• Toby Irwin

The Helsinki Enigma

Updated: Jul 20, 2018

On the 16th of July President Trump flew to Helsinki to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. For spectators this summit offered a real opportunity for the White House delegation to confront the Russians over key geopolitical issues. For example, the ongoing support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Novichok poisonings in Salisbury. Trump did not pursue such a hard-line approach, rather it seems he was seeking to ease tensions with Russia through conciliation and (to the great criticism and backlash from domestic media) by attacking his own Intelligence Services and the FBI. For Putin, the summit was almost certainly a victory. Russian media largely represented the meeting as a failure of a US president to dominate Moscow, and consequently a strong Russian stance was able to be portrayed.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Senate Building in Helsinki

Now, it is perhaps necessary to analyse what this will mean for Trans-Atlantic relations. Further, for the sake of discussion this article briefly flips common viewpoints and plays the devil’s advocate. God forbid, is President Trump correct? Many analysts and Russian foreign policy experts have been warning that Russia and the United States stand on the verge of a new, revived Cold War. Is it maybe necessary for an easing of tensions? Sceptics would argue that this is not a binary solution, as in there can be a moderated approach from the White House in terms of maintaining a working cooperative attitude while still holding Russia to account where necessary. So, despite Trump’s apparent outreach for Russian collaboration it is unlikely to come to fruition.

A number of factors are frustrating any real meaningful support between the two powers. This article could never set out all of these reasons comprehensively but can certainly highlight some. First of all, historical competition lingers. Not just from the Cold War, but farther back to times when Russia was seen as ‘not quite European’. Russia always struggled to be seen as a great European power throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and a feeling of ‘otherness’ always persisted despite the fact that the huge majority of its population lived (and still does) West of the Ural Mountains. After all, a common Slav identity has been pursued throughout Russian history, whether this be defending Serbia after the assassination of Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand or intervening in Crimea. However, historical concerns often seem misplaced considering the fact that Russia and the West fought side by side in both World Wars and the rift in the Cold War could be discerned as an ideological necessity. The collapse of communism though should have indicated a return to the cooperative Western fold; so why did it not?

This is where the story gets interesting, because Russia and the West did truly see a rapprochement in the 1990s. Under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation and the United States made great steps forward towards a security partnership. This can be seen with the alliance between the two powers in the First Gulf War ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. International historians often coin this period in Russian foreign policy as Atlanticist. Clearly, other factors must be responsible for the contemporary frosty relationship.

This can be put down to realised security threat and a revival of pragmatic nationalism under the leadership of Putin. NATO began a series of enlargements in the late 1990s. Firstly in 1999 with the membership of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. This was the same year when Putin first came to power. Then, in 2004, a huge membership expansion incorporated seven new countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Geographically, this saw NATO boundaries move right up to Western Russian frontiers and also could explain Putin’s continued defence spending hikes throughout the 2000s. Finally, certain crises over the years have been exacerbating existing tensions between the West and Russia including the Crimean and Georgia crises, disagreements over the Syrian Civil War and the Iran deal.

The summit’s date overlapping with the fourth-year anniversary of the crash of the MH17 (largely suspected to be shot down by Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine) symbolises continued tension. As such, when President Trump outstretches a hand – which perhaps could be seen as a rational move to pursue peace – it is unlikely to be accepted due to the geopolitical realities in the Kremlin. Into the future, it will take far more competent diplomacy and reconciliation to reunite the two powers. For now, cooperative possibilities are limited, and the United States should now re-evaluate its approach: continue to pursue cooperation with open arms or use a partial isolationist strategy to give Moscow reassurance to ease on its antagonistic foreign policy.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.