Russia provided additional details Friday of what it said were agreements made at the presidential summit in Helsinki this week, shaping a narrative of the meeting with no confirmation or alternative account from the Trump administration.
Not surprisingly, the Russian story line tended to favor the Kremlin’s own policy prescriptions, at times contradicting stated administration strategy.
Russia already has sent formal proposals to Washington for joint U.S.-Russia efforts to fund reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria and facilitate the return home of millions of Syrians who fled the country, following “agreements reached” by President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, the three-star head of the Russian National Defense Management Center, said Friday.
Mizintsev, speaking in Moscow at a joint session of planners from the Defense and Foreign Ministries, said that Russia had already begun work on the ground in both areas but that additional resources and international coordination are needed.
Russia’s U.S. ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, said separately that Syria had been the primary topic in the Trump-Putin conversations, along with “the removal of the concerns that the United States has regarding the well-known claims about alleged interference in the elections.”
Administration officials have said repeatedly in the past that no U.S. or European reconstruction assistance will go to any part of Syria that remains under the expanding control of Russian-backed President Bashar al-Assad.
Asked about Russian claims that agreements had been reached, a National Security Council spokesman said: “As President Trump stated, the two sides agreed that their national security council staffs will follow up on the presidents’ meetings, and these discussions are underway. There were no commitments to undertake any concrete action, beyond agreement that both sides should continue discussions.”
The spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the NSC and its Russian counterparts were “continuing a working-level dialogue” to review suggestions by Putin for a new “cyber-group” and “restarting a counterterrorism group.” The two leaders also discussed forming groups of businesspeople and of retired diplomatic and military officials to provide ideas for cooperation, the administration has said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters at the United Nations after meetings on North Korea, said that “there was a discussion between President Trump and President Putin about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back,” but he did not provide details.
Pompeo said he was “happy” that Trump wants the Russian leader to visit Washington this fall to continue their talks. “I think it’s all to the good,” he told reporters.
Russia and Iran have enabled Assad to decimate Syrian opposition forces, once backed by the United States, with airstrikes and ground forces that have been blamed for much of the civilian displacement and deaths in Syria’s seven-year civil war. Withdrawal of Iranian forces “throughout the entirety of Syria” is at the top of the administration’s Iran strategy, most recently spelled out in a major speech by Pompeo in May, and persuading Russia to help accomplish that goal has been a key rationale for administration outreach to Moscow.
The Pentagon and U.S. allies in the region have pushed back at Trump’s stated desire to withdraw the relatively small U.S. military contingent currently in Syria, where it has organized and armed local proxy forces to fight against the Islamic State. Removal of U.S. forces on the ground, currently numbering about 2,200, is seen as reducing whatever leverage the United States has to press both Russia and Iran.
U.S. intelligence does not believe the Russians will deliver. “We have assessed that it’s unlikely Russia has the will or the capability to fully implement and counter Iranian decisions and influence” in Syria, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum. “Russia would have to make significantly greater commitments [in Syria] from a military standpoint, from an economic standpoint,” he said. “We don’t assess that they’re keen to do that.”
On Friday, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, said that Moscow has no intention of pressing Iran to withdraw and denied any strain between them.
“We are actively interacting with Iran, both on the ground and on the political track,” Dzhagaryan told Interfax, the Russian news agency. “Like Russia’s military presence” in Syria, he said, Iran’s military presence there “is legal because our military presence and Iran’s is taking place at the request of the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
To the extent they focused on Syria during their Helsinki news conference, both Trump and Putin said they were working to address Israel’s concerns about Iranian forces close to its border, where Assad is fighting to reclaim a remaining pocket of opposition-held territory in southwest Syria.
The Kremlin press service announced Friday that Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had spoken by telephone, as had their defense ministers. Russia’s ambassador to Israel said they had reached “an understanding” on the withdrawal of “certain well-known armed units . . . so many kilometers” from Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Interfax reported.
Netanyahu’s office said only that the two spoke about developments in the region and that he had “noted that Israel will continue to act against the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.”
Coats was among several senior national security officials who have said they have not yet been briefed on the Helsinki summit. While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with Trump on Thursday, other top military officials are still expecting a readout from the president or his national security adviser, John Bolton, next week. Pompeo, who participated in an expanded meeting with aides after the one-on-one between Trump and Putin, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, provided a preliminary briefing to allied diplomats in Moscow following the summit. On Thursday, representatives in Washington from the “Five Eyes” countries — Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand — who are part of a multilateral intelligence agreement with the United States, were briefed by an NSC official who reassured them that “no agreements were made” in Helsinki and no “negotiations” took place, according to one attendee.
Ukraine also was discussed in the meeting. The crisis in Ukraine has been a particularly sensitive issue for U.S. allies, given Trump’s previous suggestion that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, should belong to Moscow.
Pompeo had told Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, in a separate meeting in Helsinki that Russia’s pointsman for the Ukraine, Vladislav Surkov, needed to engage constructively with U.S. envoy Kurt Volker. The two men have struggled to agree on the introduction of United Nations peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine, where government forces continue to battle Russian-backed separatists.
At the NSC briefing for allies, an NSC official did not mention what Putin said Thursday was his suggestion to Trump that a referendum be held in the separatist regions of Ukraine. On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the Trump administration is “not considering supporting a referendum.”
Speaking earlier Friday at Moscow’s Valdai Discussion Club, Antonov, the Russian ambassador who this week has been a primary conduit for Russian claims about the summit, said that “the Ukrainian issue was not at the center” of the Trump-Putin talks, Interfax reported.
John Hudson contributed to this report.