Trump and Putin: a meeting of the minds?
28 Jun 2018|

Donald Trump is now expected to hold a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin possibly as early as next month. His self-assessment of the success of his meeting with Kim Jung-un is probably a factor. President Putin has said that he’d be open to a meeting ‘whenever Washington is ready for such a summit’. Trump’s presence at the upcoming NATO gathering in Brussels over 11–12 July might provide a good opportunity for the summit meeting, which could be held in Vienna or Helsinki. There are many important issues that would under normal circumstances warrant such a summit.

Summits are generally arranged to address problems in bilateral relations that only national leaders have the authority to resolve, or common threats to their security that require an agreement on the way forward at the highest level. In the 23 Cold War–era summits between 1953 and 1991, US presidents and Soviet leaders dealt with issues ranging from German reunification and proxy wars to nuclear and chemical arms control—all against the background of potential nuclear conflict.

It’s easy to see why Trump met with Kim. North Korea’s prospects were bleak under sustained sanctions and the accelerating economic gap with the South would eventually have undermined the Kim regime. The US faced an unpredictable nuclear-armed state with a growing capability to target the US mainland. The Trump administration’s security and defence policy documents outline a more dire threat from Russia.

The US sees Russia’s international activities being designed ‘to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests’ and ‘to undermine the legitimacy of democracies’. The December 2017 US National Security Strategy also declares, ‘Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments.’

Moreover, the Trump administration says that Russia ‘interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world’. Russia’s ‘ambition and growing military capabilities’ are creating ‘an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing’. Through its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia ‘demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region’.

The 2018 US National Defense Strategy claims that Russia aims ‘to shape a world’ consistent with its ‘authoritarian mode’ and that it ‘pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbours’. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis depicts an ideological struggle where Putin desires to ‘diminish the appeal of the western democratic model’ and ‘undermine America’s moral authority’. All very disquieting for the Americans.

Among other topics Trump could explore is the Russia–China relationship. The NSS labels the two states as strategic competitors of the US, noting that ‘China and Russia aspire to project power worldwide’. Indeed, Russia’s growing closeness with China, especially in the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is of geopolitical concern to many observers.

This SCO bloc now includes India and Pakistan as well as the Central Asian ’stans. Iran and Mongolia have observer status. Its membership now covers the Eurasian continent from the Pacific to the Black Sea and the Eastern border of Europe, plus South and West Asia. Bolstered by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, it is an emerging geostrategic presence that’s committed to, among other things, ‘practical interaction in the political, security, trade and economic areas’. Given the pace of geopolitical transition, the US president should be trying to gauge the ambitions of this organisation.

In normal times and under previous administrations, these alarming assessments—which the presumably the administration accepts—would be sufficient for a president to want to personally confront a counterpart and make clear that this behaviour can’t continue. Any former president would make clear to Putin that Russia’s foreign policy aims and its strategic objectives, as understood in these policy documents, are inimical to the US and its allies and therefore unacceptable.

However, the prospect of a Trump–Putin summit comes with a number of apprehensions. Foremost must be the capacity of Trump to conduct such complex business with the experienced, subtle and capable Putin. The Russian president has flagged that he wishes to discuss the ‘renewed arms race’, a subject in whose details he is undoubtedly steeped.

Trump’s inability to speak on complex issues in a coherent, connected and logical way has been patently clear over his time in office. Even if he did comprehend the ins and outs of the issues, his clumsy syntax and limited vocabulary would test any interpreter over an extended period. The geopolitical, strategic and security issues that might come up between Putin and Trump will be technical and complex with broad implications.

Also worrying, especially for the US’s European allies, will be Trump’s utterances on the justification of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on the basis of linguistic affinity, and his expressed desire for Russia to be readmitted to international forums before any withdrawal from the Ukraine.

What he might concede to Putin inadvertently through ignorance, incompetence or lack of preparation is frightening. Furthermore, Trump’s predilection for playing to his domestic political base could mean that he’ll be more focused on leveraging the outcomes of the meeting to discredit the Mueller investigation.

In modern times, a number of US presidents—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush—have employed summits to manage strategic relations with their Russian counterparts. Between them they managed to avoid a conventional war in Europe, prevent global nuclear war, and shape much of the contemporary world.

It remains to be seen what the current president might achieve. But the contemporary interests of the NATO allies that stood with the US through those years may not command his attention at any summit.