Get ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks

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As the first “full” and “formal” meeting between American and Russian leaders since the one between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the summit in Helsinki this week is long overdue and could be helpful in a number of ways. The subjunctive mood of “could,” however, is the key to the framework of this summit. It will be one of the very rare diplomatic events when heads of state meet without a fixed agenda.

As with any freewheeling exercise, it has a potential for breakthroughs and calamities. The former is very unlikely, and the latter is real and dangerous enough to be guarded against. The last such “informal” summit between an American president and a Soviet or Russian leader was the disastrous meeting between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, which led to the Cuban missile crisis 14 months later.

{mosads}This summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is without an agenda not only because there are no treaties or even agreements to sign, but because it lacks the default and almost ritual quartet of issues that have formed the skeleton of such meetings since at least the détente between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev almost half a century ago: arms control, nuclear weapons, energy, and terrorism.

Given the state of relations between the United States and Russia today, every one of these is issues is virtually moot because they run counter to Putin’s goals and Russia’s irrelevance to North Korea. Moreover, the two countries are diametrically opposed. While Russia is colluding with Saudi Arabia to jack up oil prices, the United States, which is emerging as a leading oil producer, is seeking to bring prices down.

As to joining forces against terrorism, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s incessant efforts failed spectacularly in Syria during the Obama administration. Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter admitted that Russia was not “of any help whatsoever” in fighting ISIS and instead decimated Western forces. To be sure, the American and Russian secret services appear to cooperate in individual cases, as Putin called to thank the United States for a tip that prevented a terrorist act in Saint Petersburg last year. But such “cooperation” is way below summit level.

What, then, is on each leader’s plate? Putin seeks to have the proverbial “cake and eat it too.” However, have no illusions, because at home he cannot afford any substantive “détente” with the United States. For the past six years or so, the dominant domestic propaganda narrative that is also the basis of his popularity has been America’s alleged “war on Russia.” Putin’s brilliance in not only protecting the motherland but also restoring it to some of the glory lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For Putin, the relationship with the West, especially the United States, is a zero-sum game. The West looks for “peace” and “better” relations, while Putin needs victories to bolster his regime during very bleak economic times. His overarching goal is a new “Yalta” meaning a real or imagined agreement between America and Russia followed by a geographical division into “spheres of influence,” which Putin, as an ardent Soviet patriot, would love to reconstruct. As for any Russian leader, an invitation to the White House would result in a huge domestic political boost.

As to Trump, his agenda seems to boil down to one thing, which is to succeed where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton failed. His leitmotif seems to be “you could not handle Putin but I can.” It is here where the danger of the “informal summit” lurks. In his efforts to “manage” Putin, Trump may create an illusion that the United States is ready to meet Russia “halfway” on Crimea, on Ukraine, and on sanctions. By dangling a deal in front of Putin that he cannot possibly deliver because of fierce opposition from Congress, the American public, and almost certainly from his own top advisers, Trump may turn a merely hostile Putin into a disappointed Putin, which is far more dangerous.

Sure, they do “speak Russian” in Crimea, as Trump noted at the Group of Seven summit last month, implying that the peninsula’s annexation of Russia has legitimacy. But at least a quarter of Latvians and Estonians also speak Russian, and both countries are likely to be in Putin’s crosshairs. So anything implying an “understanding” by the United States of Russian efforts to pick up some of the geopolitical assets lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union could result in dire consequences.

Ditto for the other side of the negotiating table. If Putin succeeds in leading Trump down the proverbial garden path, and Trump later realizes that he has been had, this will result in a dangerous Trump indeed. In the end, then, the best possible outcome of this summit with no agenda is to do no harm. Meet, greet, shake hands, and pat each other on the back, with nothing toxic emanating in the days and months ahead.

Leon Aron, Ph.D., is a resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Born in Moscow and now in Washington, he has written more than a dozen books and papers on Russian politics.

Tags Barack Obama Diplomacy Donald Trump Foreign policy Global Affairs Government Hillary Clinton John Kennedy John Kerry Russia United States

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