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A nation must think before it acts.
Whatever the outcome of Donald Trump’s presidency, the meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki at the American president’s strenuous insistence will shape both Trump’s “Russia story” and international politics until either Trump or Putin leaves office. The two hours of private talks with only translators present preceded a press conference that shocked political observers of all stripes in the United States. The American president insulted his domestic opponents, cast doubt on his own country’s judicial and intelligence communities, and treated the Russian president with respect and deference rarely, if ever, shown to other political figures. Although Trump walked back some of his comments and affirmed the key U.S. intelligence community finding of Russian electoral interference upon near unanimous Republican outrage, Trump’s sentiments were clear.
That being said, the press conference itself provided some clues to where U.S.-Russia policy cooperation, once thought to be near impossible beyond military deconfliction in Syria, might go. The proposals suggested unilaterally by Putin are familiar to observers of Russia: relatively ill-defined institutional bodies for deputies to fill with whatever content is convenient to pursue. These include open communications between the investigative bodies of the two countries for joint work on police and judicial work; high-level working groups of both business figures and expert councils to assess paths for business, cultural, and political cooperation; and regular meetings between the respective national security councils. The Russian Ministry of Defense added a day after the meeting that it stood “ready to activate contacts with US colleagues via general staffs and other existing communication channels to discuss extending Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, cooperation in Syria, other current issues of ensuring military security.” The other suggestions are unlikely to get off the ground where the FBI, legislative branch, and the business community are concerned.
The more interesting proposals that came from the two presidents’ speeches and answers to questions concerning natural gas in Europe and the humanitarian situation in Syria, alongside the plight of refugees who have fled Syria. Individually, they point towards genuine policy coordination with Russia. Together, they point towards policy cooperation leading to further erosion of America’s privileged position at the head of the Euro-Atlantic alliance and a revision of international politics closer to the transactional, multi-polar world Vladimir Putin has been trying to effect for his entire period in office.
The first potential revision of American policy away from the Euro-Atlantic alliance and towards coordination with Russia emerged from a question on natural gas. Alexei Meshkov of Interfax queried Trump with a question about how the United States might increase liquefied national gas (LNG) supplies to Europe. He said, “You mentioned that the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline makes Europe [a] hostage of Russia. You suggested that you could free Europe from this by supplying American LNG (liquefied natural gas). This cold winter showed the current model, current mechanism of supply of fuel to Europe is quite viable… I have a question. The implementation of your idea has political tinge to it or is this practical one? Because there will be a gap formed in the supply and demand mechanism and first it’s the consuming countries who will fall into this gap.”
The context of the question was Trump’s criticism of the North Stream-2 natural gas project at the NATO summit in Brussels a few days earlier. Trump said then that the project would make Germany a “captive” of Russia by making it too dependent on a single source. Although Trump had not seemed particularly concerned about the transit countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland that stood to lose out from less access to transit fees, and seemed more to be looking for a fight with Germany’s leader Angela Merkel, he actually stood solid historical ground when warning about the international security consequences of excessive interdependence on Russia gas. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had attempted to block the extension of Soviet pipelines into Europe, arguing that artificially cheap gas today would lead to reliance on the Soviet Union that could later be exploited by the Soviets.
Reagan’s view was that European energy sources should be as diversified as possible to protect from policy extortion during cold winters, but Trump pointed towards a different logic. Asked to clarify whether Russia was a foe or a competitor, Trump elaborated that he “called [Putin] a competitor and a good competitor he is. I think the word competitor is a compliment,” adding that the U.S. and Russia were going to “compete on gas” via Russian pipelines going against American liquefied natural gas supplies. Trump appeared to shift the security logic of his “captivity” comment to one of commercial rivalry, noting that the competition over European energy markets would pit Russian proximity versus American technology. By making it a commercial issue and walking away from the security implications, Trump seemingly walked into Putin’s longtime grandiose projects—a natural gas OPEC where major market players could coordinate prices to avoid excessive competition. Putin said, “We can work together on regulation of international markets because neither of us is actually interested in the plummeting of the prices. And the consumers will suffer as well. And the consumers in the United States will suffer as well. And the shale gas production will suffer. Because beyond a certain price bracket, it’s no longer profitable to produce gas. Nor we are interested in driving prices up, because it will drain live juices from all other sectors of the economy. We do have space for cooperation here, as the first thing.” By getting the United States to move away from the principle of market competition, Russia could move the natural gas market into some sort of international organization able to engage in price fixing and market manipulation with all of Europe serving as a market to be divided between the two countries and others who would join this U.S.-Russia gas cartel.
The hints at cooperation did not end at natural gas. Journalists were naturally interested in what the two presidents might have discussed regarding Syria, a security theater that poses the threat of expanding from a regional conflict into a global one. Here, Trump said, “If we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis. That’s what the word was, a humanitarian basis. I think both of us would be very interested in doing that. And we are. And we will do that.” Trump’s sudden concern for both those suffering in perilous humanitarian circumstances and specifically those from Syria contrasted quite strikingly with several of his most well-known positions. Trump previously expressed an explicit lack of concern for those in Puerto Rico suffering from the effects of Hurricane Maria, and, not to put too fine of a point on it, targeted people from Syria with very strong language on the campaign trail and painted them as a primary reason for the travel ban on Muslim people.
The emphasis that Trump and Putin placed on helping those in Syria and reversing the flow of refugees back to Syria hinted towards the real beneficiaries of those policies: Bashar al-Assad and Trump and Putin’s right-wing populist allies in Europe.
Taken at face value, an influx of humanitarian aid in 2018 in Syria would mean alleviating the financial and logistical burden on Assad’s government and on his regional patrons: Russia and Iran. The U.S. presence on the ground in Syria is limited, and the anti-government rebels the U.S. had been supporting have largely been defeated. Humanitarian aid is greatly needed, but its political effect is to recognize Assad’s hold on power.
The language used by Putin on the reversal of refugees, “the migratory pressure upon the European states will be decreased many fold,” suggested another set of beneficiaries: right-wing populists in Europe who have made anti-immigrant and anti-migrant sentiment central to their political programs. If Russia and the U.S. can resolve the fighting in Syria, then the reason for hosting Syrian refugees similarly dissipates. While some Syrians would prefer to go home, others would prefer to stay and not return to a rebuilding country. These two camps could generate a conflict between the right-wing parties and the establishment, where the former will attack the latter for their open door policies. The outcome is greater social strife based on migration or, even more cynically, a cleansing of migrants from Europe that right-wing parties could point to as successes. In either instance, the European Union would be under tremendous social pressure.
The domestic political fallout from Trump’s performance in Helsinki will continue on for a while. Few concrete policy proposals were suggested and though the entire affair appeared staged for public relations purposes, the press conference did suggest a few potential avenues for U.S.-Russian policy cooperation.