Taking stock of the Trump-Putin summit

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow

Before the summit: Uncertain expectations and a glimmer of hope for arms control

In early July, it was confirmed that President Trump would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland on July 16. Sources involved in the planning for the summit indicated that it would likely begin with a one-on-one meeting between the two leaders, with only translators in the room. The prospect of a closed-door meeting between President Trump and Putin raised some alarm from critics.

The agenda for the summit was not publicly known before the meeting took place, but one likely agenda item drew the attention of arms control advocates: the possible extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia. New START, which entered into force in 2011, limits the number of nuclear warheads deployed by both the United States and Russia, and allows the two states to confirm one another’s arms reductions via inspections and data sharing. The treaty is set to expire in 2021, but it can be extended to 2026 if both parties agree to do so.

Extension of New START had been looking somewhat unlikely, particularly after Trump’s phone call with Vladimir Putin back in February 2017. During that conversation, Putin raised the possibility of extending the treaty. In response, Trump reportedly paused the call to ask his aides what New START was, then denounced the treaty as “a bad deal for the United States.”

As the Trump-Putin summit drew nearer, however, the extension of New START emerged as a likely subject of discussion. National Security Advisor John Bolton discussed extending the treaty with Putin when the two met in late June, although sources told Vox that Bolton was “very upset” about having to do so. (Bolton’s opposition to New START is well-documented — see his 2010 op-ed deeming the treaty “unilateral disarmament” for an example). The week before the summit, a National Security Council spokesperson said that the United States is “open to discussions” regarding extending New START, but that no decisions had been made on that point.


The summit itself: What was said in the closed-door meeting?

On July 16, the Trump-Putin summit took place as scheduled in Helsinki. Unfortunately, there was no official joint communiqué released after the summit and there has been no clear or detailed read-out of what was said in the one-on-one meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin. The two men met behind closed doors with only their translators present for over two hours. Afterwards, they gave a joint press conference (transcribed by Vox) that several American news outlets have blasted as “disastrous,” based largely on President Trump’s performance during the Q&A portion (more on that later).

The most detailed information about the content of the meeting between President Trump and Putin came from the press conference itself. According to Trump’s opening remarks, the topics discussed were as follows:

  • Improving the U.S.-Russian relationship
  • Russian meddling in U.S. elections
  • Stopping nuclear proliferation
  • Countering global terrorism
  • Pressuring Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and stop its aggressive actions in the Middle East
  • Potential U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria

Putin’s opening remarks, which preceded President Trump’s remarks, offered a more detailed outline of discussion topics:

  • Improving the U.S.-Russian relationship, including the formation of an expert council of American and Russian political scientists, diplomats, and former military experts to identify opportunities to improve that relationship
  • Maintaining international security, including:
    • Fine-tuning the dialogue on strategic stability, global security, and nonproliferation;
    • Extending New START;
    • Resolving the “implementation issue” with the INF Treaty; and
    • Continuing cooperation in counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
  • Potential U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria to mitigate the humanitarian crisis
  • Russia’s concern about Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran nuclear deal)
  • The “internal Ukrainian crisis”
  • Economic ties and economic cooperation, including formation of a high-level working group of American and Russian business leaders
  • “So-called” Russian interference in American elections (which Putin denied)

Based on these opening statements, we can piece together a rough outline of the talks that took place behind closed doors, but the international community is left wondering about what exactly was said on each topic. In particular, Americans are questioning what was agreed to in the meeting, since Russian officials alluded to “verbal agreements” made between the two leaders. On Wednesday, July 18, Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov told reporters that Trump and Putin reached “important verbal agreements” on preserving New START and the INF Treaty, but provided no further information. American officials neither confirmed nor denied the Ambassador’s account.

Antonov also mentioned that Putin made “specific and interesting proposals” about potential cooperation between the United States and Russia on the Syria issue. Both Trump and Putin mentioned this during the press conference, but again, details were scarce: Trump mentioned that the cooperation could “save hundreds of thousands of lives,” and Putin suggested that the two countries could work to “establish peace and reconciliation” in Syria and “overcome the humanitarian crisis.”

So far, the Pentagon has indicated that its Syria strategy is unchanged following the summit. In a press conference held Thursday, July 19, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, said he’d received no new instructions regarding the situation and strategy in Syria.

All in all, most of what we know about what was said behind closed doors has come from the Russian officials. While the White House has still not released an official account of the meeting, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did list some of the topics that were discussed during a briefing on Wednesday, July 18. The only American other than President Trump who knows exactly what was said is State Department translator Marina Gross, whose role as an official translator includes an ethics code of confidentiality that prohibits her from speaking about what was said. When it comes to informing American officials and the public about the specifics of the meeting, the ball is in President Trump’s court — and it looks like it may stay there indefinitely.