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By Stephen Schwalbe
Contributor, In Homeland Security
On July 16 in Helsinki, Finland, President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for their first official summit. Unlike previous summits between world leaders, only Trump and Putin and two translators were present; no aides or note-takers were in the room. The meeting was scheduled for 90 minutes, but it lasted for two hours.
Since only the four people in the room know precisely what was discussed, it’s realistic to assume that the three common issues the two presidents discussed were Ukraine, Syria and a strategic forces treaty.
(What was also likely discussed was Russian interference in U.S. elections, but that will not be addressed here.)
The Dilemma of the Crimean Peninsula
There are two parts to this dilemma, the Crimean peninsula and eastern Ukraine. Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula on February 20, 2014, and annexed it as part of Russia within 30 days. Crimea is 10,400 square miles with a population of about 2.2 million people, mostly ethnic Russians. Russia’s reason for the invasion and annexation was that the Ukraine national government was making a significant turn toward joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
That was a red line for Russia. At risk was the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters at Sevastopol, even though Russia had a valid lease to operate the base there through 2045.
This naval capability is critical for Russia’s national security because the Sevastopol base provides the most efficient and effective support for Russian naval forces stationed at Tartus, Syria, its permanent naval base on the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2016, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov sailed out of the Russian Northern Fleet headquarters in Severomorsk, Murmansk, adjacent to northern Finland, to support President Bashir al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian Civil War.
The 5,000-mile, one-way deployment did not go well. The carrier experienced propulsion problems during the voyage and multiple aircraft crashes in the Mediterranean Sea. This Northern Fleet operation demonstrated to the Russian leadership the critical importance of the Black Sea Fleet, stationed less than 1,000 miles from Syria.
When it comes to national security, no country sacrifices its military capabilities. Toward the end of World War II, the Soviet Red Army conquered the Kuril Islands, north of Hokkaido, which was the Soviet target for invading the Japanese home islands.
At the end of the war, the Soviet Union refused to return the Kuril Islands to Japan because the islands offered the Soviet Pacific Fleet a secure egress into the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, the Crimean peninsula offers the Russian Black Sea Fleet access to the Mediterranean. As such, expecting Russia to ever return the Crimea peninsula to Ukraine is unrealistic.
Most world leaders roundly condemned Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in part because it violated at least four treaties Russia had signed. In March of 2014, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the annexation by a vote of 100-11.
The annexation also led to Russia’s expulsion from the G8 economic group. Most European nations and the United States joined together to levy economic sanctions against Russia. The initial sanctions were targeted at the business interests of Russia’s oligarchy, particularly those in Putin’s inner circle. As a result, Russia’s general credit rating declined and Russian banks warned of a sanctions-induced recession.
On the other hand, oil industry experts estimated that the oil and natural gas reserves surrounding the Crimea peninsula were worth potentially trillions of dollars. Using the peninsula, Russia can route its South Stream oil and natural gas pipelines so they are less expensive to build and less vulnerable to potential sabotage.
For all these reasons, Crimea was not likely a major topic of discussion between Trump and Putin. In fact, Trump did not even mention it during the press conference following his meeting with Putin. (Curiously, it was Putin who brought it up!)
Russian Military Forces Invade Ukraine
Along with invading and annexing the Crimean peninsula in early 2014, Russian military forces invaded eastern Ukraine in the Donbass area, including Donetsk and Luhansk. In essence, Russia started a civil war in Ukraine to divert attention from its actions in the Crimean peninsula.
Throughout 2014, Russia moved military personnel and vehicles into eastern Ukraine, including T-72 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled field artillery, minelayers and armored personnel carriers. Most of the military personnel and equipment was unmarked so as not to tie the invasion directly to Russia.
However, in December 2015, Putin admitted that Russian military intelligence officers were indeed operating in Ukraine. In December 2017, Trump authorized defensive military equipment sales to Ukraine to combat the separatists and the Russians. This civil war is now at a virtual standstill.
International Community Condemned Russia for Violating Ukraine Sovereignty
The international community roundly condemned Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, and many nations levied new economic sanctions on Russia, including the European Union and the United States. These sanctions caused the collapse of the Russian ruble and precipitated a domestic financial crisis.
European leaders, Putin and the Ukrainian leadership held two diplomatic conferences in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015. Despite reaching two agreements, neither agreement appeared to stick, and the conflict continued.
The invasion of eastern Ukraine certainly was a topic of discussion between Trump and Putin. Although we don’t know precisely what they decided, the best possible solution for Ukraine and the U.S. would be for Russia to withdraw its forces and its support for the separatists so the conflict could end as soon as possible.
In exchange for Russia abandoning its eastern Ukraine military operations, the EU and the U.S. could lift the economic sanctions triggered by the invasion. As well, the U.S. could assure Putin that NATO would stop pursuing Ukraine membership. This could be perceived as a reset of U.S.-Russia relations and demonstrate that Trump and Putin can work out contentious international issues.
What to Do with Syria?
The Syrian Civil War started innocuously enough with the Arab Uprising in 2011. As the conflict grew, more and more factions got involved, including anti-Syrian rebel groups, Kurdish military groups, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, the United States and Russia, among others.
The U.S. was involved primarily to defeat the Islamic State, which consisted of large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. Now that the Islamic State has been virtually defeated in both countries, U.S. involvement consists of supporting the anti-Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces.
Russia, Turkey and Iran would like to see the U.S. remove its forces from Syria as soon as possible. In fact, Trump has indicated he would like to do just that.
As such, Syria likely was a topic of the Trump-Putin talks. To entice Trump to remove U.S. forces, Putin might have offered to remove Iran and Hezbollah from Syria as well. Given that Syria is not likely to turn to the West following its civil war, minimizing Iranian influence in Syria would be the best the U.S. could hope for.
This would also appeal to the Israeli leadership, which views Iran as an existential threat. Removing Iranian influence from neighboring Syria would also be in Israel’s national security interest.
SALT II Talks Also Were Probably Discussed in Helsinki
The only current strategic weapon agreement between the U.S. and Russia is the Strategic Offensive Weapons Reduction Treaty (SORT), which reduced each country’s strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200. This international agreement was signed by presidents Bush and Putin in Moscow on May 24, 2002.
That still leaves the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II) on the table. The SALT II Treaty was signed in January 1993 by presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin. It banned multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
However, on December 13, 2001, President Bush gave Russia notice that the U.S. was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. It was the first time in history that the United States had withdrawn from an international arms treaty. Washington did so in order to develop missile defense systems. In retaliation, Russia said it would no longer abide by the SALT II Treaty, which was ratified by the United States in 1996 and by Russia in 2000. Since Russia left the SALT II Treaty in 2001, most of its strategic missile force still has MIRV capability.
Trump told the international press that he and Putin discussed reviving the SALT II Treaty. However, the U.S. has already deployed anti-missile defense systems in Alaska and California. As such, removal of those sites is not negotiable.
The United States still maintains a MIRV capability on its Minuteman III missiles. Removing the MIRV capability on both sides to reduce the threat of a debilitating first strike is still in both countries’ national security interests. That move would seem to appeal to both Trump and Putin. It would make a great international show and give Trump some much-needed credibility.
The summit ended less than a week ago, so we will not know what was actually discussed and agreed to for some time, if ever. In the meantime, if agreements were made to resolve the Ukraine civil war, the Syrian civil war and the SALT II treaty, the Helsinki summit could turn out to be very significant for Russia, the United States and the world.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe was a former Soviet analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Cold War. He served as a Defense Attache in South Korea from 1995-97. Dr. Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University and an adjunct professor at Columbia College.