When President Trump journeys to Hamburg, Germany, this week for the G-20 summit, he will lock eyes for the first time with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a meeting that, whatever its outcome, will almost certainly deepen the year-old controversy about their relationship. It comes amid multiple probes into Putin’s interference in our 2016 election, into Trump’s possible complicity with that interference, and Trump’s curious tolerance—even admiration—of Putin’s most dastardly deeds.
U.S. officials say Trump won’t raise the election antics in the conversation that they’ll break away from the crowded summit to hold. What they will talk about, for how long, and with what intentions, no one knows. Before he starts talking too much, Trump should discuss with his advisers—as any other American president would—what the current status of Russian–American relations is and what they would like it to be.
The two countries are not at war with each other, but nor are we entirely at peace. Some of our interests coincide or converge, some of them clash, but we have few forums for discussing them openly or in depth. Is that good or bad? Should Trump try to reopen more “normal” diplomacy? During the 2016 campaign, he often asked, with a shrug, what would be wrong with that.
To the dismay of some advisers, he would reportedly like to use the Hamburg meeting as a vehicle for lifting some of the sanctions and restoring some of the relations. He has asked his team to assemble a list of “deliverables”—concessions he could grant Putin, though it’s unclear in exchange for what. His advisers have argued that in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its incursions into Ukraine, and its hacking of an American election, that Trump should step up the pressure of sanctions, isolation, and—without inciting war—confrontation.
If there were a substantive case for improving relations, the clear evidence of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and the unabated perception of Trump as a Kremlin sympathizer have, ironically, made it harder for the two countries to go down that road: Any concessions, from either side, would be viewed—properly—with suspicion. Still, from an objective standpoint, whether Trump or Hillary Clinton or someone else were sitting in the White House, it would be neither feasible nor desirable for Washington to cut off all cooperation with Moscow and revert to a posture of total hostility.
History suggests that the two options—confrontation or cooperation—aren’t mutually exclusive. Even during the Cold War, when Russian–American relations were for the most part darker—and the stakes were higher—than they are now, the two governments pursued common paths when their interests allowed.
Most notably, they negotiated and signed more than a dozen treaties capping, reducing, or scrapping whole classes of nuclear weapons. Some of these negotiations were token stand-ins for diplomacy—officials could discuss the abstract equations of the nuclear balance at a time when it was politically impossible to talk about deeper fissures—but over time, the talks had real impact and, meanwhile, they offered opportunities for these officials, and a few presidents, to get to know one another and, in a couple of crucial cases, convince themselves that the other side wasn’t as threatening as they’d thought.
Even now, as relations have plunged to a post–Cold War low, some diplomatic forums persist. Most of the arms-control treaties are still in effect (a notable exception being the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which President George W. Bush abrogated in 2001) and the bilateral commissions created to monitor and raise issues about compliance with those treaties still meet. The United States and Russia remain among the most active member nations of a global counterterrorism force and of at least two organizations that monitor and take action to block the proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons. They are also among the six nations that negotiated—and continue to monitor and enforce—the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which even skeptics acknowledge is abiding by the deal’s terms.
There is a reason these forums endure: both nations have a vital interest in ensuring they endure. Both nations see terrorism, especially the jihadi variety (a particular problem on Russia’s southern borders), as a direct threat. Both oppose the spread of nuclear weapons; in some ways, Russia has historically been the stricter party on this issue. During the Cold War, Moscow wouldn’t let its Warsaw Pact allies develop their own nuclear weapons, in part out of fear they might brandish them as leverage for independence, whereas Britain and France built their own arsenals without much protest from Washington. The United States and Russia were also active in the six-power talks over North Korea’s nuclear program when those talks were going on; and if diplomacy is ever revived, they’ll both have to be involved for anything serious to happen. The same is true in Syria. Meanwhile, both sides have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet. Tempting as it might be, neither side can simply ignore the other.
So, quite aside from our current president’s dubious motives, there are good reasons for America to keep some avenues of diplomacy open, just as presidents have done in the past. Doing so doesn’t do the Russians any favors, or us any harm; it benefits us both in fairly equal measure.
But these reaffirmations don’t need to be proclaimed with fanfare or with hints of imminent sanctions relief or some other concession that Putin might put on the table. There were reasons for those sanctions—those that President Obama imposed and those that Congress recently tacked on—and Putin hasn’t backed off the policies that inspired them. He is still targeting Western democracies with information-warfare campaigns (of which computer hacking is just one part), and though he hasn’t pushed his troops deeper into Eastern Ukraine, he hasn’t withdrawn them either despite the 2015 Minsk accords, which demand an end to the fighting there.
Some of Trump’s advisers are nervous about the upcoming tête-à-tête in Hamburg. Trump is insisting on a formal sit-down with Putin, as opposed to the casual hallway conversation that the two countries’ presidents have often had during a brief break in the G-20 summit. As he’s shown in his meetings with President Xi Jinping of China and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Trump has a weakness for authoritarian leaders, especially those who know how to push his buttons—and Putin, the veteran KGB chief, is a master at button-pushing. Just as Xi managed to shape Trump’s views on the geopolitics of China, North Korea, and the South China Sea with 10-minute phone call, one can imagine Putin suavely explaining that Ukraine has long been a part of Russia or that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is all that’s protecting East and West alike from jihadi terror.
The risk that Putin will manipulate the president is even higher given that Trump doesn’t seem to be preparing much. Usually, before such an encounter, a president would assemble a meeting of his National Security Principals Committee—consisting of the relevant Cabinet secretaries, backed by the National Security Council staff—to hammer out an agenda and an outline of positions. Yet his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said last week, with an unsettling calmness. “It’s whatever the president wants to talk about.” The last time this happened, at a jovial meeting in the Oval Office, Trump gave away very sensitive intelligence secrets to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.
NSC meetings are where even confident presidents vet ideas and form policies. In 2014, shortly after Putin annexed Crimea, President Obama assembled the Principals Committee to discuss how to deal with this egregious violation of international norms. Imposing sanctions was one step they agreed to take. Another, less publicized, step was to withdraw from the Bilateral Presidential Commission. The BPC was a major part of the “reset” in U.S.–Russian relations that Obama put in motion in 2009 with Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president at the time, who was more Western-leaning than Putin proved to be when he resumed the office three years later. The BPC consisted of more than a dozen working groups—on arms control, scientific cooperation, the environment, business, and so forth—each headed by senior officials and staffed with technical experts.
This BPC accomplished a great deal (including another strategic arms-reduction treaty and Russia’s cancellation of an advanced air-defense missile sale to Iran), but the Crimea crisis, on top of Putin’s general belligerence, compelled Obama to withdraw from the forum. A few of the working groups—for instance, one on intelligence cooperation—never got off the ground. Other more technical forums—for instance, one on the International Space Station—continued without the BPC. (In fact, the new congressional sanctions make an exception for the U.S. space program since the Russians provide engines for some of NASA’s rockets.)
Should Trump revive the BPC or something like it, this may even be worth considering down the road, but not without resolution of the present conflicts and not at an impromptu, unprepped sit-down at the G-20. Let the issue be decided the same way that Obama decided it: in a meeting of the senior-most administration officials.
Part of the problem here is that there is no consensus among those officials on the basic elements of this question. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have one view (fairly hawkish), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has another (more open to relaxing sanctions), and the man who must make the final decision, President Trump—well, who knows what his position is? Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, recently told a congressional committee of his frustration with Trump’s refusal to so much as acknowledge—unlike the entire U.S. intelligence community and all the lawmakers, including Republicans, who have seen the classified materials—that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. It’s hard for a president to focus on a solution when he doesn’t recognize that there’s a problem.
There might be a simple explanation for Trump’s stubborn refusal to accept the word of his top spies and analysts, even as he parrots the most outlandish conspiracy theories spread by the likes of Fox News and Breitbart: If he admits that Russia messed with our democracy, he would have to do something about it. And for some reason, he clearly does not want to do something about it; he does not want to punish or further alienate Russia. Why he doesn’t is, of course, the mystery driving the investigations of several congressional committees, the FBI, and a special prosecutor. Several officials and outside analysts are worried that his same mysterious motives might drive the nation’s foreign policy.
Some Republicans say that recent events have proved Mitt Romney right when he claimed, back in the 2012 election campaign, that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” In fact, though, Romney was wrong then and now. There is nothing geographic (the “geo” in “geopolitical”) about the threat that Russia poses to America. Russia’s military, while stronger than it was a decade ago, has no strategic reach beyond a sliver of Eastern Ukraine and a base in Syria—the latter of which is its only base outside the former Soviet Union.
Romney made his comments in the context of opposing New START—the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty—which Obama and Medvedev had negotiated in the heyday of the reset (and which the Senate wound up ratifying by a wide margin). Romney and his neo-conservative advisers saw a new Cold War in the offing and pushed for engaging it with a massive U.S. arms buildup. But grim as U.S.–Russian tensions are, it is silly to talk of a new Cold War. The real Cold War was a competition—political, economic, ideological, and military—on a global scale. By contrast, Russia today has a faltering economy, a regional military at best, and no allies other than a few moribund tyrannical holdovers from Soviet times. Even its effort to build a former East bloc counterpart to the European Union fizzled.
But Putin is very clever at turning some of his weaknesses into strengths and exploiting them in campaigns of asymmetric conflict. Russian security agencies have long been adept at “active measures”—using propaganda, disinformation, and the tools of espionage to destabilize foreign enemies—and in the last decade, they have combined this art with cybertechnology. There are no longer Warsaw Pact armies capable of fighting NATO on the fields of Western Europe, but Putin and his aides are trying to use cyberwarfare to influence Western elections, weaken the European Union, and sever Europe’s trans-Atlantic ties with North America.
Responding to this campaign requires more than traditional military steps. Some of those measures are needed—to assure the easternmost NATO allies (for instance, the Baltic states) that they’ll be defended from attack. But for most of the contests in this new kind of warfare, toting up each side’s tanks, planes, ships, and soldiers is at best an incomplete measure of the balance of power. The instruments of coercion, influence, and diplomacy—still relevant tools of international relations in hard times—are more delicate, and must be honed with more sophistication, than ever.
There are also harder questions which no president has answered. For instance, how much do we—and can we—engage in cyber-retaliation? Responding in kind to Putin’s operations might mean a massive American propaganda campaign, the effects of which couldn’t be isolated to Russian audiences; they would reach American audiences too, which means they’d soon be debunked in our free press and denounced by enraged citizens (and rightly so).
Or we could reveal certain embarrassing facts about Putin, making it clear that, in doing so, we were retaliating to Putin’s campaign. The problem here is that Putin’s spies could then track where we got our information and shut down what might have been a valuable intelligence asset. (This may have happened when Obama revealed that Putin had ordered the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s email, after which three Russian officials were arrested.) This is one reason why, by law and long-standing practice, all U.S. cyberoffensive operations must be approved by the president. For better or worse, this president isn’t likely to approve an operation to counter Russia’s cyberattacks as long as he doesn’t admit that the attacks happened.
In any case, a nation must first decide what it wants—which of its interests are vital, which aren’t, and how much it would sacrifice to protect them if things come to that. This is often harder for the U.S. than for most countries. One reason is that, like many dominant powers in history, we tend to favor the status quo (because the status quo has made us strong), and it’s hard to block or co-opt change, especially in a convulsive era such as ours. Another reason is that we don’t really have an interest (much less a vital interest) in some of the fights that we get mixed up in, often for very bad reasons.
Still another reason, almost unique to the Trump administration, is that we don’t have an executive branch when it comes to foreign policy. Rather, we have competing officials—Cabinet secretaries bereft of assistants, clashing cliques in the White House, some headed by nobodies who got there entirely through nepotism more befitting of royal dynasties—and a president who has no idea what he wants, who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and who believes, based on his career as a New York real-estate mogul, that the whole point of meeting fellow world leaders is to have a good meeting and make a good deal. The thing is, in real-estate transactions, the basic parameters are set—the building’s location and square footage are known, the laws and currency are accepted—and the main things to haggle are the final price and the terms of payment. In diplomacy and war, sometimes no parameters are set, and disputes over premises are the causes of conflict. Sometimes there is no deal to be made, no useful meeting to be held. Getting along is not a meaningful goal or a strategy.
The peril of a full-blown meeting between Trump and Putin—of something more elaborate than a brief hello and, maybe, an exchange of views, a brief and well-monitored probe of possibilities—is that Putin has a goal and a policy, while Trump doesn’t but seems eager to come home with something. That’s when diplomacy can be most risky. Risk sometimes pays off, but only if the leader taking the risk knows the dimension of the risk—the range of possible costs and benefits—and even more, knows where he’d like the conversation and the subsequent actions to go. Trump hasn’t thought this through, and in Hamburg, more than any other meeting he’s had as president, he needs to think before he talks.