A Russian-US summit will take place on July 16 in Helsinki. No breathtaking breakthroughs are looming. This event will be quite different from Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the USSR in 1972, when three major security agreements were signed. There is a wide gap between what the leaders want to achieve and what they can really do, other than exchange pleasantries, make a few jokes, slap each other’s shoulders, and shake hands for the cameras. But despite all the deep divisions on many issues, the tensions that are running high, the negative attitude of the US Congress toward Moscow, and the other factors that cloud that relationship, the planned summit could produce concrete and tangible results, contrary to what is generally believed.
If history is any guide, dividing the agenda into “baskets” makes sense. It made the 1975 Helsinki Act possible. One basket should include problems that are of fundamental importance but with solutions that still look fairly distant. Another one could hold the problems for which some success could be achieved right now or in the near future. The third one should be left for miscellaneous issues that require some discussion. Some of those might pop up randomly.
The first basket could include the New START, the INF Treaty, Russia-NATO relations, the problems related to the 50th anniversary of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on July 1, and also other arms-control issues that need to be addressed to prevent backsliding toward an unfettered race and dangerous confrontation. There are some areas where agreement can be reached, but ratification is normally a very complicated and time-consuming procedure. We need to remember the positive experience of the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) and make practical use of it. Progress on arms control is critical for the overall improvement of the bilateral relationship. It is not normal to have a situation in which the major agreements appear to have one foot in the grave and this needs to be changed. If a dialog on arms control were revived, one could say the meeting had been a big step forward.
The time is right for the parties to begin talks on easing the tensions that have been ramped up by the US ballistic missile defense plans in Europe. Mutually-agreed verification measures could be prepared for consideration by experts, if the leaders told them to sit at the round table and start working. A dialog on cybersecurity could be launched at the level of working groups. The presidents could exchange opinions about ways to gradually end the sanctions war.
The second basket should include the revival of the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) and the Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities. Those two accords that seem to be somewhat forgotten nowadays have proven their effectiveness and constitute a legal basis that can be built upon. The presidents could confirm the validity of those historic agreements and pledge compliance with them, in order to avoid the sparks that can start big fires — a scenario that must be avoided at any cost.
The parties could pledge to remain faithful to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, especially the provision that keeps the parties from deploying substantial forces in the proximity of each other’s borders. The US could agree to suspend those activities in Europe that are viewed by Moscow as provocations and preparatory steps for a military intervention. In return, Russia could abstain from deploying some weapons systems that could hit American assets on the US continent. The presidents could agree to become more transparent when preparing for military exercises. They could also limit their scope. Some confidence-building measures could be agreed on within the bilateral format, which could be added to the Vienna Document.
Obviously, the agenda will include Syria. This is an issue that needs to be discussed very candidly behind closed doors. It’s important to understand what goals each side is trying to achieve and see if the existing divergences could be narrowed. The presidents could agree not to take steps to do anything that would aggravate the situation in Ukraine. If no agreement about what to do next seems imminent, the problem could be set aside for the time being.
The leaders could agree to revitalize their bilateral contacts at various levels, including between working groups, NGOs, experts, scholars, lawmakers, businesses, etc. Two-way contacts are vital for moving forward, especially if they touch on arms control or other security-related issues. The number of diplomats stationed in each country, which fell after the wave of expulsions, could be increased, making embassy and consular services more efficient, and steps to move in this direction could also be approved at the meeting.
The third basket could include a preliminary exchange of views on potential bilateral cooperation in Libya and an exploration of ways to spur bilateral economic and cultural projects. Launching negotiations on avoiding a military standoff in the Arctic could help create a much better environment. This problem may not seem as urgent as some other security issues, but a better understanding of each other’s intentions would promote overall progress in the relationship. The prospects for joint space programs should also be studied.
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have a good basis, such as their personal chemistry, to build on. There are no magic wands they could wave to make the fundamental problems that divide the two countries disappear, but they can turn the tide and start making step-by-step progress here and there. As a result, the two nations would be involved in dialog rather than confrontation.