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Upcoming Trump-Putin summit gives Russians hope for US thaw

Despite its early hopes, the Kremlin has found the Trump presidency to be soberingly antagonistic. So the fact that Russians are upbeat about the Helsinki summit suggests a real opportunity for diplomacy.

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Traditional Russian nesting dolls depicting President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed for sale at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/File

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At least from Moscow's viewpoint, it's been a disastrous year and a half for Russian-American relations.

President Trump's campaign promises to “get along with Russia” excited the hopes of many here. But in fact, he delivered the most acrimonious, sustained downward spiral the relationship has seen in almost four decades, leaving many Russians gripping their heads in frustration.

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Now he wants a summit?

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But to all appearances, the Kremlin couldn't be happier about the July 16 meeting between Mr. Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. While Russian experts caution that no diplomatic breakthroughs are likely, they are taking the White House's offer to meet as a sign that the neo-cold-war chill that began under Barack Obama has finally reached rock bottom.

And some, looking at the partisan chaos in the United States through the prism of Russian political culture, see signs that Trump is finally whipping his rivals into line and asserting his will as a strong president should. Indeed, at his meeting with White House National Security Adviser John Bolton last week, Mr. Putin singled out “sharp domestic political strife” in the US as the main reason such a summit has only now become possible.

“The relationship has been a complete mess [under Trump], and US policy toward Russia has been incoherent and unpredictable. We believe the situation is outright dangerous,” says Sergey Karaganov, an influential senior Russian foreign policy hand. “The atmosphere is still toxic, but it looks like Trump is winning” in his battles with the Washington establishment.

In that case, Mr. Karaganov says, it might be possible to move forward on a variety of urgent issues when the two presidents meet, including Syria, arms control, and maybe the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. It might even be possible to start talking about a “grand bargain,” a sweeping modus vivendi between Russia and the US that some Russian optimists read between the lines of Trump's campaign rhetoric.

‘Nowhere to go but up’

While relations between the US and Russia began to sour during the Obama administration, Trump has acted more antagonistically to the Kremlin than Mr. Obama on multiple fronts. That's a primary reason why the debate going on in the US over whether Trump is under Kremlin influence doesn't pass the smell test among Russians.

Obama avoided getting involved in the Syrian war, and even partnered with Russia in a deal to eliminate Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. Trump has twice unleashed cruise missile strikes against Syria over alleged chemical weapons use. Obama avoided supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. Trump has sent cutting-edge Javelin anti-tank missiles for use by Kiev's forces.

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Sanctions against Russia were initiated by Obama after Russia annexed Crimea and got involved in the eastern Ukraine anti-Kiev rebellion, but they have multiplied and become seemingly irreversible under Trump. Obama kicked out a large number of Russian diplomats over allegations of Moscow's interference in US presidential elections, but Trump topped him by ordering the biggest expulsion of Russian envoys in history.

Now, just the fact the meeting between Trump and Putin is happening may be enough to turn the relationship around, many Russians hope.

“Despite the tremendous damage to the Russian-American relationship over the past year and a half, there is a stubborn belief among Russian leaders that Trump really wants to work to improve things,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. “We are desperate enough to believe that things have hit the bottom, and there's nowhere to go but up.”

“Just by the fact of holding the summit, even if they talk about nothing, Putin and Trump are sending a clear signal to their respective administrations, political classes, and publics that improved US-Russian relations is still on the agenda,” Mr. Strokan says. “Psychologically, the atmosphere changes. In fact, it might be best if we just get a vague statement of principles, like the one that emerged from the Singapore summit with North Korea, because it will create an upbeat mood ahead of the long, tough negotiating that will have to follow.”

Areas for common ground

Some practical deals are possible, even in a brief meeting that is mostly about optics, say Russian analysts.

A key issue is Syria, where the US appears to have already conceded that the Obama administration's longstanding goal of regime change is off the table. “I don't think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue,” Mr. Bolton told Face the Nation on the weekend.

In exchange for the abandonment of US support for the anti-Assad rebels, Russia could agree to help limit Iranian influence in post-war Syria, especially near its borders with Israel. Indeed, it seems clear that Russia and Israel, who maintain good relations, have been talking about something like this for quite awhile.

“We have good relations with Iran, and we might be able to use our influence to shape a workable deal,” says Karaganov. “It's a very complex problem, and we'd need to get something in return.”

An easy deal for Trump and Putin would be to agree to open talks on extending the New START strategic arms reduction treaty, which will expire in less than three years if no action is taken, leaving the world's two nuclear superpowers with no agreed framework of strategic arms control for the first time in more than four decades.

Another step could be to set up a special commission to fix the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the deal that ended the cold war 30 years ago but now looks to be on the critical list.

The simmering war in eastern Ukraine has so far defied all diplomatic efforts at resolution, and doesn't look susceptible to any quick solutions now.

“We are in a corner in Ukraine. Putin wants to solve it, but where to begin?” says Alexey Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. Last week Trump hinted that he might be willing to recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, because “everyone there speaks Russian.”

Some agreement on Crimea would have to be part of a “grand bargain,” but no one in Moscow is looking for anything like that out of the Helsinki summit.

“We are going to this summit because there is no alternative,” says Mr. Mukhin. “When Putin meets Trump, it will be just the start of a long and difficult conversation that might lead to a more sane and predictable relationship down the road. Right now, I think we will be satisfied with just having the summit.”