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Helsinki Talks: Has Putin Already Won?

July 13, 2018 | Expert Insights

US President Donald Trump will meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital Helsinki on 16 July. 

Putin will seek to exploit the growing rift between the US and the EU to break Russia out of global isolation. 


For more than 210 years, Russia and the United States have shared a multi-faceted diplomatic relationship, at one point even sharing a land border when Russia had a settlement at Fort Ross, California. In 1859, US agreed to a proposal from Russia to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million as the latter was hopeful that the US would off-set the designs of its greatest rival in the Pacific- Great Britain. Over this period, the two countries have competed for political and economic influence, and cooperated to meet mutual global challenges. 

Major sanctions were imposed on Russia by western allies after Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Since 2014, the US has imposed a number of sanctions on Russian entities for their involvement in Ukraine and Syria, alongside alleged interference in the US Presidential elections. 

On August 2, 2017, the President Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) into law. This limited the amount of money Americans could invest in Russian energy projects and made it more difficult for US companies to do business with Russia. Under this act, any country trading with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors could also face sanctions. 

US President Donald Trump announced that the United States will soon be imposing global tariffs of 25% on steel imports, and 10% on aluminium, which was met by retaliation from Canada, EU, India, Mexico and China. 


Helsinki has a rich history of high-level negotiations between the nuclear powers. It will be the fourth time the top leaders from the two sides will meet there. Finland has historically been used as neutral territory since the Cold War. The most famous security summit was in 1975, between US. President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who signed of the Helsinki Accords on territorial issues and human rights. 

While nobody on either side expects breakthroughs, the summit is seen by Moscow as U.S. recognition of Russia’s status as a great power and US acknowledging that its interests must be taken into account. The summit allows Putin to portray himself to Russians as indispensable to the US president in resolving the world’s crises. 

“The fact that a Putin-Trump meeting will happen says only one thing: that for all its hysteria, the United States is not able to isolate or ignore Russia,” said Alexei Pushkov, a prominent Russian senator from the ruling United Russia party. Moreover, many political analysts across the world are betting on Putin’s 18 year history in administration to trump the current US President who has never held public office in his life. 

Earlier correspondence between the two countries shows there are three priorities which may not be successfully dealt with. Firstly, there is low probability for any breakthrough in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as Russia vehemently endorses the region as part of their sovereign territory. 

Secondly, President Trump’s increasing protectionism may impede removal of Russia’s suspension from the Group of Eight (G8) countries. 

Finally, both Presidents may not reach a compromise on Syria which is acceptable to both parties as well as rival rebel factions on ground. The Kremlin has previously agreed that all foreign forces should leave Syria, by which it means that Iranian and Russian forces would leave only when all other foreign forces, ranging from jihadists to Turkish troops, do so too. 

In Russia, where the political system relies on hierarchy, status and displays of raw power, Putin has “already got his victory,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a foreign policy think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “It allows him to make his point that Russia is not isolated, that Russia is a great power, and to some extent can even claim an equal status with the United States, at least in the security field.” 

The concept of Finlandization, a term describing Finland’s status as a neutral buffer state during the Cold War, has been resurrected in the past year by prominent voices, including Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and David Ignatius, as a potential compromise model for the unfolding Ukraine crisis. The current Finlandization solution would allow Russia to consolidate its territorial gains from invading Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, while dampening any further conflict by securing an agreement from Kiev, NATO, and the US not to take any steps to align Ukraine with Western institutions. 


Our assessment is that the upcoming summit will open communications on pressing issues like Syria, Ukraine and Russian sanctions. We believe that negotiations may not be easy for US as they threaten to escalate the global trade war while their closest allies distance themselves.