The visit by United States National Security Advisor John Bolton to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials resulted in an agreement to hold a long-awaited “historic summit” with Putin and President Donald Trump in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. That will be one day after Putin hosts the final game of the 2018 soccer World Cup, in Moscow, which will be attended by an array of foreign dignitaries. The US leader is coming to Europe to attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, on July 11–12. Less than a week later, in Helsinki, Trump and Putin will hold face-to-face talks followed by an expanded delegation meeting. A joint declaration is being prepared that will cover future bilateral relations and key global issues, including Syria, Ukraine and arms control. Both sides have expressed hope the coming summit will decrease heightened US-Russian tensions as well as promote world peace and international stability (Interfax, June 28). Vienna was previously considered as a possible venue of a Trump-Putin summit, but was ultimately discarded—perhaps because it is geographically too close to Munich, where, almost 80 years ago, another peace-making “historic summit” took place in September 1938.
Bolton was received in Moscow, on June 27, with extraordinary honors. During the talks in the Kremlin, President Putin sat at the table facing Bolton, together with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and presidential foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov. Russians are traditionally exceptionally touchy about protocol issues, but this meeting was definitely out of protocol: The Russian side of the table clearly exceeded Bolton’s pay grade, uniting in one room all the major Russian foreign and defense policymakers. Putin did not simply pop into the room for a brief moment—he was there to lead the talks. In another twist, Putin, who is notoriously late to nearly every appointment, including to his audiences with the pope and the queen of England, came to meet Bolton earlier than scheduled, after attending an award-giving function in the Kremlin (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 27).
No other US National Security Advisor was received in Moscow with such respect since, perhaps, Henry Kissinger when he came to meet Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev to prepare the 1972 “historic Moscow summit” with President Richard Nixon. That meeting kicked off “détente” between Moscow and Washington with the signing of a package of arms control agreements. Of course, much earlier, German Reich Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was treated in the Kremlin with similar pomp in August 1939 by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and dictatorial leader Josef Stalin. Clearly, Putin and the Russian leadership are eager to obtain something rather serious out of the coming Helsinki summit: a new US-Russian détente or perhaps even some equivalent of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact delimiting spheres of mutual interests and decreasing mutual tensions, which would happen at a high cost to others. So far at least, there is no indication they are likely to secure either.
The coming NATO Brussels Summit is scheduled to endorse plans already approved by Alliance defense ministers to develop logistics and troop battle readiness. NATO wants to be able to move tens of thousands of soldiers and heavy equipment more or less rapidly to the east, primarily to Poland and the Baltic States, to deter a major Russian attack or foil one if it begins. Fears are cropping up across the continent that in Helsinki, Trump—like at his recent summit in Singapore with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—may decide to cut down military preparations and exercises in Europe “to save money” and as a confidence-building measure to reassure Putin (Interfax, June 28).
A serious and growing rift within the transatlantic alliance has always been a prime Russian strategic objective. Putin wants the Helsinki summit to be a success and Trump wants that no less. The US President has launched a tariff war with his Western allies, undermining the economic foundation of the NATO military/political alliance. Meanwhile, the PR spin of the Singapore tête-à-tête is already wearing thin, and next month’s NATO summit could end up concluding on a note as sour as Trump’s participation in the June meeting of G7 heads of state in Canada (see EDM, June 14). A successful summit in Helsinki would thus be timely to counteract the political fallout from the trade war with allies. In Singapore, after signing a vague declaration with Kim, Trump tweeted that North Korea was no longer a threat: “Sleep well tonight!” Another declaration is now being worked out for Helsinki.
In Russia, diplomats and officials are extremely cautious. Though expressing some hope the Helsinki summit may bring progress, they also generally doubt there will be a “breakthrough.” Trump is seen as too weak, still undermined in his Russia policy by the Washington establishment and the Robert Mueller investigation. As such, it is believed he is unable to give Moscow the “compromise” it desires—a free hand in Syria to wipe out the opposition and a recognition of Russian special rights and influence in Ukraine and other post-Soviet territories. It is believed Trump “has recently become stronger” in Washington, but likely still not enough to deliver a “breakthrough” (Interfax, June 28). In Kyiv, there is fear a Trump-Putin summit—even if it does not deliver the “package agreement” on delimitation of spheres of interests that Moscow desires—may undermine the morale of those in Ukraine and other countries in Europe’s East that rely on the US (Newsru.com, June 28).
Meanwhile, in Daraa, a province in southwestern Syria, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have begun a major offensive, with massive bombing and with Russian aerial support, inside a ceasefire or “deconfliction zone” that was guaranteed by Russia, the US and Jordan. As the offensive progresses, reports of casualties and a major exodus of refugees have been multiplying. Damascus claims it is hitting “terrorists and illegal armed formations,” inflicting heavy casualties (Militarynews.ru, June 26). Washington has repeatedly warned Moscow and Damascus there “will be consequences” if violations of the southern deconfliction zone continue; but so far, the US has not acted on those warnings (Militarynews.ru, June 22). If the offensive in southern Syria continues unrestrained ahead of the Helsinki summit, and especially after the meeting, many in Europe and Russia will assume some semblance of a new “Helsinki pact” is indeed taking form.