanctions against. Consequently, America sensed that Russia and China could become more interdependent on each other due to her policy against them, to rival her in international trade and politics through closer cooperation including crucially in military affairs. Russia and China sense that they are facing a common enemy, America, and their cooperation is necessary to strengthen their power. The message of the Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe was very expressive of this feeling. On a visit to Russia heading a military delegation to the Moscow International Security Conference, Fenghe said during the meeting with his Russian counter part Schweigo that he is visiting, “…To support the Russian side in the organization of the Moscow International Security Conference. The Chinese delegation arrived to show the Americans the strong ties between the Chinese and Russian armed forces, especially in the current situation… We came to your support. The Chinese side is ready to express, together with the Russian side, our common concern and common position on important international issues.” (Russia Today 3/4/2018) Hence, America realized that opening the door of hope for Russia with respect to a possible rapprochement between them would lead Russia distancing herself from China, and a dismantling of their fragile alliance before the completion of its pillars, especially in the military realm. This is because America is cognizant of Russia’s military potential, and putting this capacity or even a part of it alongside China will strengthen it immensely and allow it to maneuver away from any US pressure and demands. Washington saw this as an achievable task. Russia is gravitating towards China as a new strategy because of its poor relations with the West. The American’s aim therefore with a rapprochement in the form of a summit with Russia would therefore be to ease the pressure on her, provide her hope and navigate her away from China. Although it is too early to judge the achievement of these American goals from the summit with Russia, and it depends on the later steps of rapprochement between Washington and Moscow, but America can easily dismantle the fragile and mysterious “alliance”, which has formed between Russia and China. America is taking several steps in this regard as with Russia in the form of a summit and with China in the form of trade, since China’s trade interests with America have the highest priority in Beijing than any relation China has with Russia. In order to maintain the heat on the EU and China, Trump made the summit ‘open ended’ as a prelude to future steps. Hence Trump stated after his closed meeting with Putin in Helsinki that the summit was “a new beginning” (RT, 16/7/2018). At the press conference broadcast live by RT, he announced the agreement between the two countries to start negotiations on extending the nuclear disarmament agreement reached between them in 2010 and expires in 2021. Trump announced after the summit that relations with Russia were in a worse situation four hours ago, but now it has changed. This corresponds with what was announced by John Bolton, US National Security who stated; “We have asked, and the Russians have agreed, that it will be basically unstructured. We are not looking for concrete deliverables,” (ABC 17/7/2018). US Ambassador to Russia John Huntsman told NBC, “It’s not a summit… it’s a meeting… So this is an attempt to see if we can defuse and take some of the drama, and quite frankly some of the danger, out of the relationship right now (Reuters, 16/7/2018). This confirms that America has not yet planned to improve its relations with Russia and is still pursuing a policy of pressure on it. But for reasons related to the international situation and the US trade war with the EU and China; it wanted to scare Europe with its rapprochement with Russia. And it decided to open a room of hope for Russia in the form of ending its international isolation and of improving its relations with America, all in order to keep it away from the rapprochement with China on the one hand, and on the other hand, Russia may respond to US demands in other international issues, as it did in supporting the US policy in Syria, by keeping Syrian regime in power. The summit was not to resolve specific international issues but rather it was a shot directed at China and towards the European Union. The talks were general and discussed everything without specificities, as confirmed by the two sides’ statements. Trump said that his talks with Putin will deal with, “ everything, starting with trade, going into military issues, missiles, and ending” with China, we will talk a bit about China and our common friend, President Xi” (Reuters 16/7/2018), whilst Putin told US President Donald Trump at the start of their summit in Helsinki that “it was time to talk about relations between Moscow and Washington. He added that they too must discuss complex international multilateral issues.” (ibid). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that the Helsinki summit will address “all the complex issues where our positions are different so that we can work to bring our views closer to solving these problems,” and he ruled out reaching agreements. (Al Jazeera.net, 16/7/2018) This generality clearly indicates that the intention of the Summit was to not to resolve specific international issues, and this is evident from the summit outcomes that some media outlets have reported. For example, the two sides agree on the security of Israel. Trump stated, “providing security for Israel is something Putin and I would like to see very, very much” (Reuters, 16/7/2018), and that the two parties are demanding the Syrian side return to the status of the forces agreed in 1974 after the end of the fighting in southern Syria These are not new and requiring the heads of state to have a summit. The same is the case on general statements on nuclear weapons and the environment. With regards to the impact of the summit on the Syrian arena, there is nothing new at this summit regarding the US and Russian policies in Syria. The two countries are fully in agreement with the elimination of the Syrian revolution, they are both waiting to achieve this as well as in full agreement on it, ever since the meeting between Obama and Putin on 29/9/2015, Russia has implemented the US policy in Syria and is in coordination with her, while Russia is engaged in direct military actions such as the shelling of Daraa and its surroundings, America is supporting it, as in the letter sent to the Syrian opposition in the south, that “America will not provide them with any support during the attack on Daraa.” There is nothing new about the Russian efforts to eliminate the Syrian revolution militarily and the American facilitation of it. As for the political settlement in Syria, America is postponing it until the regime in Damascus and Russia completes the process of eliminating the armed opposition. Then, America will lead the comprehensive political process in Syria according to its interests, with or without a planed Russian role. And that political process was not discussed in the summit, which indicates that America has postponed it or it does not want a Russian role, or both. It is not unlikely that Russia recognizes that the objectives of US policy in Syria does not allow Russia to participate in it, but Russia hopes that America does not restrict her in Ukraine, especially in Crimea. Trump pleased Russia with his remarks about the Crimea announcing during the G7 summit that Crimea belongs to Russia everyone there speaks Russian (RT, 15/7/2018). This is very dangerous for Europe, which believes that Russia is destroying her borders and the European map from the east.