Summit meetings can change the world. Back in the 1970s, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt used to say that it was of the highest importance for leaders to “get a smell of each other.” Chemistry between leaders was a useful factor in soothing fractious relations, he thought.
On July 16, U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will hold their first official summit — in Finland’s capital — just days after the U.S. leader is scheduled to hold meetings with NATO, an alliance that has been in his crosshairs. The timing of the meetings gives Europe the opportunity to shape what the U.S. leader may seek from the summit.
Helsinki is no stranger to encounters between U.S. and Russian heads of state; but, the summit will rank as one of the oddest, say analysts, coming against the backdrop of probes into the actions of the U.S. president’s election advisers amid claims they colluded with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 White House race.
Trump’s domestic foes fault him for shying away from criticizing Putin personally, arguing it gives credence to claims made by a former British spy that the Kremlin holds compromising information on the U.S. president. Trump has angrily dismissed the claims.
The U.S. leader has said in the past that “getting along with Russia [and others] is a good thing, not a bad thing” to explain why he wants to improve relations with Moscow.
Not since the Cold War have relations between the West and Moscow been so fraught with clashes over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its pro-separatist operations in eastern Ukraine, as well as its military intervention in Syria.
There also have been disputes over the nuclear arms treaties, NATO policy, and cybersecurity. And in the crowded battlefield of northern Syria, there was blood-drawing when U.S. artillery bombardments and airstrikes killed an estimated 200 Russians, in an assault still shrouded in mystery.
Much hangs on this summit. Arms control and other security issues will figure as the main topics of discussion, according to U.S. and Russian officials, who say Ukraine and Syria will be discussed as well. Both sides are playing down the likelihood of any breakthroughs.
But it apparently is a summit more than most built around the importance of the leaders themselves, and less on a detailed and actionable agenda. It has not been preceded by a long period of behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations to flush out the minutiae of a pre-agreed deal.
“The format reflects both leaders’ preference for bold, big-brushstroke meetings,” said a British diplomat, adding it is similar in nature and conception to the summit in Singapore earlier in June with Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “And it may be more art than deal,” he added.
Trump and Putin are not alone in being attracted to high-profile, symbolic encounters.
“Summit meetings are especially alluring to alpha types who relish new challenges,” British academics David Reynolds and Kristina Spohr wrote in a recent article for CAM magazine, a Cambridge University publication. But they also warn parleying at such high-profile encounters is “a high-risk business.”
Can personal chemistry be a substitute for substance when foreign leaders sit down to negotiate disputes? Is there a danger in placing too much hope on the personal ties leaders forge at symbolic summits?
In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a largely symbolic visit to China to talk with Mao Zedong in a bid to kickstart efforts to resolve the sharp differences between two highly antagonistic powers. Little of immediate substance was achieved but few doubt the trip was a success, paving the way for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing seven years later.
Analysts and former diplomats point to another Nixon trip in 1972 as a better and less risky model for summitry — his trip to then-Soviet Russia, becoming the first U.S. president to enter the Kremlin. That trip saw Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev toasting each other in St. Vladimir’s Hall. It was preceded by painstaking negotiations, led by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Even before Nixon set foot in Russia, Washington and Moscow had pre-agreed on 10 deals covering strategic arms limitation, trade, technology and cultural relations.
A former British ambassador to Russia, Andrew Wood, says summits “need something concrete to talk about and it is difficult to know what that concrete is — you can’t just talk in the abstract about Ukraine or the damage Russian military activities have done in Syria.”
He notes that in recent years, U.S. and Russian leaders have talked and “there has been wild-eyed optimism about what could happen and it has been disappointing and I see no reason why this meeting should be any different.”
The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman, cautioned in an exclusive interview with VOA shortly after Putin was re-elected as president in April against thinking in terms of a reset with Russia, saying a sudden breakthrough is unrealistic — advice he clearly has been giving to Trump.
“The resets and the redos of years gone by, both Republicans and Democrats, always end in disaster,” he told VOA. “They heighten expectations to the point of our inability to achieve any of those expectations. Hopes are dashed. Relationships crumble. We’ve seen that over and over again.”
He added it is important to maintain a dialogue and look for “natural openings to build trust in small ways.”
Both the Russian and U.S. governments have differences of opinion among their officials — some are more dovish; others more hawk-like. And in the run-up to the July summit, there will be behind-the-scenes debates galore within both governments about tactics, strategies and goals for the meeting.
Last April, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo, during a hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state, told a Senate panel that he favored a tough approach toward Russia. In the Kremlin there also are disagreements. A Kremlin insider earlier this year told VOA that many in the Russian government, including Putin, suspect there’s a permanent fracture between Russia and the West, which cannot be repaired. “Some people in the Kremlin hoped it would be different with Donald Trump. But I wasn’t holding my breath,” the insider said.
The question now is, if the insider is right, whether Putin has changed his mind and sees a summit as an opening that could help usher in a general improvement in Russia-West relations.
Some European diplomats say they are skeptical, arguing Putin has a clear game plan to persuade Trump to acknowledge that the annexation of Crimea is now irreversible by easing sanctions. The quid pro quo for that could be a Russian acceptance for the pro-Moscow Donbas region to be reintegrated with the rest of Ukraine.
Others said they believe Putin will be looking to Washington to help Russia cope with post-war Syria, which will need an estimated $250 billion in reconstruction costs. “Either way, by holding a summit with him, Trump is normalizing Putin — and without getting anything up front,” said a British diplomat.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed the British charge.
“Of all countries, shouldn’t the British want lines of communication open? Wasn’t it Churchill who said, ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war?'” The official was referring to the quote popularly attributed to the late British prime minister, Winston Churchill.