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Helsinki: Normalisation between two presidents, not two countries

July 24, 2018 at 3:51 pm

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) holds official FIFA World Cup 2018 ball presented by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) during a joint press conference after their bilateral meeting in Helsinki, Finland on 16 July, 2018 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

I would not be exaggerating if I said that the world following the Helsinki Summit does not know if the summit achieved results that can be confirmed. This is because the American and Russian presidents agreed or disagreed on this or that matter in complete isolation, separate from the two interpreters, rather than in a summit between two countries.

A lot was left to the follow-up committees in terms of studying the agreements, but they are required to work based on the assumption that “normalisation” took place between the two countries. However, the fact that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin sat together and discussed matters, and then only held a press conference without issuing a joint statement doesn’t mean that normalisation actually occurred.

Furthermore, the failure to hold preparatory meetings for ministers and senior officials indicates that the two sides adopted “constructive ambiguity” which allows them to coordinate and work together in more than one field. This was being done while they waited to resolve the issue that they have been unable to overcome yet.

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Although Trump downplayed the importance of Russia’s interference in the presidential elections, risking the insult of American intelligence agencies in order to “strongly deny” the interference, and then later was forced to admit he made a mistake, two issues were considered the main conclusions of the Helsinki meeting:

  1. Both presidents realised the magnitude of the effect that this unprecedented issue had on poisoning relations between the countries.
  2. They did not seek/they failed to find a way out.

Iran Deal - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Iran Deal – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The difficulty does not lie in the impossibility of Putin admitting his intervention and bearing the consequences, and in Trump’s fear of exploiting the issue to question the legitimacy of his election or to paralyse his policies. It is not serious or practical that the Russian president hinted that American investigators could interrogate Russian suspects, as the American evidence has found that they are not just “hackers” or “pirates”, but agents in Russian agencies.

So what if they are charged and convicted?

The least offensive thing said in Washington, under the weight of anger, is that Russia “isn’t our ally”, and the worst thing implied by Trump is that he committed “treachery”. What does that mean?

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This means focus on the Russian intervention and imposition of other “congressional” sanctions on Russia will be doubled. Most importantly, it means that there will be no fundamental change in military strategic issues.

Putin revealed that Trump had told him that the Crimea Peninsula should remain in Ukraine; that is, he did not make a concession that seemed to be a possibility on the issue that escalated the tension between Russia and NATO countries.

The only “strategic” exception that was clear for both presidents and was not opposed to by the Trump Republicans or his Democratic opponents was Israel’s security, as if it were facing an existential threat. It was clear that they intended to send a warning to Iran against its militias, affiliated with the Syrian regime’s forces, approaching the occupied Golan Heights.

The absence of any public reference to the “Middle East peace process” does not mean that the two presidents did not discuss it. Trump has promoted the “deal of the century” and Putin wants to know more about it to determine Russia’s interest in it. There was also no direct reference to the Syrian crisis except in their superficial talk about the refugee issue, which is related to two matters:

  1. The political solution that Russia is engineering in its own way.
  2. The reconstruction process that requires the contributions of countries that have reservations about the “Russian solution”.

Trump has proven that the Syrian file is up to Putin according to two US priorities: “Israel’s security” which they agreed upon, and “removing Iran from Syria”, which they were not expected to agree on publically. However, the Russian-Israeli coordination continues to curb the Iranian influence.

This article first appeared in Arabic in The New Khaleej on 24 July 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.