Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin seem to have established a good rapport during their summit in Helsinki, on July 16. The Russian media enthusiastically quoted Trump: “We got along well, which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!” (Interfax, July 18). Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the summit as “splendid, better than super” (Militarynews.ru, July 16). But despite all this good personal chemistry, the summit on its face produced almost nothing concrete—other than a media mega-scandal regarding widespread perceptions of Trump too actively echoing Putin’s rhetoric at the joint presser and seemingly dismissing the issue of Russia’s intervention in US elections. And though the two presidents spent over two hours together talking one on one (except for their two translators), the content of their discussion has been kept private, leading to questions about what was actually said by either side and what “big results” might come of it.
Russian and US officials concur that Syria, Iran, North Korea, Israeli security, and nuclear arms control were discussed by Putin and Trump. However, what remains unclear was whether their encounter amounted to only a preliminary exchange of views or whether there was an unofficial handshake agreement behind the scenes. Both Trump and Putin apparently prefer handshake deal-making—a result of the former’s real estate business experience and the latter’s reliance on and adherence to semi-criminal so-called patsan street-gang culture from his time in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s. For Putin, unofficial patsan-style obligations are much more important than any signed and ratified treaties (Newsru.com, April 17, 2015; Brookings.edu, January 13, 2015). A good example is the total immunity from any prosecution of late president Boris Yeltsin and his entourage, an immunity Putin apparently unofficially guaranteed when Yeltsin handed him the presidency in January 2000. This deal still appears to be in force and covers even those former officials who have since turned into Putin’s bitterest public critics or political opponents, such as former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov or Kremlin aide Georgy Satarov (Pravdareport.com, October 25, 2003).
The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, announced, “The summit was productive, and important results were reached” (Interfax, July 19). Apparently, some kind of tacit agreement was made on how to handle the situation in Daraa and Quneitra provinces (southwestern Syria), where a successful offensive by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russian bombing, left rebel defenses in tatters. The “de-confliction zone” in the southwest, guaranteed by Russia, the US and Jordan, has collapsed. The rebels there have either outright surrendered or agreed to be bussed, together with families, to the northwestern province of Idlib, after relinquishing their heavy weapons. The US State Department has several times warned Moscow and Damascus there “will be consequences” if violations of the southern de-confliction zone continue. But to date, those words have not been met with actions (Militarynews.ru, June 22). According to Ambassador Antonov, in Helsinki Putin put forward “interesting proposals” to solve the problem, “taking into account Israeli security concerns” (Interfax, July 18).
The Trump administration is currently heavily focused on Iran’s deep involvement in the Syrian civil war. Severe anti-Iranian sanctions imposed by Washington will soon come into effect, curtailing the Islamic Republic’s oil exports, undermining its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, as well as obstructing the spread of Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the wider Gulf. The European Union actively opposes renewed US sanctions on Iran, but it remains to be seen what Russia does in this standoff (Militarynews.ru, July 17).
The Syrian civil war looks close to concluding, with Idlib now the last major rebel-held province left. The Iranian-led and sponsored Shia militias, which did much of the fighting on the ground in Syria for al-Assad, soon may not be needed as much as before. Moscow could choose to support a downscaling of Iran’s foothold in Syria if the US and EU agree to allow President al-Assad to remain in power, help finance the rebuilding of post-war Syria, and recognize the permanent Russian military presence in Hmeimim and Tartus. The Russian military has allowed the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to bomb Iranian assets in Syria with impunity. Moscow might concede the same privileges to US forces if the Iranians refuse to scale down their Syrian presence. An agreement is being worked out by Moscow to ban pro-Iranian forces from Quneitra province and anywhere close to IDF positions in the Golan Heights. More detailed US-Russian discussions on this issue are pending (Militarynews.ru, July 16).
According to some observers, in return for a more constructive Russian role in the Middle East, Trump in Helsinki appeared to make a major concession on the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline, which is planned to stretch under the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. During his joint press conference with the Russian leader, Trump restated his opposition to Nord Stream Two and promised US gas producers would compete with it; but importantly, he suggested that the decision to build the pipeline was Germany’s to make (Interfax, July 17). Previously, Washington threatened to stop Nord Stream Two with punitive sanctions. Handing the decision to Berlin effectively gives this gas pipeline project the go-ahead and may deprive cash-strapped Ukraine of billions of dollars in transit fees for pumping Russian gas to Europe.
On July 19, speaking in Moscow to an annual worldwide gathering of Russian ambassadors, Putin praised Trump and attacked his US opponents as “lowlifes” who purportedly weaken US and Israeli national security, cause billions of dollars in damage to US business interests by imposing sanctions, and spread ridiculous falsehoods to undermine Trump. Whereas, the US president, Putin asserted, is trying to improve relations with Russia. In the same speech, the Kremlin leader also made an ominous statement: “There is serious risk of further military escalation in southeastern Ukraine [Donbas] because of Ukrainian authorities refusing to honor their obligations” (Kremlin.ru, July 19). In Kyiv, the Helsinki summit caused near panic. Ukraine officially asked the United States to clarify what “new initiatives concerning southeastern Ukraine” were discussed in Helsinki over Ukrainian heads (Interfax, July 18). Reportedly, Kyiv is still waiting for a reply.