Presidents Trump and Putin meet on Monday 16 July in Finland. When leaders get together one on one, their advisers and the bureaucracy that answers to them become extremely nervous; tetchy, even. When the Americans and the Russians get together without the Europeans, then the anxiety levels rise even further. And President Trump uses anxiety instinctively as an instrument in politics, foreign or domestic, like no other. Unsettle the opponent and take him or her off balance. He did just this multiple times at NATO and with the EU.
None of the European leaders really knows whether he likes them (he probably doesn’t), and it is not implausible to suggest that Mrs May has completely given up trying to work that one out. Putin, however, is too hard nosed and too experienced to be disturbed by Trump’s tactics. Moreover, he is a judo player; and even if those he now tackles on the mat act like obliging bunnies, he does know what to do. And Putin has as his adviser on international matters a decade-long ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov. Not someone to be lightly bounced off the mat. So whatever is said about “chemistry” evolving between the two presidents – suggested in today’s Rossiiskaya Gazeta (“V Kremle ob”yavili programmu sammita Putina i Trampa”) – can definitely be treated with a dose of salt. This meeting in Helsinki will be severely practical.
Trump and Putin have met before, in July 2017 (Germany) and in November (Vietnam). They have spoken by phone numerous times. And this summit has clearly been well prepared in advance on both sides in order not to appear worthless. Relations are no longer about ideology, as Ushakov has already emphasised. They are all about geopolitics, but insidiously intermingled with issues of domestic prestige on the Russian side, if not on the part of the Americans.
Syria is a key element in the discussion; perhaps the issue that has aroused more pre-emptive diplomatic action in advance of the summit than anything else. Trump’s strongest ally Netenyahu just visited Russia to tell Putin that, whereas Israel does not care if Assad stays on in Syria, the Iranians have to go; and Iran has recently insisted that, whatever happens, they will, of course, stay. Nezavisimaya gazeta issued a strongly worded editorial on 9 July with a title that tells it all: “The alliance with Iran is becoming risky for the Russian Federation.” This was followed by an article on 12 July: “Moscow is colliding with Teheran’s refusal to quit Syria. Russia and Israel have discussed the fate of Iranian forces at the highest level.” And the signs are that the Russian Defence Minister wants the Iranians to stay. Squaring this circle will certainly give both Trump and Putin more than enough to talk about; but they also apparently intend to range across a whole gamut of issues.
The Russians desperately need to get rid of sanctions even if the rising oil price has alleviated their foreign exchange position, but at the same time they doubtless understand that they have to evacuate Ukraine to achieve this. How is Putin to do this and sustain his ultra-patriotic rhetoric? The only areas that they can seriously push ahead with on co-operation are the traditional sphere of arms control and the hot topic of terrorism. Just recently the jihadists in Afghanistan have become seriously active on the border with Tadzhikistan. If the Americans ever leave that country, it is the Russians and their allies who will have to deal with them alone. But has anyone in Washington the courage to bite this bullet? If they do, it is Russia that will be in trouble.