In Helsinki on July 16 we’ll have the Trump-Putin summit for which the president has been pining.
Europe’s democratic leaders are nervous that President Trump will diss them at a preceding NATO summit in Brussels, then embrace the Russian strongman at the summit. They have good reason to worry: Trump denounced our allies at the June G-7 economic summit in Quebec, then sang the praises of North Korea’s murderous dictator in Singapore.
Clearly Trump feels more comfortable with despots than democrats. Summits with strongmen offer rich opportunity for spectacle and play to Trump’s myth that he is the world’s greatest deal-maker. But Singapore exposed his susceptibility to flattery that seemingly renders him oblivious to the big concessions he’s making.
At the summit, Trump will be dealing with a former KGB officer who thinks strategically and masters details, as opposed to the president’s focus on short-term tactics and hoopla. So there are big reasons to worry about what Trump may give Putin for free.
There’s nothing wrong in principle with U.S. and Russian leaders sitting down together – they’ve done it for decades. And there’s a heavy agenda of potential issues to put on the table, including Ukraine, Syria, arms control, North Korea.
But we already see signs of Trump giveaways: He insisted at the G-7 that Putin should be invited back to the onetime G-8, from which he was expelled after Russia invaded Ukraine. Never mind that Congress, and the Europeans, want to maintain sanctions on Russia because the Kremlin refuses to butt out of Ukraine.
Trump recently told reporters that the loss of Crimea was all the fault of President Barack Obama, as if Putin was blameless. Convinced of his own negotiating genius, he told Fox News, “If Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me at a table … I could say, ‘Would you do me a favor and get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor, would you get out of Ukraine?'”
So it’s essential to parse what the Russian leader seeks from this summit. I spoke by phone to two top Russian foreign policy analysts in Moscow about the Kremlin’s goals.
“Putin’s realistic expectation is to get nice, flowery statements about importance of relationship for world peace and agreement to renew dialogue across the board,” says foreign policy columnist and analyst Vladimir Frolov. “Trump has already accomplished a lot in Russia’s interest, and made it clear he regards Crimea as long ago and Obama’s fault. That is what Putin wants to hear.”
Putin understands that Congress and the Europeans will probably balk at lifting sanctions because Putin is unwilling to stop meddling in eastern Ukraine.
However, says Frolov, “The win for Putin is normalization of relations” between Moscow and Washington. If this drives a further wedge between Washington and its European allies, that further serves Putin’s long-term goals.
According to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Putin also wants to use a summit “to try to understand Trump’s intentions and way of thinking, especially when there is someone so unconventional.”
When it comes to concrete summit achievements, however, “I don’t know anyone who believes an agreement with Trump can work,” says Lukyanov. Russians see a difference between the strategic agreements they signed with Washington during the Cold War and Trump’s thinking. Trump’s idea of a deal, he contends, is one that “settles one particular issue and works as long as it’s seen as being beneficial. Even some deals with Trump, he might change it soon because he concludes it is bad.”
So Lukyanov doesn’t expect that Trump and Putin will resolve anything on Ukraine.
Frolov is equally pessimistic on Syria, which will be high on the agenda. He says Putin wants U.S. troops to leave Syria (a goal shared by Trump) but can’t deliver on the U.S. demand that Moscow push Iranian forces out of that country. “Putin will make noises,” says Frolov, “and can accommodate certain Israeli demands, like getting Iranian proxy forces [in Syria] some distance from Israel’s border.” However, Trump might be duped into unwise concessions, like a premature U.S. pullout that would betray Syrian Kurds and aid Iran.
On arms control, there are nuclear issues that need to be discussed, but Lukyanov fears that Trump and his team may not be up to the job. “Trump is totally an extraterrestial to the world of strategic stability and doesn’t listen to anybody,” he says. “In Russia there is much more developed expertise.”
Both these Russian experts believe Putin will make gains just by reestablishing himself as the leader of a great superpower across the table from Trump. These gains will be magnified if Trump quarrels with NATO before a fulsome embrace of Putin. “Obviously the Russians would be delighted because it would make NATO look unimportant,” says Frolov.
That would be another win for which the Kremlin pays zip.