Helsinki summit: Trump's meeting with Putin is simply an attempt at an easy win

Written by Yuriy Sheyko on 16 July 2018

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin | Photo credit: Press Association

Donald Trump has no clear objective for his Helsinki summit with Putin, writes Yuriy Sheyko.

The meeting on 16 July between US President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will be the first summit between the two men who currently have the most say in shaping the global order. Is there anything to fear?

During Trump’s first months in office, the prospect of him meeting with Putin was unnerving to many. As Trump expressed his wish to get along with his counterpart in Moscow, in the West there was widespread concern over them reaching some kind of a deal at the expense of other countries - like Ukraine, whose Crimean peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. Putin would have loved to have this annexation recognised.

Their first meeting came only six months into Trump’s presidency, at the G20 summit in Germany. The investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections and collusion by Trump’s team with Russians was one reason why so little happened in relation to the US President’s wish to get along with Putin, whom he considers neither an enemy or a friend, but a competitor.


Why would Trump want to meet Putin now? It is a part of his foreign policy approach. Trump hops between topics trying to get an easy win, disregarding follow-up work on every avenue. He hopped between moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, dealing with North Korea, and punishing Syria for the use of chemical weapons. Trade conflicts with China and the EU do not fit into this approach, but the meeting with Putin does. There won’t be much follow-up.

Much was written about Trump being more affable to his authoritarian counterparts than to his democratic allies. In June he upended the G7 summit and headed to a cordial meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This time Trump started with two days of bashing the European allies at the Nato summit in Brussels, then headed to the UK. The last stop of his trip is Helsinki. Out of the three stops, Trump thinks that Putin may be the easiest of them all.

This is because Trump has no clear goals to achieve with Putin, other than to develop a personal relationship. Even he himself acknowledged that, saying, “We’re going to that meeting not looking for so much”. The US President said that he will speak with Putin about Syria, Ukraine, and Russian meddling in the US elections.

Last year there were things Putin could have offered Trump in order to strike a deal, such as help in combating terrorism. However, Isis has now been defeated, without much (if any) help from Russia. In Afghanistan, Nato is supporting the government in the fight against Islamic extremism. And Trump has already changed his view on Nato, praising it for focusing more on combating terrorism. Russia had no role in the negotiations with North Korea. And it doesn’t seem that Putin can offer Trump any help alleviating Washington’s concerns about Iran. Putin has nothing tangible to offer Trump.

In contrast, the US President came to Brussels for the Nato summit with a clear mission. He upended the meeting, berated his European allies, and seemed to threaten the unity of the alliance.

Nevertheless, disregarding superfluous scandals, the outcome of Brussels summit will be very wholesome for Europe - not only because Nato agreed to strengthen its structure and boost the readiness of its troops. It has also proved its ability to withstand internal disagreements. And Trump’s push for the European allies to increase defence spending sends more than a clear signal to the Kremlin’s aggressive course.

There is of course a clear possibility that Putin, a former KGB with nearly 20 years’ experience at the top of world politics, could easily outmanoeuvre Trump. He has many tricks at his disposal, like bashing western ‘fake news’ or ‘witch hunts’ in connection to Russian meddling. He may even trick Trump into say something favourable to him. Still, those will be just words. The probability of the US policy towards Russia being overhauled after this meeting is quite low. Besides, however Trump may like breaking taboos, any public announcement favourable to Russia may wreak havoc not only among the US Democrats, but also among his fellow Republicans.

About the author

Yuriy Sheyko is journalist based in Germany and Brussels

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