The greatest danger in Helsinki: new ‘secret protocols’ or simply ‘understandings’

Putin-Trump press conference after their one-on-one private meeting in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018 (Image: YouTube video capture)

Putin-Trump press conference after their one-on-one private meeting in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018 (Image: YouTube video capture) 

Analysis & Opinion, Politics, Russia

If the last century of diplomacy teaches nothing else, it is that secret protocols and understandings are a far more dangerous outcome of summits than anything the leaders involved may actually declare, not only because these things conceal what the leaders will do but also because they open the way to radically different interpretations.

That is the lesson of Munich in 1938; it is the lesson of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939; and it is the lesson of Singapore just a few months ago. And it is one that should be kept in mind in interpreting whatever comes out of the Helsinki summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Many are going to breathe a sigh of relief if Trump and Putin don’t make the kind of dramatic declarations that would sell out the countries in between in the name of cooperation between Russia and the United States – despite the fact that Putin has already won by having a meeting and Trump has no defensible reason to make any concessions to Putin.

Because of their own personal styles and domestic constraints, neither Trump nor Putin is likely to be willing to spell out exactly what they have agreed to in public. To do so would not be in the interest of either: If Trump caves to Putin in public, he will spark a firestorm of opposition in the US, something not in Putin’s interest either, given how useful Trump has been for Putin.

But that doesn’t mean the two won’t agree behind the scenes, perhaps not even as formally as signing “secret protocols” but rather by reaching “understandings” that will have enormous consequences down the line.

Thus, any reaction to what the two do in public today will inevitably be premature.

After all, the worst consequences of analogous agreements earlier weren’t on public view at first. They appeared only weeks or months later – and they were and remain all the worse for that.

What is especially disturbing is that Russian commentators are more or less openly speculating about such a possibility. One commentator calls his article today “The Putin-Trump Pact,” using a term of art which inevitably resonates in the worst possible way for the countries between Moscow and the West.

And Sergey Markov, a Moscow political analyst, points to another reason that he welcomes but that should disturb others. At this summit, he says, “Trump de facto represents [only] himself and not the American government.” The State Department, the Defense Department and the CIA “all spoke out categorically against this summit.”

Trump will therefore try to achieve something so as to maintain his narrative that he can do what none of his predecessors could. But he will have to do it in a way that generates support at home without increasing suspicions about his relationship with Putin. For that, the best arrangement then is not a public declaration but some kind of understanding in private.

If Trump proceeds in that fashion, Markov says, nothing may be said in public about Ukraine at Helsinki, but “on his return to Washington, [the American president] could pound his fist on the table and demand an end to support for Ukraine. This will lead in a guaranteed fashion to the destruction of the Kyiv regime,” the Moscow analyst says.

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Edited by: A. N.

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