Despite Constraints, Trump’s Meeting With Putin Could Still Prove Damaging

The US president’s freedom of action towards Russia is constrained by Congress, and his policies towards Moscow remain unclear. But the meeting in Helsinki could nonetheless put further strain on Western cohesion.

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Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet during the APEC summit in Vietnam on 11 November 2017. Photo via Getty Images.

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet during the APEC summit in Vietnam on 11 November 2017. Photo via Getty Images.

The G7 meeting in Quebec last month must have delighted Vladimir Putin for its bad tempered display of ill feeling between President Donald Trump and his Western colleagues. Trump’s apparently unscripted suggestion that Russia should be asked to rejoin the group, because there is a world to be run, was no doubt a welcome sign for Putin of Trump’s mood in the run-up to the NATO summit on 11-12 July, the US president’s visit to the UK after it, and finally their bilateral meeting in Helsinki on 16 July.

The overall bedrock and purpose of Trump’s policies towards Russia are not clear. The US president has only recently retaliated, in effect against Russia as well as Assad, in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and taken a leading part in joint action following the attempted poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury.

Oddly, however, Trump is also on record as questioning whether the Russians were really involved in that attack. He has consistently expressed his admiration for Putin personally. He has claimed both during and after his election campaign that he is well qualified to establish what he sees as a much needed closer relationship with Russia in concert with Putin.

Trump’s self-esteem as to his capacity to reach imaginative agreements with other dominant persons will no doubt have been boosted by his meetings in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Frustration over the ‘witch hunt’, as Trump terms it, headed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller investigating possible Russian involvement with Trump’s team in 2016 will also be on the president’s emotional map as he works his way through the NATO summit, his visit to the UK and his 16 July encounter with Putin himself.

Given that, for all the popular acclaim for Russia’s hosting the football World Cup tournament, there is no sign of change or flexibility in Russian foreign or domestic policies for the United States to work on, the Helsinki meeting ought to prove to be no more than a resumption of what arguably should be regular and expected meetings between the presidents of the United States and Russia, in bad times as well as good.

But Trump may want more than this, and Putin has his own agenda to advance, notably acceptance of Russia’s rights as a great power, in Ukraine not least. The mere fact of a Trump–Putin meeting on 16 July has prompted speculation as to a possible shift in US policies towards Russia, and that something concrete will sooner or later result.

The run-up to the NATO summit, along with the meeting itself, would normally provide for discussion between the United States and its allies as to American hopes and intentions for the Helsinki meeting. There has as yet been no public account of what may have been discussed during US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s recent visit to Moscow.

A long standing list of apparently plausible potential areas for cooperation with Moscow exists, notably terrorism, cyber security, and arms control, as well as working towards a solution of the problems in Ukraine and Syria. But for a number of reasons, these suggestions look impractical, at any rate without work on the agendas needed to underpin them. There has not been time to elaborate such material before 16 July if real ‘bargains’ are to be agreed, not just optimistic proclamations. Congressional approval would in any case be needed if there were any question of America’s Ukraine-related sanctions being lifted.

The management and resulting tone of the NATO summit, together with that of Trump’s visit to the UK, will inevitably play an important part in the Helsinki outcome. The present summit agenda rests on a common understanding of the right posture for the Alliance in response to Russian ambitions, and the need to strengthen it.

President Trump’s attitude towards NATO has however been variable, and affected by the question of how far other member countries may be ready to step up their financial and military contributions to the alliance. There is no obvious sign that he and other senior Americans are mollified by European responses so far. The UK’s claim for example to be spending 2% of GDP is viewed with some scepticism in Washington. Trump will presumably press his case while he is in Brussels and after that in London, perhaps forcefully.

The overall risk is that while definitive and productive outcomes on 16 July are improbable, and while Russian pretensions and objectives have not changed, the international context will be shifted nonetheless. Any comments, perhaps made in irritated haste – that, for instance, could be held to imply a Russian right to have incorporated Crimea into itself, to justify Moscow’s influence over breakaway provinces in Ukraine, that Ukraine or Georgia should from now on be refused NATO membership, or that NATO should no longer seek to realize its military presence in central Europe or the Baltic states – would be dangerous for Western cohesion and the trust that upholds it.