A senior Kremlin official tells Bloomberg that Vladimir Putin is preparing to offer significant concessions to President Trump at their July 16 summit in Helsinki, Finland in the hopes of beginning to repair strained relations between Russia and the United States. Chief among them, according to the official, is a discussion on Iran's role in Syria - an issue that Moscow is simultaneously coordinating with Tehran.
Putin has agreed in principle to U.S. and Israeli demands that Iranian-backed forces in southern Syria be kept away from Israel’s border, replaced with troops loyal to the government in Damascus, two Kremlin advisers said.
After studying Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, during which he announced a surprise halt to U.S. military exercises with South Korea, Putin decided he needs to negotiate with the billionaire personally, the senior official said, without elaborating. The two leaders may meet without aides, as Trump and Kim did in Singapore, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. -Bloomberg
In advance of the summit, U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, briefed President Trump during a one-on-one conference call Thursday - saying that Trump will go into the meeting with "eyes wide open."
Trump, meanwhile, has broken with Obama's policy of demanding that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad be removed from power, a position reportedly formed before Russia and Iran turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in Assad's favor against U.S. backed rebels. This sentiment was backed by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton - who on Sunday told CBS News that Assad is no longer "the strategic issue" in Syria. Instead, Iran is now the focus.
“We’ll see what happens when the two of them get together,” said Bolton, who never met a regime he didn't want to change. “There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward.”
Russia views the upcoming Trump-Putin summit as an opportunity to mend fences with the United States. Relations have soured dramatically since the days Bill Clinton was hanging out at Putin's Moscow estate - within hours of collecting $500,000 for a speech to a Kremlin investment bank - in the same month Russia assumed control over 20% of U.S. uranium under Hillary Clinton's State Department. But that was 2010. Since then, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and allegedly hacked the 2016 U.S. election - which the Kremlin has been heavily sanctioned for.
Still, major questions remain over Putin's ability to actually enforce any agreement governing Iran's actions in Syria, even if he offers to stabilize the border with Israel by sending troops into the area. This has in turn caused some in Washington and among Western allies in Europe that Trump may prematurely tout the Helsinki meeting without actually achieving real concessions.
Russia may have supplanted America as the indispensable arbiter in various Mideast conflicts but there’s only so far Putin is willing to go to appease Trump when it comes to Iran, according to Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. -Bloomberg
“Trump can’t force Putin to turn away from Iran,” Kortunov said. “Putin is not willing to push Iran too hard and he cannot rely on Trump.”