US Rejects European Requests For Relief On Iranian Sanctions

The United States has reportedly rejected requests from European allies that are seeking exemptions from U.S. sanctions imposed on countries doing business in Iran. 

According to diplomats and other officials, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wrote a letter to Britain, France and Germany saying the U.S. would not provide widespread protection from sanctions to countries doing business in Iran. 

Pompeo and Mnuchin said in their letter, first reported by NBC News, that they are seeking “to provide unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime.” 

The U.S. did add, however, that it would grant limited exceptions, based on national security or humanitarian grounds. The letter came in response to a request last month from Britain, France and Germany.

The U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal earlier this year. The deal sought to limit Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief. 

The U.S. said it plans to reimpose tough sanctions on Iran, beginning in early August, targeting Iran’s automotive sector, trade and gold, and other key metals. 

A second set of sanctions are set to begin in early November. Those sanctions will focus on Iran’s energy sector and petroleum related transactions and transactions with the central bank of Iran. 

The U.S. has warned other countries that they will also face sanctions if they continue to trade with sanctioned sectors of the Iranian economy. 

The Trump administration’s hard stance on Iranian sanctions is part of a growing list of contentious moves that the U.S. has engaged in with its allies. On a recent trip to Europe, Trump complained members of the NATO alliance are not fiscally responsible. The U.S. leader also criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. He has also called the European Union a “foe” on trade issues.

What Trump and Putin Hope to Achieve at Helsinki Summit

The outcome of the first summit between the unpredictable first-term American president and Russia’s steely-eyed longtime leader is anybody’s guess. With no set agenda, the summit could veer between spectacle and substance. As Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin head into Monday’s meeting in Helsinki, here’s a look at what each president may be hoping to achieve:

What Trump wants

What Trump wants from Russia has long been one of the great mysteries of his presidency.

The president will go into the summit followed by whispers about his ties to Moscow, questions that have grown only more urgent since the Justice Department last week indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of interfering in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump.

And while most summits featuring an American president are carefully scripted affairs designed to produce a tangible result, Trump will go face-to-face with Putin having done scant preparation, possessing no clear agenda and saddled with a track record that, despite his protests, suggests he may not sharply challenge his Russian counterpart over election meddling. 

“I think we go into that meeting not looking for so much,” Trump told reporters last week.

Trump has strenuously insisted that improved relations with Russia would benefit the United States. But much of the appeal of the Finland meeting is simply to have the summit itself and to bolster ties between Washington and Moscow and between Putin and Trump, who places his personal rapport with foreign leaders near the heart of his foreign policy.

“The fact that we’re having a summit at this level, at this time in history, is a deliverable in itself,” said Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia. “What is important here is that we start a discussion.” 

Trump has been drawn to the spectacle of the summit and has expressed an eagerness to recreate in Helsinki the media show of last month’s Singapore summit when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. 

Even as many NATO leaders made supportive noises this week, the Helsinki summit has raised fears in many global capitals that Trump will pull back from traditional Western alliances, allowing Putin to expand his sphere of influence. 

Back home, too, there is wariness on Capitol Hill, with a number of Democrats and a handful of Republicans urging Trump to cancel the summit in the wake of the explosive indictments.

But Trump has vowed that he can handle Putin, whom he has taken to referring to as a “competitor” rather than an adversary.

And Trump in recent days has outlined some of the items he’d like to discuss, including Ukraine. Though the president has said he was “not happy” about Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, he puts the blame on his predecessor and says he will continue relations with Putin even if Moscow refuses to return the peninsula.

Trump also said he and Putin would discuss the ongoing war in Syria and arms control, negotiations that White House officials have signaled could be fruitful. 

“I will be talking about nuclear proliferation,” the president said alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday. “We’ve been modernizing and fixing and buying. And it’s just a devastating technology. And they, likewise, are doing a lot. And it’s a very, very bad policy.”

But it is the matter of election meddling, including fears Russia could try to interfere in the midterm elections this fall, that could play a central role in the summit talks or loom even larger if not addressed. In neither of Trump’s previous meetings with Putin — informal talks on the sidelines of summits last year in Germany and Vietnam _ did the president publicly upbraid the Russian leader, prompting questions about whether he believed the former KGB officer’s denials over his own intelligence agencies’ assessments of meddling. 

Trump repeatedly has cast doubt on the conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking of his Democratic rivals and disparaged special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible links between Russia and his campaign as a “witch hunt.” But he said in Britain that he would raise it with Putin even as he downplayed its impact.

“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,”‘ Trump said, invoking a television detective. “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think. But you never know what happens, right? But I will absolutely firmly ask the question.” 

What Putin wants

For Putin, sitting down with Trump offers a long-awaited chance to begin repairing relations with Washington after years of spiraling tensions. 

Putin wants the U.S. and its allies to lift sanctions, pull back NATO forces deployed near Russia’s borders and restore business as usual with Moscow. In the longer run, he hopes to persuade the U.S. to acknowledge Moscow’s influence over its former Soviet neighbors and, more broadly, recognize Russia as a global player whose interests must be taken into account. 

These are long-term goals, and Putin realizes that no significant progress will come from just one meeting. More than anything else, he sees Monday’s summit as an opportunity to develop good rapport with Trump and set the stage for regular high-level contacts. 

“Russia-U.S. ties aren’t just at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, they never were as bad as they are now,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, who chairs the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, an influential Moscow-based association of policy experts. “It’s unhealthy and abnormal when the leaders of the two nuclear powers capable of destroying each other and the rest of the world don’t meet.” 

Moscow views Trump’s criticism of NATO allies and his recent comments about wanting Russia back in the Group of Seven club of leading industrialized nations with guarded optimism but no euphoria. Initially excited about Trump’s election, the Kremlin has long realized that his hands are bound by the ongoing investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Moscow. 

Konstantin Kosachev, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in parliament’s upper house, wrote in his blog that Russia won’t engage in vague talk about “illusory subjects,” such as the prospect of lifting Western sanctions or Russia’s return to the G-7.

Putin knows it would be unrealistic to expect U.S. recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or a quick rollback of sanctions approved by Congress. Instead, he’s likely to focus on issues where compromise is possible to help melt the ice. 

Syria is one area where Moscow and Washington could potentially reach common ground. 

One possible agreement could see Washington give a tacit go-ahead for a Syrian army deployment along the border with Israel in exchange for the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their Hezbollah proxies, whose presence in the area represents a red line for Israel. 

There is little hope for any quick progress on other major issues.

Kosachev said it would be “pointless” to discuss Russian meddling in the U.S. election, which Moscow firmly denies. He also warned that demands for Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine or revise its policy on eastern Ukraine would be equally fruitless. The Kremlin sees Crimea’s status as non-negotiable and puts the blame squarely on the Ukrainian government for the lack of progress on a 2015 plan to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Putin has held the door open for a possible deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to separate the warring sides, but firmly rejected Ukraine’s push for their presence along the border with Russia. 

On arms control, one area where the U.S. and Russia might reach agreement is a possible extension of the New START treaty, set to expire in 2021, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 for each country. 

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is supposed to last indefinitely but has increasingly run into trouble. The U.S. has accused Russia of violating the terms of the treaty by developing a new cruise missile, which Moscow has denied. 

Russia has pledged adherence to both treaties, but it has become less focused on arms control agreements than in the past, when it was struggling to maintain nuclear parity with the U.S. 

After complaining about U.S. missile defense plans as a major threat to Russia, Putin in March unveiled an array of new weapons he said would render the U.S. missile shield useless, including a hypersonic intercontinental strike vehicle and a long-range nuclear-powered underwater drone armed with an atomic weapon. 

“Russia was much weaker, and the weak always try to appeal to international law,” Lukyanov said. “But the atmosphere is different now, and Russia is much more self-confident.” 

Reports: Nicaragua Crackdown Claims 10 More Lives

A Nicaraguan human rights group says government forces killed 10 people and wounded 20 during an operation in southern Nicaragua Sunday, as protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega continue.

The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights said two children are among the dead. Officials have not commented.

“We are being attacked by the National Police and paramilitaries armed with AK-47s and machine guns in our own indigenous neighborhood of Monimbo,” a resident told the French News Agency. “We are resisting with homemade bombs and stones.”

Sunday’s violence was reportedly launched in the city of Masaya.

Human rights activists and religious leaders say the government is ignoring calls for dialogue with the protesters.

Anti-Ortega demonstrations erupted in April when he announced plans to reform the country’s pension system.

Ortega later dropped his plans, but protests have continued and the government’s violent crackdown against protesters has left about 270 people dead.

They include two students killed in a church in Managua Saturday. Police had besieged the church, leaving students and reporters huddled on the floor for more than 20 hours.

Some protesters are calling for early elections but Ortega has rejected such calls.

 

5 EU Countries to Share Some of 450 Stranded Migrants

Five EU countries have agreed to accept some of the nearly 450 migrants being transported aboard two military ships stuck off the coast of Sicily, Italian Prime Minister Giueseppe Conte said Sunday.

Germany, Spain and Portugal each agreed Sunday to accept 50 of the migrants after France and Malta agreed to do the same on Saturday.

But the Czech Republic rebuffed the appeal, calling the distribution plan a “road to hell.”  

The two ships, one belonging to the European Union border agency Frontex and another to the Italian border police, have been stranded in Italian waters after hardline Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the vessels should be sent to Malta, “or better Libya,” from where the migrants had originally set sail.

Italy’s new populist government, which came to power on June 1, has upended years of migrant policy by banning ships run by migration charities from docking in Italian ports, accusing them of aiding human traffickers.

Salvini, who has vowed not to take in any more migrants unless the burden is shared by other EU countries, repeated that Sunday, telling reporters the “aim was for brotherly redistribution” of the 450 rescued passengers on the two ships.

The number of migrants arriving in Italy so far this year is down about 80 percent compared to 2017. Salvini has vowed to stop all arrivals except for war refugees and a few other exceptions.

 

Russian Bots, Trolls Test Waters Ahead of US Midterms

The sponsors of the Russian “troll factory” that meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign have launched a new American website ahead of the U.S. midterm election in November. A Russian oligarch has links to Maryland’s election services. Russian bots and trolls are deploying increasingly sophisticated, targeted tools. And a new indictment suggests the Kremlin itself was behind previous hacking efforts in support of Donald Trump.

As the U.S. leader prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, many Americans are wondering: Is the Kremlin trying yet again to derail a U.S. election?

While U.S. intelligence officials call it a top concern, they haven’t uncovered a clear, coordinated Russian plot to mess with the campaign. At least so far.

It could be that Russian disruptors are waiting until the primaries are over in September and the races become more straightforward — or it could be they are waiting until the U.S. presidential vote in 2020, which matters more for U.S. foreign policy.

In the meantime, an array of bots, trolls and sites like USAReally appear to be testing the waters.

USAReally was launched in May by the Federal News Agency, part of an empire allegedly run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin that includes the Internet Research Agency — the “troll factory” whose members were indicted by U.S. special investigator Robert Mueller this year.

USAReally’s Moscow offices are in the same building as the Federal News Agency. The original troll factory was also initially based with Federal News Agency offices in St. Petersburg, in a drab three-story building where a huge “For Rent/Sale” sign now hangs. The site believed to house the troll factory’s current offices is a more modern, seven-story complex with reflective blue windows in a different but similarly industrial neighborhood of St. Petersburg. Associated Press reporters were not allowed inside, and troll factory employees declined to be interviewed.

The USAReally site appears oddly amateurish and obviously Russian, with grammatical flubs and links to Russian social networks.

It says it’s aimed at providing Americans “objective and independent” information, and chief editor Alexander Malkevich says it’s not about influencing the midterm election. Yet his Moscow office is adorned with a confederate flag, Trump pictures and souvenirs and a talking pen that parrots famous Trump quotations.

“Disrupt elections? You will do all that without us,” he told The Associated Press. He said Americans themselves have created their own divisions, whether over gun rights, immigrants or LGBT rights — all topics his site has posted articles about.

Most online manipulation ahead of the midterm election is coming from U.S. sources, experts say. They worry that focusing on Russian spy-mongering may distract authorities from more dangerous homegrown threats.

There is Russian activity, to be sure. But it appears aimed less at swaying the U.S. Congress one way or another and more at proving to fellow Russians that democracy is unsafe — and thereby legitimizing Putin’s autocratic rule at home.

While security services are on high alert, “the intelligence community has yet to see evidence of a robust campaign aimed at tampering with election infrastructure along the lines of 2016,” Christopher Krebs, the undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said Friday that warning lights about overall cyber-threats to the U.S. are “blinking red” — much like “blinking red” signals warned before 9/11 that a terror attack was imminent.

Coats said that while the U.S. is not seeing the kind of Russian electoral interference that occurred in 2016, digital attempts to undermine America are not coming only from Russia. They’re occurring daily, he said, and are “much bigger than just elections.”

Intelligence officials still spot individuals affiliated with the Internet Research Agency creating new social media accounts that are masqueraded as belonging to Americans, according to Coats. The Internet Research Agency uses the fake accounts to drive attention to divisive issues in the U.S., he said.

USAReally plays a similar role.

“USAReally is unlikely to create big momentum in its own right,” in part thanks to stepped-up actions by Twitter and Facebook to detect and shut down automated accounts, said Aric Toler of the Bellingcat investigative group.

However, Toler said the site could build momentum by creating divisive content that then gets passed to other provocative news aggregators in the U.S. such as InfoWars or Gateway Pundit.

He believes that a key role for sites like USAReally is to please the Kremlin and to prove that Prigozhin’s empire is still active in the U.S. news sphere.

Prigozhin, sometimes dubbed “Putin’s chef” because of his restaurant businesses, has not commented publicly on USAReally. Prigozhin and 12 other Russians are personally charged with participating in a broad conspiracy to sow discord in the U.S. political system from 2014 through 2017.

Editor Malkevich confirms his site’s funding comes from the Federal News Agency. But he says he has nothing to do with the indicted trolls, who once operated under the same roof.

“I absolutely don’t understand this spy mania,” he said. He says the site has a few thousand followers, and that his 30 journalists and editors check facts and don’t use bots.

The big question is what Trump plans to do about this.

Trump is under heavy pressure to tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections when they meet, and he said Friday that he would. But many state lawmakers and members of Congress say it’s taken far too long, and that Trump’s refusal to condemn Russia’s interference in the 2016 election complicates efforts to combat future attacks.

Adding to the pressure on Trump is a new indictment issued Friday accusing 12 Russian military intelligence officials of extensive hacking in 2016 that was specifically aimed at discrediting Trump’s rival, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

After the top U.S. intelligence agencies found a Putin-ordered influence campaign in which Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states ahead of the 2016 election, several state election directors fear further attempts to hack into voting systems could weaken the public’s confidence in elections.

Maryland officials announced Friday that a vendor providing key election services is owned by a company whose chief investor is well-connected Russian businessman Vladimir Potanin. The FBI told state officials no criminal activity has been detected since vendor ByteGrid was purchased in 2015 by AltPoint Capital Partners.

Experts note that governments have been using technology to influence foreign powers for millennia, and caution against assuming the Russians are always at fault.

“Just because it’s a troll doesn’t mean it’s a Russian troll,” said Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council. “The really big challenge for the midterms … is differentiating what the Russians are doing, and what the Americans are doing to each other.”

 

Trump to May: ‘Sue the EU’

U.S. President Donald Trump advised British Prime Minister Theresa May to sue the European Union instead of negotiating with the bloc, as part of her Brexit strategy.

 

“He told me I should sue the EU,” May told BBC television. “Sue the EU. Not go into negotiations — sue them.”

Her revelation about how Trump advised her ended several days of speculation about what advice the U.S. leader had offered the prime minister.

Trump said last week in an interview with The Sun newspaper that he had given May advice, but she did not follow it. The president told the newspaper ahead of his meeting with May that she “didn’t listen” to him.

“I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me. She wanted to go a different route,” Trump said.

Trump did not reveal what advice he offered May in a press conference with her Friday. Instead, he said, “I think she found it too brutal.”

He added, “I could fully understand why she thought it was tough. And maybe someday she’ll do that. If they don’t make the right deal, she may do what I suggested, but it’s not an easy thing.”

May also told the BBC that the president had advised her not to walk away from the negotiations “because then you’re stuck.”

For the past few months, British politics have been obscured by squabbling, irritability and bravado about how, when and on what terms Britain will exit the European Union, and what the country’s relationship will be with its largest trading partner after Brexit.

Britons narrowly voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016.

 

 

Syria, Arms Control Likely to Figure Prominently at Helsinki Summit

As the 2018 World Cup reached its climax Sunday, no one could draw more satisfaction from the tournament than Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The mega sporting event, which Putin personally lobbied to secure for Russia, has allowed the Kremlin to burnish the country’s image abroad, say analysts and even Putin’s domestic critics.

And Monday the Russian leader will once again be center stage with a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, ending in some ways the international ostracism the Russian leader has faced since his forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Monday’s meeting in Helsinki for the first face-to-face summit between the leaders of the World’s two biggest nuclear-armed nations has been a hastily-pulled together encounter. European leaders are apprehensive about what may come out of it, fearing Trump may bank too much on personal chemistry and gloss over substance. Former U.S. government officials worry there’s been too little preparatory work by the White House ahead of the high-stakes sit-down.

Both U.S. and Russian diplomats have been playing down expectations for the four-hour summit in the Finnish capital, which will include a lengthy one-on-one discussion between the two leaders, saying they expect no breakthroughs on contentious issues — including on accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race.

No set agenda

With no set formal agenda, President Trump has suggested the encounter is more about breaking the ice between the two men, who have met briefly twice before on the sidelines of international summits, than anything else. He told reporters last week that he’s going into the meeting “not looking for so much.”

And that is what America’s European allies and some former U.S. officials, who have publicly expressed doubts about the wisdom of holding the summit, hope is the end result, too — namely, nothing much.

They have expressed fears that Trump, who last week berated NATO allies, and hinted unless they increased their defense spending rapidly, he’d consider pulling the U.S. out of the nearly 70-year-old security alliance, will be lured by the more experienced summiteer Vladimir Putin into offering concessions — possibly agreeing to lift sanctions imposed on Russia for the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Some media commentators have suggested Trump might even agree to recognize formally the annexation — predictions the freewheeling U.S. President prompted after telling reporters on Air Force One on June 29 that he might consider doing so. “We’re going to have to see,” Trump said.

Crimea

In June, too, at an ill-tempered G-7 summit in Quebec, Trump reportedly told other Western leaders — possibly to shake them up — that Crimea might as well belong to Russia because most people living there speak Russian.

The White House, though, has firmly denied that Crimea’s status is up for grabs.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told a July 3 press briefing in Washington: “We do not recognize Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea.” She added: “sanctions against Russia remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to the Ukraine.”

And Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, who met with Trump for 20 minutes during last week’s NATO meeting, has discounted Trump offering any concessions on Crimea, saying he’s satisfied with the assurances he got from the U.S. President.

He told France 24 that he’s certain Trump won’t negotiate about Crimea during his meeting with Putin.

So what will the two men talk about in Helsinki? Trump has declared no issue off the table. And in the past few days he has reiterated his desire to establish warm relations with Putin, saying he doesn’t see him as an enemy but as a competitor, who might one day become a friend.

European concerns

But it is remarks like that which are prompting European apprehension and the alarm especially not only of the British, French and Germans but also Baltic and Polish leaders. They view Putin’s Kremlin as an implacable foe, one determined to sow divisions in the West, drive a wedge between America and Europe and to reassert Russian influence over Central Europe.

Trump’s position is that dialogue is important. 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. And his ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, has pressed the importance of channels of communication being open between Washington and Moscow, saying not to talk would be irresponsible.

Tense relations

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 are also ongoing disputes over nuclear arms treaties, NATO policy, and cybersecurity.

On Saturday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov seemed to echo Washington’s position — that the summit is about initiating U.S.-Russian dialogue. “The ideal outcome would be to agree to engage all the channels on all divisive issues…and also on those issues where we can already usefully cooperate,” he said.

Lavrov also said Putin is “ready to answer any questions” about the alleged involvement of Russian military intelligence officers in the hacking of Democratic Party computers in 2016. His comment came less than 24 hours after the U.S. Justice Department issued criminal indictments of a dozen Russians for interfering in U.S. politics.

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.

Russian officials say Putin has no intention of raising Ukraine and Crime. But it seems clear that NATO will come up. Lavrov pointedly criticized Saturday NATO expansion, saying it was “swallowing countries” near Russia’s borders. “Today we have common threats, common enemies. Terrorism, climate change, organized crime, drug trafficking. None of this is being effectively addressed by NATO expansion.”

European officials worry that Putin will seek to exploit disunity within NATO days after last week’s contentious summit in which President Trump clashed repeatedly with European leaders, shaking them up with demands for defense spending hikes beyond previously agreed targets.

European officials worry Trump may during his meeting with Putin offer to axe planned NATO war games in Baltic in a gesture of goodwill. On Thursday, the U.S. President said: “Well, perhaps we’ll talk about that.” In June, Trump shocked South Korea and Japan by telling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their meeting in Singapore that he would pause joint military exercises.

Mideast

U.S. and Russian officials say Syria will figure prominently in the discussions between Trump and Putin— including ways to wind down the multi-sided conflict in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Putin in Moscow last week for talks focusing on the Iranian presence in Syria, prompting speculation that he was laying the groundwork for the Russian leader and Trump to reach a deal that would see the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah militia from areas bordering Israel.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday that he had spoken by phone with Trump on Saturday to discuss Syria and Iran. The prime minister said Trump reaffirmed his commitment to Israel.

But it is arms control that’s likely to prove the most fruitful issue for the two leaders. Despite the Cold War-style strains between the U.S. and Russia, the two countries met a February verification deadline required by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which among other things requires both countries to limit their deployed strategic nuclear warheads and bombs to 1,550 apiece. U.S. ambassador Huntsman told VOA in April that he saw the meeting of the deadline as “a kind of opening,” adding he hoped it would lead to broader discussions on nuclear arms control, something he believes can be built on to help improve U.S.-Russia relations.

With Trump-Putin Summit, Russia Eyes Return to Global Power Status

As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares for his first one-on-one summit with President Donald Trump in Helsinki this week, Russian political observers said Kremlin expectations are low but for one key issue: Russia’s symbolic return from international isolation to global powerbroker.

Ahead of the summit, President Trump — after a contentious week of meetings with traditional U.S. allies in Brussels and London — has suggested his talks with the Russian leader “may be the easiest of them all.”

Yet, Russian analysts warn that Trump will be faced with a shrewd negotiator whose arguments have been well-honed during his 18-year reign of power.

“For Putin, there’s always a way to repeat what he’s always said: ‘Russia has never done anything wrong. Russia does not have to improve or change anything,’” said Maria Lipman, Moscow-based editor of Counterpoint, a journal published by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. 

“If America wants to change its policy, we welcome that. We have nothing to regret, nothing to correct,” she added, describing the Kremlin’s view in recent years.

Relations turnaround

The Helsinki summit comes amid a political fallout in often-contentious relations that nosedived over Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and further eroded over allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Russia’s actions in east Ukraine, Syria, and allegations the Kremlin may be responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy — and the related death of a British national just last week from a Russian-made nerve agent on British soil — has only exacerbated the distrust.

In the face of Kremlin denials, the Trump White House has nonetheless expelled dozens of Russian diplomats and ratcheted up sanctions, moves that have led Trump to claim “no one has been tougher on Russia than I have.” 

Yet those penalties have often clashed with Trump’s oft-stated desire to improve relations with Moscow.  It was Trump, observers note, who sent emissaries to Moscow to negotiate the summit with Putin on short notice. 

Adding further intrigue, a federal investigation revealing the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian government surrogates amid his election to the White House in 2016.    

Both Trump loyalists and the Kremlin have adamantly denied wrongdoing.

Optics, for now

Given that backdrop, Kremlin officials have joined the White House in setting the bar low for the upcoming summit.

“Putin does not expect too much from the summit from a practical point of view,” said Nadezhda Arbatova, a foreign policy specialist with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “But the summit is important for Moscow, since it will be viewed as a recognition of Russia’s great power status.”

Less clear is what the two sides have to offer one another beyond platitudes aimed at better relations. 

“There can be a compromise on Syria, if Russia agrees to American requirements in exchange for preserving (Syrian leader Bashar) al-Assad at his current position,” Arbatova said. 

“As for Ukraine, no compromise is visible for the time being, since President Trump cannot lift sanctions while bypassing Congress,” she noted. 

Officials on both sides have hinted at a possible deal on arms control, a goal both Trump and Putin have endorsed without mentioning specifics. 

One thing that Kremlin officials don’t put much stock in: Trump’s tweet diplomacy, which has shown passing support for pro-Russian positions on everything from sanctions relief to recognizing Crimea as Russian territory. 

“By now, there was quite enough evidence for Russia to realize that what Trump says should be taken with a grain of salt, to say the least,” Lipman said. 

“I think everyone realizes that it cannot be taken as his intentions or U.S. policies, or even a declaration of intentions,” she said.

What Russians want

Key to Putin’s negotiating tactics: an insistence that Russia is no longer subject to American demands or pressure. 

Yet some analysts argue that it is Russian public opinion that presents its own restraints on Putin. 

“With Putin, there is no direct accountability, but policies are settled on what public opinion allows the government and Putin to do,” said Denis Volkov, a researcher at Levada Center, a leading independent polling research agency in Moscow. 

A recent study co-authored by Volkov and the Moscow Carnegie Center showed Russians support their president’s combative stance with the West, while simultaneously are eager to lessen hostilities.

“People are getting tired of foreign policy, Putin’s foreign agenda. They want the state to spend more resources at home,” Volkov said. “The view of the majority is that we help other countries too much, spend on other countries too much, and it is time to spend more money at home.”   

In other words, a Russian mirror of Trump’s own “American First” platform, where threats and largesse are doled out in pursuit of deals in the national interest. 

“It’s not the case that Putin’s only legitimacy comes from confrontation,” Volkov said. “Legitimacy also comes from cooperation, if it’s done in the proper way.” 

May Warns Party: Back Me or Risk ‘No Brexit at All’

British Prime Minister Theresa May warned her divided party Sunday that there may be “no Brexit at all” if they wrecked her plan to forge a close relationship with the European Union after leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc.

“My message to the country this weekend is simple: We need to keep our eyes on the prize,” May wrote on Facebook. “If we don’t, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all.”

Linking the fate of Brexit to her own survival in such an explicit way indicates just how precarious May’s position remains after her government was thrust into crisis and U.S. President Donald Trump publicly criticized her Brexit strategy.

With less than nine months to go before the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the EU, March 29, 2019, the country, the political elite and business leaders are still deeply divided over whether Brexit should take place and, if so, how.

​No deal with EU yet

May doesn’t yet have a Brexit deal with the EU, so the British government has stepped up planning for a so called “no deal” Brexit that could spook financial markets and dislocate trade flows across Europe and beyond.

May has repeatedly said Brexit will happen and has ruled out a rerun of the 2016 referendum, although French President Emmanuel Macron and billionaire investor George Soros have suggested that Britain could still change its mind.

In an attempt to forge a balance between those seeking a smooth Brexit and those who fear staying too close to the EU’s orbit would undermine the very nature of Brexit, May sought the approval of senior ministers for her plans July 6.

After hours of talks at her Chequers country residence she appeared to have won over her Cabinet, but just two days later David Davis resigned as Brexit secretary, followed by her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, the next day.

May called on Sunday for the country to back her plan for “friction-free movement of goods,” saying it was the only option to avoid undermining the peace in Northern Ireland and preserving the unity of the United Kingdom.

Johnson’s moment?

Davis, writing in the Sunday Times, said it was an “astonishingly dishonest claim” to say there is no worked-out alternative to May’s plan. He said her plan would allow EU regulations to harm British manufacturers.

“Be in no doubt: under the government’s proposal our fingers would still be caught in this mangle and the EU would use it ruthlessly to punish us for leaving and handicap our future competitiveness,” Davis said.

Steve Baker, a senior lawmaker who served as a deputy to Davis in the Brexit ministry before resigning with his boss, said May had presided over a “cloak and dagger” plot to undermine Brexit.

May’s position was further undermined by Trump who said in an interview published in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper Friday that her proposals would probably kill off any chance of a post-Brexit trade deal with the world’s biggest economy.

Though Trump later contradicted his comments by then promising a great U.S. trade deal, the president made clear his admiration for the 54-year-old Johnson, who Trump said would one day make a great British prime minister.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, was even quoted by Britain’s Daily Telegraph as saying that it was now time for Johnson to challenge May for her job.

“Now is the moment,” The Telegraph quoted Bannon, Trump’s former strategist and a key player in his 2016 election campaign, as saying. “If Boris Johnson looks at this. … There comes an inflection point, the Chequers deal was an inflection point, we will have to see what happens,” Bannon said.

Brexit test for May

Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign for many has remained silent in public since he warned in his resignation letter July 9 that the “Brexit dream” was being suffocated by needless self-doubt.

The Telegraph newspaper said Johnson had re-joined the newspaper as a columnist.

The extent of divisions within May’s Conservative Party over Brexit will become clearer over the course of two debates in parliament over coming days.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers are expected to use a debate Monday on customs legislation to try to force her to harden up her Brexit plan, while a debate on trade Tuesday will see pro-EU lawmakers push for even closer ties with the bloc.

Brexiteer rebels are unlikely to have enough support in parliament to win a vote, but the debate will show how many in May’s party are prepared to vote against her at a time when some are looking to gather the necessary numbers to challenge her leadership.