(MENAFN - Kuwait News Agency (KUNA)) By Ronald Baygents WASHINGTON, July 14 (KUNA) -- The four main issues under the spotlight during Monday's summit in Helsinki between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are Syria, Ukraine, arms control and Russian meddling in the US elections, according to an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank.
On those issues, "there's been very, very little progress" since Trump came into office, said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasian Studies at CFR and professor of international diplomacy at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.
Trump has created "a lot of opposition" by seeming to downplay the issue of Russia meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and by "kind of waffling" on the issue of Ukraine, Sestanovich said in remarks previewing the Trump-Putin summit.
For both of those reasons, the US Congress voted for new sanctions on Russia last year "to try to tie his hands because of lack of confidence in him," Sestanovich said.
On Syria, "you've had a very limited kind of cooperation at a tactical level between the US military and the Russian military in and around Syria, but it's mostly been staying out of each other's way," he said. "And on arms control, you've had very little movement of any kind, although the United States has periodically accused the Russians of violating the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.
Trump "tends to raise the level of Syria as an issue from military-military coordination to presidential discussion, and I think the reason is the war is in a new phase, there's apparent interest by the President to scale back American involvement and, above all, a desire to limit Iran's role in Syria going forward, and particularly to limit the possibility of a war between Iran and Israel," Sestanovich said.
"The ambitious way in which American policymakers have formulated this goal -- getting the Iranians out of Syria -- is so grand as to be really unrealistic," he said.
The Israelis have sought "to get limits on Iranian-Hezbollah activities close to the Golan," Sestanovich said. "If they can get even that, it will be an achievement at the summit. More than that I think would be a real stretch." On arms control, Trump and some of his advisers have been saying there is a need "to try to address some of these issues of an out-of-control arms race," Sestanovich said. "And Putin has said he agrees with that analysis that the arms race is getting out of control." On Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Trump comes to the Putin meeting "showing a kind of obvious recognition that he's got to handle the (Russia) election-meddling issue in a different way," Sestanovich said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Trump "will handle it and be very strong, and Trump has for the first time that I know of sort of agreed with him. He says no one wants any interference in our elections." The US intelligence community concluded that Russia meddled in the US election in 2016 in order to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Republican nominee Trump. If Trump repeats his past "I believe Putin is sincere" line, "he's just making trouble for himself," Sestanovich said. Trump "has mishandled this issue from the beginning, because ... he has suggested that he's prepared to believe Putin's denials," Sestanovich added. "Putin is not going to do anything but deny, and the important thing for the President here is not to step into this trap of saying anything that suggests he believes in the denials," Sestanovich said. Trump "may be interested in getting some kind of categorical statement by Putin that such activities should not happen," Sestanovich said. "And there may even be some hinting by Russians, including Putin, say, at a press conference, that there could have been some other Russians who were responsible for this meddling, but it wasn't with any official mandate or authorization." If Trump says that satisfies him, "then he will also be making a big mistake," Sestanovich said. "What he has got to do is really indicate that he takes this issue seriously, that he's prepared to take measures ... in cooperation with friendly countries to prevent this sort of thing." The "big trap" will be if Trump "treats this kind of Singapore-summit style, as an issue that the two sides have got an understanding on," Sestanovich said, referring to last month's summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "He should indicate we are going to be extremely watchful, we are determined not to let this happen again, and Russia will not benefit if it tries." Jim Goldgeier, a visiting senior fellow at the CFR and a professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University, said that "Trump is very hamstrung on this issue, because he's so concerned about any doubt about the legitimacy of his own election that he doesn't want to give any sense that, yes, there might've been meddling, and that's how he won." Trump "doesn't want to go there, so it makes it hard for him to really deal adequately with this issue," Goldgeier said. Putin could try the approach of "well, let's both agree that we're not going to meddle in each other's elections," Goldgeier said. "And that might sound appealing on the face of it, but it basically then makes it seem like there's an equivalent thing of what the United States engagement abroad has been and the direct interference in this particular election. So I think that's a dangerous place if that's where this ends up." Turning to Ukraine and Crimea, Sestanovich noted that although Trump has hinted about possibly recognizing Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, White House national security adviser John Bolton has said that is not the position of the US, "and Trump seems to have backed away from that a little bit," Sestanovich said.
Other issues that may be discussed in Helsinki include the chemical weapons poisonings in the United Kingdom and sanctions relief for Russia, Sestanovich said.
Trump "likes talking about leaders doing favors to each other, and you could imagine he might try to find some way of doing a favor for Putin," Sestanovich said. "And Putin himself likes surprises and likes to make a splash, and possibly on some of these issues he may try to show that the cooperation between the two presidents has taken a step forward." The most likely outcome of the summit is the creation of "forums and channels for further discussions so that Bolton and Pompeo can take over these questions and have experts handle them," Sestanovich said.(end) rm