Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki, marking the first formal summit between the two leaders outside of the sidelines of international conferences, namely the G20 and the APEC summits last year.
After a short greeting before the press in which the Russian President expressed his desire to improve bilateral relations while the US President congratulated Russian on a successful world cup, the two leaders met privately for over two hours before moving to a meeting which included prominent presidential advisers and ministers from both nations including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov and US National Security Adviser John Bolton. After a working lunch both Putin and Trump emerged to speak at a lengthy press conference.
The Russian President began his remarks by stating that “hostility between our two nations do not have any objective grounds”. He continued saying that as the situation in the world has changed since the Cold War, both countries must move beyond an ideological geopolitical paradigm and face mutual challenges in as cooperative a manner as possible. Putin named these challenges as being: global security, regional crises, trafficking crime, terrorism, economic and environmental issues.
Syria and Israel
While no specific agreements regarding the conflict in Syria were reached during the Helsinki summit, both leaders stated that preserving Israel’s security was of utmost importance. Putin said that now that the terrorists operating near the Golan Heights have been eliminated, it is crucial to protect Israel by ensuring that the 1974 treaty between Damascus and Tel Aviv establishing the 1967 purple line in the Golan heights as the de-facto border between Syria and the occupied territories of the Golan is fully respected on the eastern contact line.
Putin insisted that this will help ensure the best interests for both Syria and Israel. This statement is crucial as it affirms that when it comes to opposing recent statements from a prominent Iranian general stating that an “Islamic Army” near the Golan would soon commence the “eradication of the Zionist regime”, Putin and Trump are on the same page, albeit for different strategic reasons which are not always as mutually incompatible as they might appear.
While President Putin did not specifically associate himself with President Trump’s statement regarding Iranian “hostile actions” in the region, by agreeing with both Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump regarding the importance of preserving the purple line as the de-facto border between the areas controlled by Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic – there is a de-facto agreement that Iranian and Hezbollah forces are not explicitly welcomed by either Russia or the United States.
Crucially, the name of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad did not come up once between the two leaders, and none of the reporters present mentioned President Assad either. This is itself indicative of how for the US, “regime change” in Syria has been abandoned in all but name, while for the US press who did not shy away from asking incredibly critical questions of both leaders, the issue of the Syrian President remaining in power is also a de-facto settled matter as is evidenced by the fact that not a single US (or Russian) journalist mentioned his name or his position.
The JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal)
While Trump and Putin both spoke against the well known Iranian position regarding the Golan Heights and Israel more widely, President Putin gave a mild endorsement to Iran’s position vis-a-vis the JCPOA stating that no country in the world has faced more scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency than Iran. This served as both a rebuff of the unilateral US position regarding the JCPOA but the fact that Putin spoke about it so little, affirms the fact that if Russia is going to continue to transact with its Iranian partner in a would-be post JCPOA world, some concessions will have to be made by Tehran regarding a dignified withdrawal from Syria – particularly near the border with the occupied territories.
The DPRK (North Korea)
Within the context of speaking about the need to reduce arms between the two largest nuclear superpowers, Donald Trump stated that Russia is playing a positive role regarding helping Pyongyang to move closer to full de-nuclearisation while Vladimir Putin stated that Trump’s Singapore Summit with Kim Jong-un was a very meaningful and positive move for the world.
Hilary Clinton and “election meddling”
The so-called Russiagate hoax was a mentioned repeatedly by multiple American reporters during the press conference. Here, Donald Trump once again questioned why the servers of the computers belonging to the Democratic Party were not handed over while also questioning why thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails mysteriously disappeared. He further stated that if such events happened in Russia, the emails would have likely not disappeared in a clear rebuff of the liberal American narrative regarding Russian lawlessness.
Putin further pledged that if asked by Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice Robert Mueller, he would happily allow him and his colleagues to interview the 12 Russian suspects recently indicted in relation to the 2016 US election. Putin further said that according to a 1999 treaty, it is more than possible for suspects to be mutually extradited between Russia and the US but warned that such things are a two-way street. In this respect Putin cited the specific example of Bill Browder a former US and currently British citizen wanted by Russia for tax evasion. Putin also mentioned that just as individuals in Russia do not necessarily represent the Russian state, billionaires in the US including George Soros do not reflect the official policy of the US leadership.
For the first time ever, Putin formally stated that during the 2016 election he like many Russians wanted Donald Trump to win for the fairly self-evident reason that Trump wanted to engage in constructive dialogue with Moscow while Hillary Clinton did not. Putin continued to deny any interference in the US election while Donald Trump continued to blame US actors for trying to discredit his historic election victory.
Donald Trump repeated his congratulations form earlier in the day regarding Russia’s hosting of a world cup that Trump acknowledged was one of the “best ever”. Trump also congratulated Putin due to the Russian team’s performance which was far better than most experts expected.
At that point, Putin handed Trump an official World Cup football due to the fact that the US (along with Canada and Mexico) will host the tournament in 2026. Trump stated that he would give the football to his 12 year old son Barron as a gift and then tossed the ball to his wife Melania who was seated in the front row. Clearly, Russia’s World Cup victory has made an impression on Trump as it has on multiple world leaders who attended matches including French President Emmanuel Macron.
As I predicted weeks ago, the crux of the substantial issues discussed revolved around bilateral relations, Syria, Israel and Iran and mutual agreements on the Korean peace process. Little was mentioned on Donbass and Ukraine other than Putin briefly lamenting that the US has done little to make the Kiev regime stick by its responsibilities according to the Minsk II agreements which both sides still technically support. Likewise, Putin stated that in the long term, Moscow has no problem with transporting gas to Europe via Ukraine so long as a current arbitration matter between Russian and Ukrainian companies can be settled.
Sticking with the theme of gas, Trump effectively admitted that his desire to sell Europe US produced liquefied natural gas was motivated by economics rather than ideology and further stated that in calling Putin a “competitor” he meant it as a compliment. Trump further stated that Putin is a “very good” competitor.
While many disagreements remain between the two leaders, not least over Trump’s tariff and sanctions policies, both sides were able to openly agree on supporting Tel Aviv’s position regarding the Golan Heights, the Korean peace process, a rejection of the Russiagate narrative that continues to dominate headlines in much of the US media and on the general need to cooperate more in areas where business relations can expand, with positive banter over the World Cup helping to created a generally positive albeit businesslike atmosphere between the two leaders.
While Putin avoided grandiose statements, Donald Trump summed up his views with the Charlton Heston like line,
“I would rather take a political risk to pursue peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics”.
While Russia and the US still disagree on far more than they will likely agree upon any time soon. The areas where they do agree should send a clear message to less powerful nations at odds with these sentiments, rightly or wrongly.