In Depth

Helsinki summit: what do Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin want?

US President says he has ‘low expectations’ for today’s talks with his Russian counterpart in Finland

Two of the world’s most powerful leaders will meet in the Finnish capital Helsinki later today, but it remains unclear exactly what Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin hope to achieve from the meeting.

The hastily convened summit follows nearly a week of contentious meetings for Donald Trump - first with Nato members and then in his visit to the UK - which have worried some of Washington’s closest allies.  

It comes at “one of the most crucial junctures for the West since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union” and has alarmed diplomats who fear Putin might seek a deal that undermines the military alliance, Reuters reports.

What does Trump want?

Speaking on the eve of the summit, the US leader appeared to downplay the chance of meaningful talks. “I go in with low expectations,” Trump told CBS News. “I’m not going with high expectations.”

Asked if he would request that Putin hand over the 12 Russians indicted for alleged interference in the 2016 US elections, the president said he had not thought to mention it but would consider it.

But one thing Trump clearly wants from Russia is help winning the domestic “culture wars,” says Ivan Kurilla, professor of history and international relations at the European University in St. Petersburg.

“He probably imagines himself as Ronald Reagan, changing the USSR’s image from that of an ‘evil empire’ to a friend – and winning support at home,” he told the Washington Post.

Kurilla adds that “any concession from Russia or anything he could present as a victory to the US public will work for him; the specifics are not important, he just needs something.”

One option is some sort of deal on Syria, with Russia pushing Iran out in exchange for the US recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea and lifting sanctions, according to an editorial in The Guardian.

However, this appears unlikely. “A narrower deal – with Russia promising to ensure Iranian-backed forces stay away from the border with Israel, in exchange for the US withdrawing from positions in eastern Syria and accepting Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule – might be somewhat more plausible,” the paper says.

Ultimately, “we do not know why Trump wants this meeting, beyond enjoying the spotlight,” it adds.

What does Putin want?

The Russian leader’s motives are more obvious. Political analysts agree that one of Putin’s main objective will be ending - or at least watering down - western sanctions.

“If not the sanctions against companies and whole sectors of the Russian economy, then at least the highly symbolic travel bans and asset freezes imposed on specific Russian nationals,” says Mikhail Troitskiy, dean and associate professor at the MGIMO School of Government and International Affairs in Moscow.

Putin is also expected to seek an end to US criticism of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, as well as his nation’s reintegration into the G-8.

If a deal does emerge, analysts predict the Russian leader will come out on top.

“Simply meeting with the US president as an equal is a win for the head of a near-pariah nation with an economy smaller than the state of Michigan’s,” Mark Galeotti, a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, writes for The Atlantic.

“He is ahead the moment he gets to shake Trump’s hand,” he says.


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