Don’t Expect Much from the Helsinki Meeting
So I know everyone is in a GET HYPE mood for this, fueled by loony interpretations ranging from THE RESISTANCE’s idea that Trump is going there to receive his annual performance review from DARK LORD OF THE KREMLIN, to Trump having chosen Helsinki specifically for Finland’s symbolic value as having played a role in the collapse of both the Russian Empire and the USSR (yes, I have seen this particular theory trotted out on my Facebook feed) – and everything in between.
Reality is that this is almost certainly going to be a damp squib.
There is talk that Trump is going to make concessions on sanctions and/or the Ukraine in return for Russia pressuring the Iranians out of Syria, which Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been advocating for.
Yeah, I don’t think so.
Apart from irrelevant ethical considerations, Russia can’t throw Iran in Syria for the simple reason that it provides much of the Syrian government’s budget (~$10 billion per annum), and a large percentage of its most combat-capable units.
To replace the Iranians there, Russia will have to cough up the money itself, and escalate its military involvement on the ground beyond deniable mercenaries. This would be idiotic and ruinous at the best of times. These are not the best of times. Putin’s net approval rating has just plummeted to close to its all-time nadir in 2011 in the wake of the pensions reform. He most certainly does not want the visual of Russian taxpayer money going to “our Syrian bratushki” at this time.
The critical point is that concessions on either sanctions or the Ukraine are not Trump’s to give.
Recognition of Crimea as Russian is out of the question, given that Congress has overwhelmingly declared it part of Ukraine in the CAATSA law and committed to “never” recognizing the annexation.
Any sanctions removal would also have to go through Congress, which would also make this a firm no-go. Indeed, even with the best will in the world, Trump can hardly even be expected to annul any new, harsher sanctions.
What else is there?
Another concession would be for Russia to cancel Nord Stream 2, giving a boon to American LNG suppliers, who have long wanted to establish a foothold on the European market. Hard to see what Putin or Russia get in return for putting the kibosh on their entire energy strategy.
There was a lot of talk half a year ago of arranging UN peacekeepers for the Donbass. At that time, it was raising hackles amongst Donbass supporters and Russian nationalists, who live in a daily paranoia about Putin betraying the Donbass (“Putinsliv”). But that idea has since faded away.
One suggestion that a pro-Russian Western journalist I recently talked to made was for Putin to acknowledge Russian involvement in the US elections, which would be something for Trump to “take back to” as a victory. Maybe I am not thinking laterally enough in this game of ultra-high dimensional chess, but I fail to see what good that will do. So what is Putin supposed to do after that? Extradite Prigozhin and Co. to face Uncle Sam’s justice? What is the Swamp going to do? Forgive Trump, Putin, and join hands to sing kumbaya in a circle?
Anyway, at the end of the day, there’s two things that ensure the stalemate continues:
- What Russia is expected to offer is unaffordable high.
- What the US is credibly capable of committing to in return is extremely cheap.
So expect no more than some platitudes and empty, meaningless commitments in the style of the North Korean agreement, one designed to reflect well on Trump’s statesmanship. It’s the best that can be hoped for at this conjecture.