A Trump-Putin summit to take place in July is obviously in the works. US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is busy to prepare the third in-person meet-up between Trump and Putin. Austria has already offered to host the attention-grabbing event. Last year, the leaders had two brief face-to-face encounters on the sidelines of G20 and APEC top-level meetings. In March, Donald Trump made a phone call to congratulate Vladimir Putin on winning the presidential election. During the June 8-9 G7 summit in Canada, the US president said he supported the idea of Russia returning to the group, making it the G8 once again. Next month, President Trump will be in Europe for the July 11-12 NATO summit. He can use this trip to advance US foreign policy agenda after the annual event in Brussels is over.
The House intelligence panel ended its probe in March to find nothing to support the suspicions of President Trump’s collusion with Moscow. The Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has so far failed to produce anything to tarnish the president’s image. Today, Donald Trump can rely on the Republican base as the party appears to be completely taken over by him. His ratings have gone up recently up to 45 percent, to the levels at the time of his inauguration in January. He enjoys a 90 percent Republican support. 42 percent of those who support neither party are behind him. Donald Trump is in a strong position. He can stand up to critics and do his own thing.
A group of Republican senators, including Richard Shelby (Alabama), John Neely Kennedy (Louisiana) and John Hoeven (North Dakota) is expected to visit Russia in early July on what is largely believed to be a “reconnaissance mission”. These lawmakers are far from being friends of Russia but they are the right politicians to exchange views with and send signals to.
The Russian and US military chiefs of staff held a phone conversation on June 14, a week after their meeting in Finland. They are applying efforts to ease tensions and prevent incidents in Europe as well as coordinate activities in Syria, among other things.
This is good news. The arms control is on the brink of erosion and the West-Russia tensions have gone too far to leave the problem unaddressed. The two leaders have a huge pile of issues to tackle urgently. Take the draft National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 approved by Senate on June 18. It says Washington is legally entitled to suspend the operation of the INF Treaty in whole or in part for so long as Russia continues to be “in material breach”. The future of New START is on shaky ground. The Open Skies Treaty is in trouble and the controversy over ballistic missile defense (BMD) has become a stumbling block to obstruct any attempts to get ahead. There are problems with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which is to mark its 50th anniversary since its signing on July 1. These and a lot more issues should be addressed without delay to prevent arms control and non-proliferation regime erosion.
The bilateral relations just cannot be allowed to worsen further. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has codified punitive measures against Moscow. A trade war is being waged. On June 19, Russia announced the imposition of import tariffs on certain American goods in response to duties imposed by Washington on steel and aluminum imports. The sanctions-countersanctions fight continues.
The two powers have conflicting views on the crises in Ukraine and Syria. The relationship is at the nadir but personal chemistry has always played an immensely important role if one takes a look at the development of bilateral ties after WWII.
Some things could be done right now. The Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) and the Agreement on Preventing Dangerous Military Activities could be revitalized. Bilateral military contacts and informal meetings between experts on arms control and military matters could be launched in addition to the contacts between the chiefs of staff. Cyber security could be addressed. In view of the recent developments, the situation in Libya is the issue the two nations could cooperate on. The time is right for two presidents to exchange views on Syria to prevent any chance of incidents and confrontation.
Even without breakthroughs to take breath away, maintaining dialogue at different levels is much better than the abnormal situation we have been witnessing recently with a gap dividing the two leading nuclear powers getting wider. Turning the tide could become a big feather in President Trump’s cap before the November midterm election. Easing tensions with Moscow could boost his chances for the second term.
“Putin is very important,” said Donald Trump explaining his decision to meet the Russian president at the last year’s APEC meeting. He is resolute to do it despite all the snags in the way. The tensions running high do not benefit Moscow in any way. Everyone will gain if the relations normalize.
But there is a big group of influential people in Washington who’ll do their best to prevent the right thing from happening. Those who raise their voices against Moscow’s participation in the G8 cannot be happy with the prospect of a Russia-US separate summit. They may try to prevent it.
The easiest way to thwart the meeting is to exacerbate tensions in Syria. Last year, President Trump gave military commanders more freedom of action, especially in that country. The chemical provocations Russia has warned about are a possibility. The events in Daraa are worrisome. Escalation of combat activities is expected any time. There may be other ways to prevent the summit. It can happen but common sense has always prevailed to keep the two nations away from the worst.
Let’s take a look at history. The Cuban crisis was followed by the 1963 "Memorandum of Understanding Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link," or a hotline agreement. The same year, the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), the first real arms control agreement was signed. In 1969, the parties launched the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). In May, 1972, President Richard Nixon came to Moscow to sign the SALT I Treaty, the AMB Treaty and the Incidents at Sea Agreement. This result was achieved in the heat of the Cold War. The balancing on the brink of hot conflict was over to give place to détente. It was possible those days. It is possible now. The hope for better relations has never faded away.