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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

US suspicion of Russia continues even after the Helsinki summit meeting

India,which is a strategic partner of both the US and Russia, would welcome an easing of tensions and a resumption of engagement between them

analysis Updated: Jul 18, 2018 19:19 IST
Meera Shankar
Meera Shankar
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, July 16
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, July 16(REUTERS)

The summit meeting between American President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin took place amid growing tensions over allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, Russia’s effort to influence the Brexit vote, and the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian agent in Britain that led to the large-scale expulsions of Russian diplomats and fresh sanctions.

There was no fixed agenda for the talks, which began with a two-hour one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin followed by delegation-level talks.Both leaders assessed their talks as frank and constructive and reflecting their desire to improve the relationship, restore trust and resume engagement.

Strategic stability and nuclear proliferation figured prominently.The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 2010 (which limited nuclear weapons of both sides to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles) is due to expire in 2021. It can be extended for another five years by mutual consent. In the absence of an extension or a new agreement, there will be no limits on US and Russian nuclear deployments. For long Russia has expressed concerns about US deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems, particularly in its neighbourhood, and weaponisation of space. A round of strategic stability talks was held in 2017 but the next round due this year was called off. Putin said he had given a note with specific suggestions on how Russia and the US could work together on the disarmament agenda, military and technical cooperation ,extension of the new START, anti-missile defence systems, implementation issues with the INF treaty and non-placement of weapons in space.

The importance of continuing counter-terrorism cooperation was recognised by both. Putin cited as an example terrorist groups in Syria where coordination was already ongoing between Russia and the US.He suggested that contacts among the special services be systematised and the joint working group on counter-terrorism re-established. Trump and Putin agreed to work together on the return of Syrian refugees and overcoming humanitarian aspects of the crisis.This would be attractive for Europe as it would help ease the flow of refugees which has led to deep political fissures.

Speaking of Syria,Trump prioritised creating safety for Israel. The Israelis have been concerned over Iranian deployments near their border with Syria and have given indications that they may not be averse to Syrian troops consolidating their presence there, provided Iran is kept out.There is also a reluctant realisation in the West that Assad cannot be ousted. Whether this can provide the basis for stabilisation and peace and reconciliation in Syria, remains to be seen.

Putin, while appreciating Trump’s initiative on North Korea, stressed that international guarantees would be necessary for complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.The Iranian nuclear issue was discussed with divergent views on the Iran nuclear agreement which Trump has abandoned.The importance of implementing the Minsk Agreement was stressed in the context of Ukraine.

Economic cooperation also figured in the talks even though US sanctions continue.Putin said that the two leaders had agreed to create a high-level working group that would bring captains of Russian and American business together to make suggestions towards this end. In an interview, he cited the failure of sanctions and the business advantage that this gave to competitors of the United States. Representatives of the National Security Councils of the two sides are to meet to follow-up on the discussions and carry them forward.

Does the summit mark the beginning of the end of the western policy of isolating Russia which began with the crisis in Ukraine? India,which is a strategic partner of both the US and Russia, would welcome an easing of tensions and a resumption of engagement between them.The growing confrontation has exacerbated regional crises and, to India’s discomfort, pushed Russia closer to China.

What remains in question is Trump’s ability to overcome internal political constraints within the US. Deep suspicion of Russia continues, including among Trump’s own aides, and the fallout of the issue of alleged Russian interference in the US Presidential election continues to unfold with the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials for hacking the Democratic Party’s e-mail account on the eve of the summit. Trump’s clumsy handling of questions on this issue where he seemed to give greater credence to Putin’s denials over the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies unleashed a firestorm of criticism in the US not only among Democratic Party opponents but also among some Republican Party legislators and Trump’s supporters in the media. His maladroit handling of the G-7 and NATO Summits has unsettled US allies. Building domestic support for a policy of engagement with Russia in a deeply divided polity will be a challenge.

Meera Shankar is former Indian Ambassador to the United States of America

The views expressed are personal