2. Once upon a time in Helsinki
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 25.07.2018
Baltic Russia USA
* Was Helsinki really a big win for Russia? And defeat for Europe?
Where does all this leave Europe?
While the US is boiling with anger at its own president, it makes sense to ask where all this leaves Europe. Was the meeting really the sort of apocalyptic disaster for Europe some media expected it to be?
The answer to this question depends on one’s expectations. To the people who expected Trump to uphold the principles of the liberal international order and strongly condemn a Russia that has violated the order’s basic premises, this meeting must indeed have been a depressing sight. But such an expectation would be based on two quite erroneous premises: a) that Donald Trump cares about or even understands the liberal order; and b) that the liberal order can be restored simply by scolding and disciplining Russia.
In reality, the restoration of the liberal order via renewal and adaptation will take a long time; and it may be that things have to get worse before they can get better. We are in the middle of the journey here; far from the world we would like to see. But by the standards of our confusing times, the outcome of the Helsinki meeting was not entirely bad for Europe.
The one certain outcome seems to be the renewal of US-Russia dialogue on several levels. While Europeans may have their suspicions regarding the contents of any US-Russia talks, on balance the resumption of contacts is still probably more good than bad. Confrontation without contacts can become dangerous.
It is also not bad that the two sides indicated their willingness to talk about arms control. Progress here should not be taken for granted, as both the Trump administration and Russia have misgivings about the existing arrangements, and might seek to reshape them. Still, arms control arrangements collapsing with no replacements in sight would have confronted the Europeans with very unpleasant and divisive dilemmas regarding their own defence.
- On balance, the resumption of contacts is still probably more good than bad
- The emerging shape of the US-Russia vision for Syria – that focuses on securing Israel and containing Iran, while explicitly or implicitly also legitimising Assad’s continued rule – is certainly deficient from the European viewpoint, as Europeans would have liked to see true power-sharing arrangements and ultimately a transfer of power away from Assad.
However, the battle over Syria’s future was lost not in Helsinki, but long ago; and it was lost by lack of good Western strategy.
A ‘grand bargain’ on Ukraine – that many in Europe feared when Trump said he might recognise annexation of Crimea – was probably never on the cards. “Trump says so just to put pressure on Europe on matters of trade and defence spending,” said a Moscow expert familiar with the preparatory talks.
And he was right – at the summit, Trump stuck to non-recognition and, as Putin said, also emphasised the importance of continued transit of Russian gas via Ukraine – in addition to, not instead of, Nordstream II. Europe is itself split on the gas question, but both Nordstream II and transit via Ukraine are on several countries’ wish lists.
The proposal at the summit to create a forum for bringing together US and Russian ‘business captains’ suggests that the US might refrain from upgrading its sanctions on Russia:
- from now on, in business relations, what is not forbidden, is allowed. Seemingly paradoxically, this actually helps Europe’s principled stand vis-à-vis Russia.
- Uncontrolled escalation of vaguely defined but comprehensive US sanctions on Russia would make the European sanctions – which are tightly related to fulfilment of the Minsk agreement – redundant as a policy tool.
- This is because Russia would see that, whatever its relations with Europe, economic sanctions would remain in place. But a more moderate US stance means that the prospect of resolving the Donbas conflict will actually improve, though it undoubtedly remains difficult.
Finally, it is not a given that the renewed US-Russia contacts will leave Europe on the sidelines. Russians have seen how the good atmosphere after last year’s Hamburg meeting very quickly deteriorated into a bad confrontation over Syria.
They know that Trump remains unpredictable, and so do his relations with the US establishment. And some of them think that better relations with Europe would actually help to navigate this complicated relationship.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu