All past summits between Washington and Moscow leaders, Shelin continues, have led to major breakthroughs only when these were carefully prepared in advance at a lower level. Some might suggest that such a precedent won’t hold for Trump because he likes to act independently; but fallout from his supposedly “breakthrough” summit with Kim Jong-un suggests otherwise.
Trump celebrated his meeting with the North Korean leader as having produced an agreement to “de-nuclearize” the Korean peninsula, only to find that his understanding of that term and Pyongyang’s remain far apart, as US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s failed visit to North Korea demonstrated.
The same thing is likely to be true at Helsinki. Trump may make concessions and Putin may show flexibility in their conversations; but the results of the meeting beyond those having to do with public relations – which both leaders care about – “can only be those actions to which both sides are in advance and internally prepared.”
That is all the more so, Shelin continues, because of the difference in experience between the two: “Putin is not a new leader,” and thus cannot move as far in any direction from settled policy as he could earlier. Trump is relatively inexperienced and potentially could, but he too has far less freedom of action than he thinks because of the nature of the situaiton.
That is true on all the issues the Trump-Putin meeting will take up. First, Crimea. “It is excluded” that the US will recognize Crimea as Russian “even if Trump says that he agrees with this. This simply isn’t in his competence.” The US has a position, and the Europeans are involved as well, and sanctions were introduced not over Crimea but over the Donbass.
Second, a lifting of sanctions of their greater part in exchange for a Russian withdrawal from the Donbass. “This is possible but not very probable.” Moscow isn’t ready to do that: it is living with sanctions; and it has repeatedly denied it is involved in the Donbass. Any move beyond calling for an observance of the Minsk agreements is thus unlikely.
Third, “Russian assistance to the anti-Iran coalition.” This is simply “excluded,” Shelin says. Moscow continues to have an implicit cooperation with Iran against the US in order that Russia become the hegemon in various portions of Syria, and no meeting at Helsinki is going to change that.
Fourth, an increase in Russian oil exports. This is already happening without any agreement. Putin may announce it as if it were a concession; but Moscow has no interest in the lower oil prices that such a move would involve if it were large enough to make a real difference to world prices.
And fifth, other peripheral issues, like from example an accord on Central Asia. That is possible but unlikely because “our system unlike even the early Brezhnevite one does not feel a need for a breakthrough in the international arena” although it just like its predecessor requires “ritual actions which raise the prestige of the leader.”
There is thus little willingness or ability to make a fundamental breakthrough at least in public, although there may be some private understandings. But as far as the former are concerned, Shelin concludes, he will call the Helsinki meeting a success if it leads to something as minor as an agreement for the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine.