Sun, Jul 15, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Putin and Trump will put on an empty show

When the US and Russian presidents meet in Helsinki tomorrow, they will have many shared interests, but few cards to play and little room to maneuver

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Constance Chou

When US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, some Americans will watch with apprehension: What if they hatch a plan that will harm US interests? What if Trump is meeting with his handler rather than his counterpart?

They should not worry. There is little doubt that Putin can handle Trump, but not as an intelligence asset, as some conspiracy theorists suggest. Even if, as many believe, Putin “has something on Trump,” he has nothing to gain by releasing the kompromat, except an even more hostile US administration, with or without Trump at its head.

Still, Putin will come prepared, with a clear picture of the interests that he might share with Trump, even if neither leader might be in a position to achieve anything concrete.

The most obvious common ground is Syria. Trump wants to pull out US troops as soon as possible, but without ceding territory to Iranian units or Lebanon-based, pro-Iranian Hezbollah. Putin wants the US out so that his client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, can take control of more territory, particularly the oil-rich areas that he needs to generate revenue to rebuild the country.

However, Putin is unwilling — and probably unable — to push out the Iranians, even though the Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both collaborate with Russia in some areas, have pleaded with him to do so.

Without Iranian support, the Assad regime is likely to fall, and Putin does not want to send ground forces to prop it up. By helping Assad, Iran guarantees that Syria will continue to welcome Russian military bases. Besides, there is nothing that Russia could promise Iran in exchange for pulling back.

Putin could back the idea of limiting Iranian influence in Syria in exchange for US concessions on Ukraine, such as the recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia, which Trump has hinted he could consider. However, Putin is probably aware that Trump cannot formally recognize the land grab without congressional approval.

Nor does Putin expect any US concessions on eastern Ukraine, another reason for European and US sanctions on Russian companies and individuals.

US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker has said that he believes Russia has dug in for the long haul.

So, instead of seeking a meaningful deal on Syria, Putin might instead promise Trump an agreement that he does not intend to fulfill, a tactic that the Russian leader has used a number of times in Syria-related talks with the US, and in Ukraine-related negotiations with France and Germany.

Trump likes to announce deals; Putin could have something for him on Syria, perhaps a new edition of de-escalation zones free from Iranian forces.

Another area of common interest is undermining the EU, primarily German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Germany.

For Trump, it is a matter of winning a trade war and bringing what he sees as a group of free riders to heel. For Putin, it is a matter of ending sanctions: Merkel is one of the few remaining staunch advocates for the restrictions in Europe; the more right-wing governments in Italy, Austria and Hungary would like to lift them and resume business as usual with Russia.

Yet Putin and Trump are unlikely to reach a consensus on weakening Merkel. Putin is keen to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany to reduce natural gas supplies through Ukraine. Trump does not care about the Ukrainians, but he opposes Nord Stream 2 because it will compete with liquefied natural gas supplies from the US.

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