On July 16, US and Russian Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will hold their first summit together in Helsinki. While various news publications and agencies agree that they are likely to discuss the war in Syria and Russia’s reported meddling in the US presidential elections, US National Security Advisor John R Bolton has identified an extension of the New Start nuclear treaty as the most important possible outcome. Among the issues that matter to both countries:
Both leaders have been flexing muscle. While Trump had told Reuters that “if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack”, Putin has unveiled an array of new nuclear weapons, and warned Western governments “now they need to take account of a new reality”. A Reuters report suggested an agreement to scale back the rhetoric, with progress towards extending the New Start treaty, which expires in 2021. Short for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, it came into effect in February 2011, and allows Washington and Moscow to keep tabs on each other’s nuclear programmes. Bolton wrote for Vox News: “Whether Trump and Putin will ultimately agree to extend the nuclear agreement is unclear. A spokesperson for the National Security Council told me ‘We are open to discussions regarding the extension of New START but no decisions have yet been made on how to proceed’.”
Washington has imposed sanctions on Moscow over the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and allegations of its meddling in the US polls. While a 2017 law bars Trump from easing many sanctions without Congress approval, Reuters said that he could still send a signal that the US does not plan to expand the list of Russian firms and individuals subject to restrictions. That would unfreeze investment and lending from reluctant investors.
As the conflict in Syria enters endgame, Israel is concerned about Iranian forces gathered around its borders. Will Trump ask Putin to use his influence to curb Iran’s military presence? The Reuters report notes that this would be tough for Putin.
The two countries have expelled each other’s diplomats, first by Washington over alleged Russian meddling in the US election, and then by Moscow in response to the poisoning in England of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. If Putin and Trump agree to restore the full complement of diplomatic staff, it would be the symbol of a new start, Reuters said.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the NATO alliance has stepped up military exercises in eastern Europe. That has angered Russia. Reuters quoted two senior NATO diplomats as saying they are prepared for a worst-case scenario that Trump would announce a freeze on US military exercises or withdraw troops in a gesture to Putin. In an opinion piece, Newsweek said Putin will demand recognition of Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea, and lifting of US sanctions. “It is up to Trump to refuse, accept or bargain,” the article said.