The July 16 face-to-face between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is both entirely natural and extremely unconventional, very encouraging and deeply disturbing. At the two previous meetings, in Hamburg and Danang, the two leaders had a lot to talk about—and they agreed on approximately nothing. There have been all sorts of variably informed speculations about the agenda, proceedings, and outcome of the upcoming rendezvous, but most appear to miss the point that Putin is interested in making it a success for his counterpart, and can do so at very little cost. Whether the NATO summit in Brussels prior to the Helsinki meeting is as quarrelsome as the G-7 gathering in Quebec or as smooth as the previous summit of the Alliance, Putin can stick to his script of insincere bonhomie. He knows full well that Trump needs this long-anticipated tête-à-tête to be a personal triumph of his will over the warnings—sometimes written in capital letters—of his advisers, the so-called “adults.” For a skillful intriguer like Putin, it is not that difficult to turn this desire for success to his advantage.
Empty gestures and hollow promises
There are plenty of difficult and demanding matters—from Ukraine to Syria, and from North Korea to Iran—for the Helsinki agenda. The problem is that real progress isn’t possible on any of them. For instance, the ceasefire in southern Syria, which was supposed to be the main result of Trump’s extra-long discussion with Putin in Hamburg last July, broke down last month as Bashar Assad’s troops launched an offensive against Deraa.
Rather than address this bothersome agenda, Putin would prefer to make a pile of promises.
On Syria, for that matter, he can promise to reduce Russian forces, reiterating the just announced homecoming of some 1,140 troops. He can easily pledge not to interfere with Israeli air strikes on Iranian forces in Syria, since in fact Russia has never attempted to intercept them. Putin hardly believes the rumors that Trump may recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but he can give any number of reassurances that Russian troops are not present in the Donbass war zone, since he has recycled this lie many times before.
On North Korea—a particularly salient topic now for Trump—Putin can promise to maintain the sanctions regime, even if he never liked it, claimed that it would never work, and experimented with various violations. (While it is China, not Russia, that truly has the power to tighten or loosen sanctions, Moscow loyally follows Beijing’s lead.) Russia is only a miniscule factor in the looming U.S.-China trade war, but Putin might pretend gravitas by remaining silent on the matter, which can reverberate severely in Russia’s stagnant economy.
How can Putin make empty promises look meaningful? A symbolic gesture such as granting access to the diplomatic dachas in Moscow and Washington could help. Reopening consulates would be a step further, but the Russian consulate in San Francisco is so exposed as a dirty nest of espionage that even Putin would perhaps prefer not to touch it.
The arms control deadlock
The agenda item that is really important for Putin is arms control, but he knows that Trump is not a fan of protracted talks and calibrated compromises. Hollow promises would not do much to lure Trump into this hard work, but Putin can make some attractive propositions and even offer some one-sided concessions in order to get things going in this paramount area. Indeed, nothing can give Russia’s international status a greater boost than opening new negotiation channels, which lend it a high-profile status alongside the United States.
The easiest thing to do, at least from Moscow’s perspective, is to extend the terms of the New START Treaty, which is due to expire in 2021. Standing in the way of this natural first step is Trump’s reluctance to embrace the Obama-era deal. In order to circumvent this dead-end, Putin may announce Russia’s readiness to observe the established ceilings unilaterally. It is actually nearly impossible for Russia to reach these ceilings anyway, as two old strategic submarines are being decommissioned and only one new Borei-A is undergoing sea trials.
Putin could also re-confirm Russia’s commitment to observe the so-called Presidential Nuclear Initiative (PNI) on tactical nuclear weapons made by Mikhail Gorbachev and reciprocated by George H.W. Bush in 1991. It will cost him nothing, since the non-strategic warheads are permanently kept in storage facilities. Another no-cost declaration could be a promise not to deploy nuclear weapons on satellites, hinting at Russia’s development of anti-satellite weapon systems (and responding, implicitly, to Trump’s talk of a Space Force, which alarmed Moscow). Putin may also float an idea about a ban on laser weapons, following up on his recent announcement of pending deployment with the Russian armed forces of a combat laser called Peresvet, about which next to nothing is known.
A more daring proposition could involve postponing a deployment of cruise missiles and under-water drones propelled by a nuclear reactor, the two sensational projects that Putin presented with great fanfare in his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly. Technical feasibility of these designs is rather dubious, and their strategic rationale is far from solid, so Putin can safely put them on hold—expecting something in return. A nuclear-powered cruise missile that received particular mention in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is the obvious candidate.
Trump has never shown interest in playing with “toys” of this kind, and Putin cannot be sure that he could successfully get his mercurial counterpart hooked on them. Putin can start with a solemn promise not to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections this fall, hoping to turn this disagreeable page—and expecting that Trump will be eager to get closure on the irritating issue of past meddling and possible future conspiracies.
Success with a short expiration date
The irony of the semi-prepared (by Moscow) and semi-improvised (by Washington) success of the summit is in its dubious durability. Trump will return from Helsinki to his political base, which is not particularly keen about befriending bellicose dictators. Putin will return to Russia severely hungover from the World Cup and awakening to the painful consequences of the government’s decision to increase the retirement age. Both leaders will put maximum possible spin on the low-substance triumph, for now. But before long, it’s possible they’ll find it politically profitable to get a good conflict going in order to re-energize their constituencies with a fresh dose of jingoist rhetoric.