President Donald Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland for one-on-one talks on July 16, the White House announced Thursday. The news has everyone talking about what the two will discuss and what impact the meeting might have on key U.S. foreign policy issues.
No matter what — if anything — comes of the meeting (which was called for by Putin), we can be sure that Trump will claim it as a victory, possibly of historic proportions. That’s what he did after the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which has thus far yielded little more than a vague agreement on previously stated positions.
ThinkProgress spoke to Yuval Weber, a fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to hear his take on what to expect out of this bilateral meeting:
Trading Syria for Ukraine
Weber said that while President Trump’s desire is to meet with Russia without preconditions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an agenda.
“From the get-go, Trump wanted to get the United States out of Syria and to minimize that particular fight,” said Weber. Putin, meanwhile, he said, entered into Syria to project power in the region but also to have something (its presence in Syria) to trade away on Ukraine, which is far more important to Russia.
In other words, Putin knew that the Middle East would be more important to the United States. Ukraine matters more to Russia, which wants its recognition of Crimea (Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014) as part of the Russian Federation, sanctions relief, and the Minsk accord to favor Russian interests over Kiev’s.
Trading one for the other, said Weber, would make the meeting “a smashing success” for Putin.
If the United States can identify its preferred outcomes in Syria, and if Russia can at least superficially deliver those things, the desired outcomes will no doubt involve the removal of Iranian forces from the country.
“Because that would fulfill Trump’s anti-Iran position with the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the nuclear deal from which Trump pulled out], it would fulfill Israel’s security interests, which, in the absence of a clear and identifiable Syria strategy, what we have right now is Israel’s policy in Syria,” said Weber.
If Putin can deliver “less Hezbollah and less Iran” along Syria’s border with Israel, and can promise greater stability in Syria, the United States is likely to accommodate Russia’s preferences on Crimea and Ukraine.
What about all the election meddling and collusion?
Let us not forget that this is still an ongoing story: It is broadly accepted that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, and several people close to the president are being investigated for possible collusion with Russian agents.
What are we to make of this meeting with Putin at this time? Will President Trump press Putin on this? Can he press Putin on this?
“I’ll quote our current National Security Advisor John Bolton, who said, ‘Vladimir Putin looked Donald Trump in the eye and lied about election meddling,'” said Weber, referring to Bolton’s take on a 2017 meeting Trump had with Putin at the G-20 Summit in Germany.
“Trump asked, Putin denied it, and Trump said that was good enough. But, of course, the issue hasn’t gone away,” he added. “So now Trump will directly ask Putin in a bilateral summit, ‘Did you meddle in our elections’ and Putin will very solemnly say that he did not. The point is to raise it, and put it away.”
Trump seems to want to take Putin at his word, though:
Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election! Where is the DNC Server, and why didn’t Shady James Comey and the now disgraced FBI agents take and closely examine it? Why isn’t Hillary/Russia being looked at? So many questions, so much corruption!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2018
So, asking the question one more time ought to settle the matter for good, right?
How Putin might play Trump
Before heading to Helsinki to meet Putin, Trump will be in Belgium for two days, on July 11 and 12, for a NATO meeting, and Weber predicted he will “harangue everyone about not paying enough for defense, you know, because he doesn’t identify how NATO actually works.”
….Germany pays 1% (slowly) of GDP towards NATO, while we pay 4% of a MUCH larger GDP. Does anybody believe that makes sense? We protect Europe (which is good) at great financial loss, and then get unfairly clobbered on Trade. Change is coming!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2018
Trump is then scheduled to go to the United Kingdom, where the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Julia, will no doubt come up, and he will likely be asked to press Putin on the issue.
The president will not like this, said Weber, and in this state of feeling very put upon, he will go to see Putin, where he will be made to feel “like a star.”
“After the G7, Kim Jong-un let Trump feel like a star. And when Trump feels like the most important person in the room, that’s when he’s much more amenable to whatever big ideas others have,” said Weber, referring to the incredibly contentious summit that took place in Canada earlier this month.
In Singapore, Trump and Kim only reiterated U.S. and North Korean negotiating positions held for roughly 30 years, or, as Weber puts it, “They agreed to agree to what they’ve already to agreed before.”
Similarly, any stated “peace in Ukraine” agreement will be nebulous and implementable as a treaty, so look for a general statement at the Helsinki meeting, as opposed to something solid.
Putin is unlikely to make any asks that won’t be deliverable — because asking for anything too specific or unlikely (like dropping the sanctions against Russian oligarchs) will make Putin look weak, while making Trump look equally bad. Making Trump look good, said Weber, is “critical to Putin’s diplomatic initiative.”
Forget about the nukes
Putin has expressed interest in extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in three years, but it’s unclear whether the Trump administration has any appetite for that at this point.
Weber points out that weapons negotiations are very complicated, and that President Putin is probably aware of the fact that Trump “may not be aware of those things,” which means the debate will boil down to “nuclear weapons: good or bad?”
“And Trump says that these are good because the United States has the most,” said Weber. “So, are you gonna get the guy who doesn’t know what the nuclear triad (the United States’ air, land, and sea nuclear defense systems) is to talk about weapons reductions?”