The Putin-Trump nexus

Strategic issues should have figured highly on the agenda of last July’s meeting between Presidents Putin and Trump in Helsinki. However, from what has been made public, this was not the case. In their joint press conference, that remains the main record of the summit, it appears that the focus of their meeting was their common attempt to minimise the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. President Trump dedicated most of his statement to defend the legitimacy of his election. President Putin, more than happy to support Trump’s arguments, confirmed that “the Russian State has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including election processes”.

Little space seems to have been dedicated to the extension of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the survival of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces in Europe Treaty (INF), issues which are at the core of the future of international peace and security.

 Of the two leaders, Putin was more willing to address strategic affairs, recognising that major nuclear powers bear special responsibility for maintaining international security and stressing the crucial importance of “dialogue on strategic stability and global security and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”. He also did acknowledge that the primary subjects of the military and technical cooperation between the two sides was “the extension of the Strategic Offensive Arms Limitation Treaty” (probably meaning the New Start Treaty). He proceeded to outline the present Russian strategical concerns and the necessity of working together further and to interact on the disarmament agenda and on military and technical cooperation. He made a link between the extension of the New START and the global US antimissile defence system as well as between the implementation of this treaty and the uncertain future of the INF treaty. Putin also confirmed that part of Moscow’s strategic agenda retains its traditional interest to promote the “non-placement of weapons in space”. A Russian note with a number of specific suggestions on all these subjects was submitted by Moscow to the USA.

Surprisingly, Putin also raised the issue of establishing “channels of communication which permit it to avoid dangerous incidents and unintentional collisions in the air and in the ground” between NATO and Russian forces. This is a theme on which the European Leadership Network, a London based think tank, has played a leading role over the years, frequently raising it with the Russian leaders who, until now, tried to avoid this subject. It deserves being further pursued.

Putin supported the process aiming at a solution of the Korean crisis, paying public tribute to the role played by his US counterpart. The endeavour was possible “thanks to the personal engagement of President Trump, who opted for dialogue instead of confrontation”. He expressed his concern for the US withdrawal from the JCPOA recalling that, thanks to the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran became the most controlled country in the world. The deal effectively ensured the exclusively peaceful nature of Iranian nuclear program and strengthened the non-proliferation regime.

President Trump made only generic remarks on strategic issues and boasted the fact that relationship between Russia and the US, which had “never been worse than .. now” were changed just after the concluded bilateral meeting. He said that he “would rather take a political risk in pursuit of peace than to risk peace in pursuit of politics”. Nuclear non-proliferation is, in his view, a priority: “…ultimately that’s probably the most important thing that we could be working on”. He appreciated Putin’s support for the negotiations with North Korea and emphasized the importance of now “placing pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions, and to stop its campaign of violence throughout the area”. He made no reference to the future of the START treaty, no mention of the INF treaty which the two sides accuse each other of violating.

The Helsinki meeting was clearly not, as it should have been, the result of a well prepared summit but rather, as the US President admitted, only a first step in a larger process. Representatives from the two countries’ national security councils followed up on the issues addressed in Helsinki in a meeting held in Geneva on the 23rd of August. However US National Security adviser John Bolton, whose scepticism vis-a-vis arms control is well known, and his counterpart Nikolai Patrushev failed in the attempt of writing a joint public statement about their talks. Despite an announcement by Trump of an invitation for a second bilateral summit, it does not seem that such a follow-up will take place any time soon. Relations with Russia might become toxic in view of the incoming US mid-term elections.

At least on strategic issues, the Helsinki meeting was a missed opportunity. No concern emerged for the inevitable arms race which will ensue from the growing weapons programmes in which the two countries are embarking and for the economic and financial burden of these programmes. There is no follow-up to the New Start Treaty, while the existing one expires in 2021, and no effort was made to save the INF Treaty. The only element of convergence between the two sides was their obvious joint interest in maintaining alive the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty that legalises their privileged nuclear status while forbidding others from getting hold of nuclear weapons. But the two leaders seemed to ignore that the NPT is also there to “ ….pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament… ”. Not only are we witnessing a lack of progress in negotiations but we are seeing surprising steps backwards such as the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement with Iran, a violation of a legally binding UN Security Council resolution.

Unless the two leaders resume negotiations to prevent an unprecedented loss of control over nuclear weapons, there is a serious risk that even their cherished NPT will be abandoned by others and that the only law governing the future of nuclear weapons will be the law of the jungle.

Carlo Trezzamember of the Nato Defense College Foundation Scientific Committee. European Leadership Network coordinator for Italy. He was Italy’s Ambassador for Disarmament and Non-proliferation in Geneva, Chairman of the Missile Technology Control Regime and of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board for Disarmament Matters in New York.