Trump dampens expectations ahead of Putin summit
'Maybe some good will come out,' US president says of meeting with Russian leader
Helsinki’s presidential palace was built for the Russian Tsars and hosted Cold War meetings between the US and Kremlin leaders. Yet it is hard to imagine the Finnish capital has ever had the buzz of uncertainty that reigns as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin prepare to shake hands on Monday.
The sense there is a lot at stake is underlined on arrival by giant black billboards with white type erected by Finland’s leading newspaper group. In English and Cyrillic, the signs proclaim: “Mr President, welcome to the land of the free press.”
With comparisons to summits like Yalta that carved up the map of continents, Mr Trump has played down the encounter’s ramifications. “I go in with low expectations– I’m not going with high expectations,” Mr Trump told CBS News. “I believe in having meetings. Nothing bad is going to come out of it and maybe some good will come out.”
As a target of international sanctions who was drummed out of the G8 after the annexation of Crimea, Mr Putin can be a winner just by turning up. Andrei Kotunov, a former Russian senator and a proxy spokesman for the Kremlin on international relations, declared Mr Putin “already got his victory” as the summit grants him a platform to make his points on world issues.
Discussing the prospect that Mr Trump could offer a US withdrawal of its limited troop presence in Syria, Washington officials rejected the proposal last week. However one international diplomat told the Washington Post it was clear America considers Syria to be “a Russian thing”. Lindsey Graham, the US Republican senator, was angered by the speculation. “I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria.”
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Benajmin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, left Moscow last week convinced that President Bashar Al Assad would, following the fall of Deraa, restore his writ throughout Syria with Russian backing. Furthermore the Russians reportedly guaranteed Iranian forces would be kept well away from the Israeli border.
Following the pattern of Mr Trump’s unorthodox summit with Kim Jong-un, few would be surprised by a US military concession. The US leader offered in Singapore to cancel major military exercises with South Korea without prior consultation with Seoul. Military drills are a major deterrent in international relations, especially in eastern Europe where the Baltic states and some eastern European states are under the shadow of a resurgent Russia.
“I am worried,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat who heads the Centre for European Reform. “Trump is unprepared, Putin will be ultra-prepared.”
The US president was to arrive in Finland from Scotland on Sunday night, having upset allies in Nato during a row over military spending last week. Mr Trump tweeted on Saturday that he was preparing for the Putin summit with briefings and meetings during his stay at one of his Scottish golf courses. However he spent a sizeable chunk of Saturday on the 120th round of golf of his presidency.
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Writing in the French newspaper Le Monde last week Vladislav Inozemtsev, the director of the Centre for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow, wrote that no normal agenda would be suitable for the type of meeting that Mr Trump undertook with Mr Putin.
Instead the encounter should be viewed as part of the building blocks that Mr Trump was constructing to exercise US power under his America First project.
For Mr Putin the opportunity to restore a transactional relationship with the US and perhaps parts of Europe and Nato was a great prize.
“For Mr Trump, two points are essential. On the one hand, he wants to understand what Putin has in his mind, and to establish a relationship with a leader whom he obviously respects,” wrote Mr Inozemtsev. “As he engages, step by step, in a confrontation with the whole world, the American president intends to side with a 'strong man' whose unpredictability is comparable to his.
“Strange as it may seem, the Trump-Putin alliance could be built on a common vision of the world, and be consolidated in favour of the general rise of populist and nationalist policies.”
Two European countries broke cover at the Nato summit to urge less pressure on Russia – Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. The new Italian government has signalled its opposition to the Russia sanctions regime. Even Emmanuel Macron was unable to resist the lure of Sunday’s World Cup to travel to Moscow for discussions with Mr Putin on Syria and Iran.
The European establishment can do little but look on askance at the American president’s manoeuvres.
Hubert Vedrine, who coined the phrase “Hyperpower" to describe America after the Cold War, warned on Sunday that Europe was “face-to-face with an existential threat” in Mr Trump.
There is little remedy on offer, no matter how special a country’s ties may have been with the US. Theresa May, the British prime minister, pleaded with Mr Trump to deal with the Russian leader “from a position of strength”.
Updated: July 15, 2018 10:08 PM