LONDON - As the 2018 World Cup reached its climax Sunday, no one could draw more satisfaction from the tournament than Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The mega sporting event, which Putin personally lobbied to secure for Russia, has allowed the Kremlin to burnish the country’s image abroad, say analysts and even Putin’s domestic critics.
And Monday the Russian leader will once again be center stage with a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, ending in some ways the international ostracism the Russian leader has faced since his forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Monday’s meeting in Helsinki for the first face-to-face summit between the leaders of the World’s two biggest nuclear-armed nations has been a hastily-pulled together encounter. European leaders are apprehensive about what may come out of it, fearing Trump may bank too much on personal chemistry and gloss over substance. Former U.S. government officials worry there’s been too little preparatory work by the White House ahead of the high-stakes sit-down.
Both U.S. and Russian diplomats have been playing down expectations for the four-hour summit in the Finnish capital, which will include a lengthy one-on-one discussion between the two leaders, saying they expect no breakthroughs on contentious issues — including on accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race.
No set agenda
With no set formal agenda, President Trump has suggested the encounter is more about breaking the ice between the two men, who have met briefly twice before on the sidelines of international summits, than anything else. He told reporters last week that he’s going into the meeting “not looking for so much.”
And that is what America’s European allies and some former U.S. officials, who have publicly expressed doubts about the wisdom of holding the summit, hope is the end result, too — namely, nothing much.
They have expressed fears that Trump, who last week berated NATO allies, and hinted unless they increased their defense spending rapidly, he'd consider pulling the U.S. out of the nearly 70-year-old security alliance, will be lured by the more experienced summiteer Vladimir Putin into offering concessions — possibly agreeing to lift sanctions imposed on Russia for the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Some media commentators have suggested Trump might even agree to recognize formally the annexation — predictions the freewheeling U.S. President prompted after telling reporters on Air Force One on June 29 that he might consider doing so. “We're going to have to see,” Trump said.
In June, too, at an ill-tempered G-7 summit in Quebec, Trump reportedly told other Western leaders — possibly to shake them up — that Crimea might as well belong to Russia because most people living there speak Russian.
The White House, though, has firmly denied that Crimea’s status is up for grabs.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told a July 3 press briefing in Washington: “We do not recognize Russia's attempt to annex Crimea.” She added: “sanctions against Russia remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to the Ukraine.”
And Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, who met with Trump for 20 minutes during last week’s NATO meeting, has discounted Trump offering any concessions on Crimea, saying he’s satisfied with the assurances he got from the U.S. President.
He told France 24 that he’s certain Trump won't negotiate about Crimea during his meeting with Putin.
So what will the two men talk about in Helsinki? Trump has declared no issue off the table. And in the past few days he has reiterated his desire to establish warm relations with Putin, saying he doesn't see him as an enemy but as a competitor, who might one day become a friend.
But it is remarks like that which are prompting European apprehension and the alarm especially not only of the British, French and Germans but also Baltic and Polish leaders. They view Putin’s Kremlin as an implacable foe, one determined to sow divisions in the West, drive a wedge between America and Europe and to reassert Russian influence over Central Europe.
Trump’s position is that dialogue is important. The U.S. leader has said in the past that “getting along with Russia [and others] is a good thing, not a bad thing” to explain why he wants to improve relations with Moscow. And his ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has pressed the importance of channels of communication being open between Washington and Moscow, saying not to talk would be irresponsible.
Not since the Cold War have relations between the West and Moscow been so fraught with clashes over Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its pro-separatist operations in eastern Ukraine, as well as its military intervention in Syria. There are also ongoing disputes over nuclear arms treaties, NATO policy, and cybersecurity.
On Saturday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to echo Washington’s position — that the summit is about initiating U.S.-Russian dialogue. “The ideal outcome would be to agree to engage all the channels on all divisive issues…and also on those issues where we can already usefully cooperate,” he said.
Lavrov also said Putin is “ready to answer any questions” about the alleged involvement of Russian military intelligence officers in the hacking of Democratic Party computers in 2016. His comment came less than 24 hours after the U.S. Justice Department issued criminal indictments of a dozen Russians for interfering in U.S. politics.
Trump's domestic foes fault him for shying away from criticizing Putin personally, arguing it gives credence to claims made by a former British spy that the Kremlin holds compromising information on the U.S. president. Trump has angrily dismissed the claims.
Russian officials say Putin has no intention of raising Ukraine and Crime. But it seems clear that NATO will come up. Lavrov pointedly criticized Saturday NATO expansion, saying it was “swallowing countries” near Russia's borders. “Today we have common threats, common enemies. Terrorism, climate change, organized crime, drug trafficking. None of this is being effectively addressed by NATO expansion.”
European officials worry that Putin will seek to exploit disunity within NATO days after last week’s contentious summit in which President Trump clashed repeatedly with European leaders, shaking them up with demands for defense spending hikes beyond previously agreed targets.
European officials worry Trump may during his meeting with Putin offer to axe planned NATO war games in Baltic in a gesture of goodwill. On Thursday, the U.S. President said: “Well, perhaps we'll talk about that.” In June, Trump shocked South Korea and Japan by telling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their meeting in Singapore that he would pause joint military exercises.
U.S. and Russian officials say Syria will figure prominently in the discussions between Trump and Putin— including ways to wind down the multi-sided conflict in the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Putin in Moscow last week for talks focusing on the Iranian presence in Syria, prompting speculation that he was laying the groundwork for the Russian leader and Trump to reach a deal that would see the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah militia from areas bordering Israel.
Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday that he had spoken by phone with Trump on Saturday to discuss Syria and Iran. The prime minister said Trump reaffirmed his commitment to Israel.
But it is arms control that’s likely to prove the most fruitful issue for the two leaders. Despite the Cold War-style strains between the U.S. and Russia, the two countries met a February verification deadline required by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which among other things requires both countries to limit their deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs to 1,550 apiece. U.S. ambassador Huntsman told VOA in April that he saw the meeting of the deadline as “a kind of opening,” adding he hoped it would lead to broader discussions on nuclear arms control, something he believes can be built on to help improve U.S.-Russia relations.