Trump’s Meeting With Putin Has Allies on Edge

Russian president Vladimir Putin must have watched his US counterpart Donald Trump’s destructive progress through Brussels and London last week with his trademark mirthless smirk. Mr Trump’s undermining of America’s ties with its European partners plays straight into Mr Putin’s hands. On Monday, the two men come face-to-face in Helsinki for a meeting Mr Trump has suggested may be the “easiest” of his European tour, but which is the most important US-Russian summit in years. If the US president treats Mr Putin like an old friend after spending a week scorning longtime allies, he could do grave damage to international security.
Mr Trump takes the same transactional approach to geopolitics as to real estate, seeing it as a series of deals. His success, at least in his own terms, at dealmaking with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un last month seems to have emboldened him to try the same with Mr Putin. He should avoid any attempt at a grand bargain. As with Mr Kim, it would risk ceding much more than the Russian president would deliver in return.
The agreement to meet Mr Putin — who has done nothing to address the issues for which the US and EU have sanctioned Russia since 2014 — is a big concession in itself. Mr Trump is going ahead with the summit despite the US indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers on Friday for allegedly hacking Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.
The biggest prize Mr Trump could offer, of unilaterally lifting sanctions, is no longer in his gift. A law passed last year prevents him from doing so without congressional approval. But, particularly since the two men will initially meet without aides, there are still things Mr Trump could offer Mr Putin that would badly undercut his allies.
The US president cannot unilaterally recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. But he is reported to have told last month’s G7 summit in Canada that the peninsula rightly belongs to Russia “because everyone there speaks Russian”. Repeating such a statement to Mr Putin or, still worse, at a press conference, would greatly damage the efforts of the pro-western Ukrainian government to counter Russian aggression. It could undermine the security of the Baltic states and others with minority Russian-speaking populations. It would be seen as a signal, too, by countries such as China which have territorial claims on neighbours.
Mr Putin, meanwhile, has been meeting Iranian officials in an apparent bid to offer Mr Trump a deal in which Iranian forces would pull out of Syria. But Russia’s president cannot guarantee to deliver such a pledge. Senior Iranians visiting Moscow last week scoffed at the idea they would leave Syria.
The two men would do better to use this first summit meeting for establishing trust and reaching accords on some less pressing issues. One priority should be agreeing to start work on renewing the crumbling international arms control architecture — and on toning down the often overheated nuclear rhetoric from both leaders. Yet even here Mr Trump, who said on Friday he wanted to “substantially reduce” nuclear weapons, should not rush into anything. He should adopt the approach of the predecessor with whom he sometimes tries to compare himself, Ronald Reagan, in engaging on nuclear arms, but with caution.
Today’s US leader, of course, has his own ways of doing things and may not heed even his closest advisers. It is a strange new reality of US-European relations in the Trump era that US allies will not be looking to the summit for breakthroughs. Their measure of success will be whether the US president avoids doing too much harm.

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