The Helsinki Summit and the Narrow Window of Opportunity

July 15, 2018

Dr. Vladimir Orlov, PIR Center’s Founder & Special Advisor, Head of the Center for Global Trends and International Organizations of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, paid a visit to Washington for a series of meetings in the run-up to the Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki. He summarizes his impressions from these meetings in an op-ed that will be published in today’s issue of the Kommersant daily.

Below is the full text of the article:

The Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki, which will kick off in a few hours’ time, is not meant to deliver any breakthroughs. That is not the prevailing expectation – and I believe that is the right approach. The two presidents should begin instead with improving the underlying emotional background of Russian-US relations. They should aim to strike the right tone for a bilateral dialogue, and turn that dialogue from a one-off affair into a systemic process. If they succeed – as well they might – then Helsinki can open up a window of opportunity: not even for a breakthrough, but for some light at the end of the tunnel. It will be a chance to leave the ‘crisis management’ phase behind, a chance to start defusing the confrontation and mending fences. A chance to send a signal to the rest of the world. The world is waiting.

Even though the Helsinki summit will be more about the right feel and a positive vibe than genuine substance, the two presidents must nevertheless find a way to make some substantive steps. They must engage the transmission before they can hit the gas. By definition, those steps can’t be many: one or two, perhaps three at the very most.

The first such step could be to formulate a joint strategic program of combating international terrorism. Some movements in that direction were made right after 9/11, but the vast untapped potential of joint action on that front was never exploited. Meanwhile, the common threat of international terrorism is right at our gate, both in Russia and in America. It is in our shared vital interests to behead that hydra. It is not beyond our powers, if only we were to pool our strengths. There are three clear priorities in this area: working together to defeat terrorists in the Middle East; cooperation against the financing of terrorism; and minimizing the risk of terrorists gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. The Russian and US positions on the Syrian settlement are in fact much closer today than it might appear to a casual observer – and that is a good reason for cautious optimism.

The second step would be to adopt a bilateral strategic program against nuclear weapons proliferation. In that particular area, we already have a solid foundation: back in 1968, the Soviet Union and the United States were the founding fathers of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That treaty was even dubbed “a Soviet-American condominium”, even though it now brings together more than 180 states. A new Cold War between Russia and the West could well cause cracks to form in that foundation. A global spread of nuclear weapons would be equally dangerous for our two countries. Putin and Trump both have a strong interest in keeping the NPT afloat. There is, however, one snag: the two don’t agree on Iran. Trump is determined to wreck the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran, a multilateral agreement of which Russia, incidentally, is a key member. Washington has already pulled out of the Iranian deal. Moscow believes – and rightly so – that the decision was unwise, to say the least. It is not prepared to let Tehran down for the sake of pleasing Washington – so the differences on Iran will remain. Nevertheless, if Russia and the United States were to start building a joint strategy of combating nuclear proliferation and strengthening the NPT, such a strategy would prevent ongoing disagreements on some individual issues from derailing their entire relationship.

The third possible step is a joint Russian-US program on confidence-building measures in cyberspace. The two countries could eventually lead the way in developing binding international rules on cybersecurity. For the time being, Washington does not seem prepared to take a step in that direction – mostly for domestic political reasons. Nevertheless, this could perhaps be one of the topics to discuss at the next summit after Helsinki.

After all, if Helsinki ends on a vaguely positive note, that is when the actual work will begin in preparation for a future summit, where a positive vibe will no longer be enough if it fails to yield substance.