President Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he will probably be meeting in July with Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcome news that can lead to an improvement America’s national security. Whoever is president of the United States needs to devote considerable attention to relations with Russia because of that country’s importance.
President Trump told reporters that his meeting with Putin will probably take place in Helsinki, Finland or Vienna, Austria, while he is on a trip to Europe.
The U.S. and Russian presidents have spoken to each other eight times on the telephone and twice in person, the last time in November on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vietnam.
A Trump-Putin summit is sure to create a wall of resistance in Washington from critics who say President Trump has not been tough enough with Russia and who will inevitably raise the issue of possible collusion between Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race. President Trump has repeatedly denied such collusion, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to examine the issue of Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election.
President Trump should ignore the inevitable criticism because a summit with Putin would be a critical chance to stabilize a relationship with Moscow that desperately needs to be improved.
U.S.-Russia relations have not been this strained since perhaps the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration deployed Pershing land-based missiles in Europe as a deterrence measure against the Soviet Union.
The promises of a warming of U.S.-Russia relations during the Obama administration's first term have long deteriorated into acrimony and adversarial competition between the world’s two largest nuclear armed powers.
Multilateral bodies such as the NATO-Russia Council that were formed to encourage regular cooperation have become stagnant and unproductive. Traditional lines of communication at the United Nations Security Council are dampened by severe disagreements on international security issues as diverse as the war in Syria to political developments in the Balkans.
The return of Putin to the Russian presidency in 2012 has worsened the improved relations the U.S. was able to establish with Russia during Dmitri Medvedev’s tenure as the nation’s leader.
While dire, the freeze in the U.S.-Russia relationship is not an irreversible phenomenon. Key issues dividing the nations remain Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; Moscow’s military and economic support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea; Russian support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad; and more than a dozen assassinations of Russian dissidents in Britain.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration has no option other than to deal with Putin’s Russia to the best possible extent. Russia is a major force in today’s global environment, and no amount of economic sanctions or travel restrictions will make it disappear.
Those in Washington who argue for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the Kremlin believe that diplomatic pressure and economic strangulation alone will be enough of an incentive to persuade Putin to change his behavior. That hypothesis, however, has proven to be wrong.
After four years of U.S.-led multilateral economic sanctions, the expulsion of Russia from the G-8 group of advanced economies, and enhanced military readiness on NATO’s eastern frontier, Russia’s foreign policy has remained static.
While Presidents Trump and Putin would not resolve all the mistrust and problems plaguing the bilateral relationship overnight, a meeting would at least provide both leaders with an opening to shift the narrative and determine whether there is any room whatsoever for constructive collaboration.
Fortunately, there are issues of mutual concern that Presidents Trump and Putin would be wise to address.
The New START nuclear arms reduction treaty signed in 2010 is scheduled to expire in 2021 if the U.S. and Russia can’t agree on a five-year extension. New START has served the nonproliferation and national security interests of both nations, a reality reflected in the fact that no treaty-breaking violations have occurred since the agreement was put into effect.
The treaty offers both the U.S. and Russia a valuable insight into one another’s nuclear arsenals as well as intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Putin has expressed an interest in extending New START rather than allowing it to expire – a view that correlates with President Trump’s worries about a new arms race. A mutual extension of the treaty would therefore be an easy but substantive win and could very well lay the groundwork for more comprehensive arms control talks in the future.
The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is another subject on which Washington and Moscow’s goals converge. The U.S. position calling for North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and infrastructure has long been aligned with Moscow across Republican and Democratic administrations.
While it is true that Russian ports are being used by North Korean ships to conduct illicit trade in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, it is also true that Moscow is thus far supportive of President Trump’s personal diplomacy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Putin himself referred to President Trump’s direct channel with the North Korean leader as a “brave and mature” one, a refreshing break from 25 years of the status quo. A meeting with Putin would be a chance for President Trump to press the Russian leader on whether his words are sincere.
There is considerable alarm that the multilateral pressure campaign on North Korea will loosen now that diplomacy is ongoing. With Putin at the table, President Trump can push him on the numerous instances of lax enforcement of the trade embargo on the North.
Most importantly, a Trump-Putin dialogue can be the first step towards chipping away at a relationship that has been suffering from miscommunication and polarization for years. The anti-Russian attitude in Washington and the inherent cynicism regarding the U.S. government in Moscow are making it incredibly difficult for diplomats and officials on both sides to work together on anything.
The longer the antagonism lasts, the deeper the politicization and harder it will be to arrest the decline. If there is one objective for Presidents Trump and Putin during a prospective summit, it is to condition the elites in America and Russia to the notion that pragmatism and selective engagement is a win-win for all.
The Trump administration, of course, must be clear-eyed about Putin’s motives going into a summit. The White House must also prepare itself for the alternative scenario – that dialogue collapses and the Russians redouble their current activities that are causing us problems.
There are no guarantees in diplomacy, but talking with one’s adversaries is a demonstration of strength, flexibility, and responsibility – not weakness. Failing to take advantage of one of the most effective tools in the U.S. national security toolbox – a face-to-face meeting between leaders – would be squandering an important opportunity that does not come around often.