On Monday, President Trump will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for a much-anticipated summit in Helsinki, just a few days after the indictment of 12 Russian individuals involved in the hacking of the 2016 election. The meeting is fraught with risks, uncertainties, and few potential benefits.
There is nothing wrong in principle with meeting with the Russian President: diplomacy entails talking to your enemies, and, as Barack Obama noted in a 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, talking to our adversaries in no way implies rewarding them. The question is what you say, and how you follow it up. Many observers have noted President Trump’s kid-gloves approach toward Putin and frequent moral equivocation (“we’re not so innocent”) between the United States and Russia. Just this week, he called the meeting with Putin the “easiest” part of his trip to Europe, which included the NATO summit and a visit to the United Kingdom. Typically, it should be the other way around.
Some see Trump’s warm rhetoric as driven by his alleged collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election, or even as evidence that Russians possess kompromat against the American President. But there is no need to reach for conspiracy theories to explain Donald Trump’s attempts at cozying up to Putin. Trump is not the first U.S. President to claim that he can solve the Russia problem: every U.S. President since the end of the Cold War thought that he could succeed where his predecessor failed. Just as previous Presidents—and many other European leaders—Trump is overestimating the sway a warm personal relationship with Putin can have. He is also overestimating the extent to which Russia is capable of delivering on its promises. At the end of the day, Russia is in a position of dependency vis-à-vis the West, not vice versa.
Trump should learn from others’ mistakes, especially the failure of Barack Obama’s famous “Reset” policy. America’s fraught relationship with Russia is not the result of misunderstanding, failed dialogue, or poor personal relations between leaders. Rather, it is the result of an entrenched divergence in interests. To put it bluntly, Vladimir Putin has staked his legitimacy on restoring Russian greatness on the world stage. This entails either confrontation with the United States, or the restoration of a kind of world order where strategic matters would be solved between the leaders of “great powers.” This is an absurd play for a country with the GDP of Spain. The reality is that in Helsinki, the United States has all the leverage, while Putin has little to offer.
What could a bad deal in Helsinki look like?
As reported by the New Yorker, American allies in the Middle East—Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—have privately lobbied the Trump Administration for a “Ukraine for Syria” deal. On paper, it looks promising: without committing additional resources in Syria (a red line for President Trump, like his predecessor), America would get Russia to cooperate in Syria on achieving U.S. strategic objectives: fighting ISIS and pushing back against Iranian influence.
But there is no deal to be made with Russia in Syria: just ask John Kerry who tried countless times to find an arrangement with Moscow after American inaction invited Russian intervention in 2015. Or ask former French president François Hollande, who flew to Moscow after the 2015 Paris attacks to try, unsuccessfully, to rally Russia into a large anti-ISIS coalition. Russia has neither the will nor the ability to kick Iran out of Syria. Optimistic experts, often close to the Obama Administration, predicted in 2015 that Russia’s intervention in Syria would drive a wedge into its relationship with Iran: our adversaries are working for our own interests, the wishful thinking went. Rather, both have worked together to shore up Assad’s regime and impose their own political solution in Syria.
Still, Trump could be tempted to believe Vladimir Putin’s promises and in return offer concessions in Ukraine. What can Trump actually do? On some matters, much less than you might think: Congress, through the passage of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, has stripped the Administration of the authority to unilaterally lift sanctions. As Melinda Haring notes: “If Trump wanted to walk back the sanctions, he would need to submit a report to Congress saying that Russia has implemented the Minsk Agreements—the ceasefire agreement that Russia has continually violated—or that Russia’s aggressive and expansionist foreign policy has massively changed, which it hasn’t and won’t.”
But he is far from completely hamstrung. European allies have closely studied the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un where the President suspended military exercises with its South Korean ally in exchange of an elusive promise of disarmament from Pyongyang. Could Trump make a similar move with America’s Eastern European allies? He could announce a drawdown of the European Defense Initiative (to which Congress committed $6.3 billion in funding for 2019), a reduction of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic States (which have been constantly reinforced on Trump’s watch), or renege on the approval of weapons sales to Ukraine.
Despite reassurances from his top advisers and staff, the President has remained ambiguous on the issue of Crimea, after reports that he privately repeated Russian talking points (“Crimea is Russian because everyone there speaks Russian”) to allies. The United States doesn’t even need to officially recognize Crimea’s annexation: if, in his meeting with Putin, Trump repeats, or tweets, his comments that Crimea has always been Russian, that will amount to a de facto acknowledgment that Russian occupation of Crimea is legitimate. A major pillar of transatlantic sanctions policy will be weakened, inviting Europeans to think twice before renewing their own sanctions. Furthermore, the message will be clear, to Russia as well as other potential aggressors: be patient because America does not have the attention span to defend its principles. No doubt China will feel encouraged to be bolder in the South China Sea. And while there is no solution in sight for Crimea, there is a strong precedent for holding firm on nonrecognition. During the Cold War, even at times of détente with the Soviet Union, the United States never recognized Soviet occupation of the Baltic States.
What should Trump do in his meeting with Putin? First, the President should be well aware that he holds all the cards in the relationship. He should use NATO’s continued unity on increasing defense spending, Western sanctions on Russia, and even the recent Department of Justice indictment as leverage in his conversations with Putin. He should also exploit Russia’s weak economic position and dependence on hydrocarbon exports to send the message that there is a lot more the United States can do to make it harder on the Kremlin to profit from its energy wealth. President Trump was right to lambast the Nord Stream 2 project during his meetings with NATO allies in Brussels. The pipeline is critically important to Russia—it will allow Russia to cut off Ukraine from transit fees while making Europe more dependent on Russian gas. U.S. sanctions on the project would kill it, and this is something Putin very much wants to avoid.
Trump should also be skeptical of any Russian “olive branch” on Syria. Russia is incapable and unwilling to enforce the agreement Putin appears to be brokering with Iran and Israel. Russia also has no incentive to stop supporting Iran’s malicious activities in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In Ukraine, the Trump administration has made it clear that US commitment to supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains strong with the delivery of Javelins, continued military support for Ukraine, and insistence that Russia hold up its end of the Minsk agreement. Trump should not give up this leverage in Ukraine, but rather use it to pressure Putin to bring real peace to the hot war still raging in the Donbas.
The idea of a “grand bargain,” as allegedly pitched by our Middle East allies, is an illusion. For Moscow, Ukraine and Syria are two distinct conflicts with little in the way of grand strategy to connect them. In addition, the reported Middle East deal is an illusion as well: Putin is happy to make promises, but, as past experience has shown, he is unlikely to keep them.