On July 16, 2018, President Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. This will be a risky encounter for the inexperienced American President.
To date, President Trump has fared badly in his bilateral summits. In last month’s meeting with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, President Trump received only a recycled North Korean promise to denuclearize. Further, President Trump granted North Korea the unilateral concession of a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises while receiving nothing in return.
The worst-case outcome from Singapore was a continuation of the status quo in the near-term. The consequences of a failed summit in Helsinki could be far more profound. Many more issues divide the United States and Russia than is the case with North Korea. The Congressional Research Service’s “Russia: Background and U.S. Policy” published on August 21, 2017 highlights six areas of concern to American policy makers:
- Increasingly authoritarian governance since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidential post in 2012;
- Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine;
- Violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty;
- Moscow’s intervention in Syria in support of Bashar al Asad’s government;
- Increased military activity in Europe; and
- Cyber-related influence operations that, according to the U.S. intelligence community, have targeted the 2016 U.S. presidential election and countries in Europe.
Nevertheless, the Republican Party of 2018 has adopted a stance toward Russia that is substantially softer than the Party took toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Alt-Right core of President Trump’s base has likely contributed to the Party’s accommodation of Russia. After all, the American Alt-Right movement shares some of the ethno-populist perspectives of Europe’s far-right parties to which Russia has been linked.
The CRS report observed:
In recent years, a new and increasingly evident ideological link has appeared between European far-right parties and the Russian leadership. Most of these far-right parties tend to be anti-establishment and anti-EU, and they often share some combination of extreme nationalism; a commitment to “law and order” and traditional family values; and anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, or anti-Islamic sentiments.
The combination of a soft Republican attitude toward Russia and President Trump’s having made unilateral concessions during bilateral discussions is a dangerous one. That combination suggests a heightened risk of such concessions during his one-on-one meeting with President Putin. Such concessions could take the form of a de-linking of American sanctions from Russia’s occupation of Crimea, greater tolerance of Russian influence over eastern Ukraine, de facto recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or a commitment to a rapid withdrawal of American troops from southwestern Syria.
Such outcomes would benefit Russia. They would do little to advance the interests of the United States and its allies. They would give Russia new incentives to pursue the kind of conduct that had produced those gains. Russia would very likely exploit just such a demonstration of American weakness. In an op-ed published in the July 5 issue of The Washington Post, Dennis Ross, who served in the Administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, explained:
Trump has made his own attempts to get somewhere with the Russians. On the margins of the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July 2017, he and Putin finalized a cease-fire agreement for southwestern Syria. Trump met again with Putin in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, where they issued another joint statement on Syria…
So how did the Russians act after that? Along with the Assad regime and the Iranians, they waged military campaigns that decimated and depopulated three of the four de-escalation areas. The fourth, the one Trump and Putin had agreed to in southwestern Syria, remained quiet — effectively freeing the Assad regime, with its Russian backers, to attack elsewhere.
Lately Assad and the Russians have turned their attention to southwestern Syria, bombing relentlessly.
What explains the unsatisfying results of President Trump’s engagements with Russia and North Korea?
The overriding problem is that President Trump knows very little about world affairs—far less than any of his recent predecessors. He has almost no interest in details concerning context, history, or contingencies. He is unwilling to devote meaningful time to substantive briefings and other forms of preparation. He is supremely confident in his own negotiating skills, even as he had never been tested on the world stage. He assumes that the differences between the United States and its rivals are more a matter of simple misunderstandings than the result of concrete substance. Moreover, he blames his predecessors for the existence of such differences. Thus, he believes that his one-on-one meetings can rapidly overcome those differences. Reflecting that thinking, President Trump told reporters just ahead of his departure to Europe (Politico.com):
So I have NATO, I have the U.K., which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have Putin. Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think? Who would think?
That calculation could not be more mistaken. Russia remains deeply hostile to the United States and the West. It seeks to expand its influence at the expense of the United States and the West. It is willing to violate international norms, use conventional force, and deploy asymmetric measures to achieve its ends. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip M. Breedlove discussed Russian strategy in the July/August 2016 edition of Foreign Affairs:
Because the Kremlin views the United States and other NATO members as its primary adversaries, it considers its relationship with the West a zero-sum game. It will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The Putin government will not allow any nation over which it has sufficient leverage to develop closer ties with the West—namely, by moving toward membership in the EU or NATO—and it will do everything in its power to sow instability in countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine…
What is more, Russia’s growing footprint in Syria offers Moscow the capability, if it chooses, to threaten U.S. and allied forces operating in the eastern Mediterranean and in the skies over Syria.
Even as a firm approach might initially exacerbate already substantial U.S.-Russia differences, a tough approach offers perhaps the best to cultivate near-term Russian restraint. Over time, Russian restraint could be followed by moderation. With moderation, there might be tangible diplomatic opportunity to begin to address some of the major issues that divide the United States and Russia. In contrast, hesitation or capitulation, even if carried out in the name of good will, would likely have damaging consequences.
So, will President Trump take a weak approach in his encounter with President Putin? Will he provide his Russian counterpart with unilateral concessions? Will he implicitly or explicitly recognize Russia’s illegitimate annexation of Crimea? As Trump so often says ahead of big meetings, “We will see what happens.”
What happens will be consequential.