On Thursday, 28 June, the White House press secretary released a statement that President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet 16 July in Helsinki.
The two leaders would discuss bilateral relations between the United States and Russia, in addition to a “range of national security issues”.
The White House statement came a few days after John Bolton, the American National Security adviser, had held talks in Moscow with senior Russian officials and met with Putin.
His trip coincided with a major military offensive by the Syrian Army in Daraa province in southern Syria, breaking a year-long truce in this strategic part of Syria, negotiated between Russia, the United States and Jordan.
The 16 July summit will be the first between the American and Russian presidents after one year and half years of the first term of President Trump who has always insisted on the importance of having good relations between Washington and Moscow.
However, in the last 18 months, American-Russian relations reached a low level with the tightening of the sanctions regime spearheaded by the United States, targeting the oil and banking sectors in Russia, and Russian officials around President Putin and some Russian billionaires close to the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration showed support for Britain after its government accused Moscow of using a nerve gas on British territory in an assassination attempt against a former Russian double agent and his daughter.
Not to mention the ongoing investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller on links between the Trump campaign in 2016 and Russia. Media coverage of the investigation as well as the tweets of Trump that have dealt with its progress have cast a dark shadow on prospects of improving American-Russian relations.
President Putin has consistently denied that Russia had had anything to do with the 2016 US presidential elections. Trump said that he intends to bring up Russian interference with the US presidential elections during his meeting with Putin.
It was the first time that Trump said that he would discuss the question with his Russian counterpart, even though he has insisted that there were no links.
Last year, Trump and Putin met on the margin of international summits: the first was the G-20 meeting in Hamburg in July 2017, and the second, the joint AIPAC-ASEAN Summit that was held in November 2017 in Vietnam.
In between, and despite the mounting pressures within the United States and in Europe calling for a tougher position to confront Putin’s Russia, Moscow and Washington successfully negotiated — with Jordan as a third party — the de-escalation agreement in southwest Syria, in the triangle of Daraa-Kuneitera-Al-Sweyda, near the Syrian-Israel border.
The July summit between the leaders of the two superpowers comes amidst a widening rift within the Western alliance that has been exacerbated by the public positions and decisions of Trump in trade (imposing tariffs on exports from major allies of the United States) and his unilateral decisions to take the United States out of international agreements (the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Accord on Climate Change).
Probably the most serious problem facing the so-called Free World — a Cold War terminology — is the perception by US allies in Europe that President Trump is willing to reach agreements with Russia regardless of the national interests of those allies.
They fear that the liberal international order will crumble under the “America First” strategy of Trump.
Two weeks ago, US negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, entrusted with the resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, were in the Middle East on a tour to promote US efforts in this respect. From the beginning, Moscow has been shut out.
The American-Russian summit 16 July is expected to touch on these US efforts and how Russia could help in persuading the Palestinian Authority to reengage the diplomatic efforts of the US government.
Given the fact that Moscow has developed balanced relations with the two, it could be a positive partner in these endeavours. Not only that, but it could also talk to the Iranians to soften the positions of Hamas.
It was no coincidence, that the official announcement of the Helsinki summit came in the midst of a major military offensive of the Syrian Army in the south to regain control of Daraa.
Initially, the US administration had warned Syria of “serious repercussions” in case of violating the de-escalation agreement in the southwest of the country, but later on the US backed down and sent a message to the armed groups operating in and around Daraa in which it made clear that these groups should not expect help from the US government, thus increasing the pressure on them to negotiate the terms of their surrender, which is actually taking place through Russian and Jordanian mediation, paving the way for the Syrian government to regain control of the city from which the uprising of March 2011 had erupted in Syria.
The advance of the Syrian Army in the south and near the Syrian-Israeli border would not have happened in the absence of certain American-Russian understandings on an ultimate diplomatic solution in Syria that would take the security interests of Israel into consideration.
The Russians are willing to make that happen. These understandings cover cooperation in the fight against terrorism and all extremist groups in Syria, including the so-called Islamic State organisation and Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.
One Middle Eastern question that would occupy centre stage in the upcoming talks between Trump and Putin will be how to coordinate a joint effort to contain some Iranian policies in the region.
It remains to be seen if Moscow would agree, in part or in full, with the 12 American demands put forward by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May for Iran to comply with.
Of all the national security issues that would be discussed in the American-Russian summit, the bet is that the Middle East would be the one region where American and Russian positions would be close, contrary to the situation in Ukraine, for instance.
The Trump administration, unlike the administration of former president Barack Obama, has begun providing the Ukrainian Army with lethal weapons.
Before meeting Trump, the Russian president sent him a very precious gift. Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed to work together to keep oil prices from rising.
They would increase their oil production to avoid further price increases. President Trump could not have imagined better news before Americans hit the road this summer, and before midterm elections in the US.
President Putin expects something, not less precious, in return. The easing and gradual lifting of sanctions will be one. The other is recognition of Russia as a major superpower.
The best outcome of the Helsinki summit, from the point of view of Putin’s Russia, is a new détente between the US and Russia. As far as the Middle East and Egypt are concerned, that would be a welcome result of strategic significance.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Trump-Putin summit