The city of Helsinki has a special place in international politics, particularly in the relationship between Washington and Moscow. It was here, in 1975, that Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Accords, a framework that would guide international relations through the latter years of the Cold War.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will meet in the Finnish capital on Monday in the latest summit of U.S. and Russian leaders, appear to have something rather different in mind.
The two men – who will initially speak alone, with only translators present, before allowing the rest of their delegations into the room – seem determined to break down the established international order, rather than draft new rules to safeguard it.
Analysts in both countries expect Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin to strive for an unwritten deal – one that could decide the fate of countries such as Ukraine and Syria – rather than a codified document like the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
Mr. Trump arrived in Helsinki on Sunday evening at the tail end of a controversy-filled trip featuring stops in Brussels, where he rattled the NATO alliance with talk of pulling his country’s formidable military out, and London, where Mr. Trump seemed to revel in making new trouble for a British government already blown about by the drama of preparing to leave the European Union.
Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is a well-established master of disruption, having upended the global order with his 2014 annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine, as well as his thrust into the Middle East, where Russia’s military intervention saved the teetering regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Questions about what happens next in Ukraine and the Middle East are expected to dominate Monday’s summit, which is scheduled to end with a joint news conference that will offer the spectacle of a U.S. President standing alongside the leader of a government that stands accused of helping bring Mr. Trump to office by meddling in the 2016 election campaign.
Awkwardly for both men, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into that alleged meddling continues to gain momentum. On Friday, 12 members of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service were charged with hacking into Democratic Party computers, and stealing and disseminating e-mails and other documents in a concerted attempt to embarrass Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s rival in the election.
In an interview with CBS on Sunday, Mr. Trump said he had “low expectations” for Helsinki, adding “nothing bad is going to come out of it, and maybe some good will come out.” He also said he had not thought of asking for the extradition of the 12 Russian spies and that on matters of trade the EU was a U.S. foe
It’s Monday’s one-on-one meeting that has many Western observers worried. While Mr. Trump is a novice who eschews preparations – and the advice of his more seasoned aides – in favour of gut instinct, Mr. Putin is a former KGB agent who has been ruling Russia since the turn of the century. Mr. Trump will be the fourth U.S. President that Mr. Putin has sparred with.
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow under Barack Obama, said the prolonged one-on-one puts Mr. Trump at “a big disadvantage” compared to Mr. Putin.
“Mr. Putin has been on the job for 20 years, and in some ways has been dealing with issues of national security for his entire career,” Mr. McFaul said in an interview. “Never once did [the Obama Administration] have a one-on-one for an hour, for the simple reason that you want note-takers there so you have some historical record of the conversation; you want to have agreement about what was said and what wasn’t said.”
Mr. Trump added to the concern last week with statements suggesting he might recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea. NATO allies also fear that Mr. Trump could unilaterally offer to scale back the U.S. troop presence in Europe, or its participation in exercises in the front line Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
A White House official told reporters that “strategic stability,” and the balance of nuclear weapons in particular, would also be on the agenda. While a new arms-control treaty seems beyond the reach of a one-day summit, the two leaders could claim a breakthrough by announcing a new round of negotiations.
The Kremlin’s goals seem clear. Moscow has been hoping, since the day of Mr. Trump’s election, for U.S. acceptance of its annexation of Crimea, as well as relief from the economic sanctions that Western countries imposed as punishment for that move. Further sanctions were imposed over Russia’s support for armed separatists in southeastern Ukraine.
In exchange, some speculate that Mr. Putin could offer Russia’s co-operation in the Middle East, specifically by stepping away from its alliance with Iran, which has also fought on Mr. al-Assad’s side in Syria’s civil war. Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is a long-time Iran hawk who has called for the “overthrow of the mullahs.”
There was a notable flurry of diplomatic activity last week, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who calls Iran the “greatest threat” to both his country and the West – and Ali Akbar Velayati, top foreign policy adviser to Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, separately rushed to Moscow to consult with Mr. Putin ahead of the Helsinki summit.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who came to power following a 2014 revolution that Moscow views as a coup d’état, was left to plead in a Financial Times editorial for Mr. Trump not to make a deal with Mr. Putin involving the future of Ukraine without any Ukrainians present in the negotiations.
“Ukraine would be the most important thing for Russia. A final solution for Ukraine is what Russia wants more than anything else,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, who suggested the Kremlin wanted to see Mr. Poroshenko, who faces an election next year, ousted. “Russia could say, ‘okay, you have a deal [on Iran] if we get regime change in Ukraine.’”
Other Russian analysts were more guarded, noting that while Mr. Trump may want to strike a deal with Mr. Putin, the U.S. leader is constrained on many fronts, including on the crucial issue of lifting sanctions, which can only happen with Congressional approval.
Sergey Utkin, the head of strategic assessment at the Moscow-based Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, predicted the two leaders could make “some pretty loud, but not that substantial political statements” on issues such as Ukraine and Syria. But he saw little chance for a genuine change in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
“Many people doubt that any deals Trump could push for unilaterally would really work. It’s more likely he will make promises and then not be able to deliver,” Mr. Utkin said.
Mr. McFaul said there was an easy way for Mr. Trump to surprise everybody and emerge from the summit looking like a winner: speak forcefully to Mr. Putin and publicly criticize him for the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support for Mr. al-Assad’s dictatorship.
“Expectations are so incredibly low – everybody expects him to lavish praise on Putin – that all he has to do is speak to Putin the way he speaks to Angela Merkel or Theresa May and he’ll come out looking like a hero,” Mr. McFaul said. “But that’s not what I expect to happen, because [Mr. Trump] is so anxious to get along with Putin.”