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In Helsinki this month: U.S.-Russian relations and reputations at stake in Trump-Putin summit
President Trump has announced a July 16th summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. The two have met in person twice before, in brief encounters during larger gatherings of international leaders, but July’s summit will mark the first sit-down devoted solely to U.S.-Russian relations. On the table are a variety of important topics, which include U.S. sanctions on Russia, the two countries’ involvement in the Syrian civil war, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“We’ll see what Russia does,” Trump told reporters. “We’re going to be talking to Russia about a lot of things. We’re going to be talking to them about Syria, we’re going to be talking to them about Ukraine. We might even be talking about some of the things President Obama lost, like Crimea, that could come up.”
“We’ll be talking about elections,” Trump added. “We don’t want anyone tampering with elections.”
July’s summit will break an unprecedented radio silence between the two superpowers, which developed in the wake of a much more openly hostile relationship between Putin and President Obama. The ongoing standoff with Russia has taken on a new character under the Trump administration, however, as Trump and Putin have refrained from public attacks on each other and have instead traded compliments from time to time. Trump even called Putin in March to congratulate him on his reelection.
In practice, however, Trump has maintained the United States’ lines of opposition against Russia, signing a new sanctions bill, agreeing to defense contracts with Ukraine, and supporting members of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad, the Russia-backed Syrian dictator.
The war in Syria will undoubtedly loom large during the meeting. In April, the Department of Defense released footage of missile launches directed against three separate Syrian government facilities: a research center, a chemical weapons site, and a chemical-weapons-equipment site. The U.S. strikes were made in conjunction with Britain and France and conducted in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its civilian population. Both Russia and Assad’s government claim that the chemical weapons strikes were staged by Syrian rebels.
The opposition of Russia- and U.S-backed forces in Syria recalls the proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviets in Afghanistan, and is an increasingly dangerous tinderbox in the region that threatens to develop into open conflict. Discussions of lifting U.S. sanctions in July will undoubtedly revolve around Russia’s support for Assad.
Brokering a less hostile relationship with Putin would fulfill one of Trump’s major campaign promises. Coming on the heels of his groundbreaking meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, it would help to establish his image as a successful diplomat in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Discussions of potential political progress with Russia, however, have been occluded in the media by concerns of Trump’s involvement with Putin during the election and the ongoing investigation into his campaign. Whatever agreements Trump strikes in Helsinki will have to reckon with ongoing suspicion among his opponents. As in the case of Trump’s Singapore summit with the North Korean leader, the success of his diplomacy will rest in part on its ability to weather the storm at home.