Helsinki Summit: Currents & cross-currents

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Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

APPARENTLY, many currents and cross-currents are being chartered regarding the upcoming Summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the US President Donald Trump on July 16, in Helsinki, Finland. 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. In this backdrop, Putin may not be that far off in diagnosing some of the chronic pathologies of the US foreign-policy establishment. Much of the Russian political establishment is invested in the idea that Trump himself may well like to improve relations with Russia, but is constantly hemmed in by Congress and a Washington foreign-policy bureaucracy that won’t allow him to do so. But an optimist Putin and a bold Trump may find new ways and means to build rapprochement between the US and the Russian military and civil establishments.
Trump had two meetings with Putin last summer at the Group of 20 Summit (July, 2017) in Hamburg, and in Danang, Vietnam (on eve of the APEC summit held in November, last year). The president has shown keen interest in restoring Putin’s place in the international community. At the G-7 Summit in Quebec earlier this month, he proposed that Russia should be re-admitted to the Group of Eight countries, from which Moscow was expelled after Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run,” Trump said. “We’re going to talk about Ukraine, we’re going to be talking about Syria. We’ll be talking about elections … we don’t want anybody tampering with elections, said President Trump. On the other hand, Russia has denied US intelligence agencies’ assessment that Moscow sought to interfere with the 2016 US election to boost Trump’s prospects of becoming president. After Trump and Putin met briefly in Vietnam in November 2017, Trump was criticized in the United States for saying he believed Putin when he denied Russian meddling. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States in response, and its military intervention in the war in Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad are major causes of strain in the two countries’ relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump talk “regularly,” President Putin told an Austrian news outlet ahead of his visit to Vienna. The Russian leader was responding to a question about special counsel Robert Mueller’s February indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations when he brought up his relationship with the American president. Putin’s interview with Austrian news presenter Armin Wolf grew heated when Wolf asked about allegations that Putin had meddled in the domestic politics of other countries. “Please make a distinction between the Russian Government, Russia as a state, Russian citizens and certain legal entities,” Putin said, repeating a talking point he has used before. Every day, Trump is given reports from the CIA, the NSC, State Department, whomever else, telling him about what Russia has done now, where it has misbehaved: they poisoned somebody here, they gave some money there.
Trump has denied any collusion with Russians during his 2016 campaign, and NSA John Bolton echoed that denial. “People have said or implied over time that a meeting between President Trump and President Putin would somehow prove some nexus between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, which is complete nonsense,” he said. Putin also denied the accusations against Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, one of the Russians indicted by Mueller who has been accused of orchestrating the so-called “troll farm” that was used to influence American politics in 2016. “To say there is a single issue that has caused there to not to be a warm relationship between the two countries is a misnomer,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN’s Elise Labott on June 22. “Whether it’s the battlefield in Syria, the situation in Ukraine, the Russians’ active measures, I am sure there are many topics that President Trump and President Putin will discuss and each of them is important to trying to put the relationship back in place with a common set of understandings,” he said.
Nevertheless, the first pacification basket includes the New START, the INF Treaty, Russia-NATO relations, the problems related to the 50th anniversary of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on July 1, and also other arms-control issues that need to be addressed to prevent backsliding toward an unfettered race and dangerous confrontation. True, the second basket must include the revival of the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) and the Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities. These two accords have proven their effectiveness and constitute a legal basis that can be built upon. And most significantly, the two heads of states could pragmatically pledge to remain faithful to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, especially the provision that keeps the parties from deploying substantial forces in the proximity of each other’s borders.
To conclude objectively, it appears that despite the fact that there are some grey areas: Syria, Ukraine and NATO where the quasi- Cold War confrontations still run between American and Russian military establishments, albeit the Helsinki summit between the heads of two global powers may reset a new pacifying course beyond the former paradigm of the Cold War synergies that divided the world through bi-polarity and where the tapestry of proxy wars dominated the global order. And yet the subjective view holds that 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.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.

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