U.S. and Russian officials have now confirmed that President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on July 16 in Helsinki—a city that carries some symbolic weight in the history of U.S.-Russian relations. The confirmation came after talks to hammer out the details between Putin and national security adviser John Bolton, an uber-Russia hawk who has long opposed accommodating hostile dictators. Trump has reportedly been pushing his team hard to make this meeting happen.
It won’t be the first face-to-face meeting for Trump and Putin, who have a, shall we say, closely scrutinized relationship. They met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg last July and again in Vietnam at an APEC summit last November. But this will be the first formal bilateral summit.
The meeting will take place right after Trump attends a NATO summit meeting in Brussels on July 11–12, then makes a long-delayed first visit to Britain. The allies he meets with on those earlier trips are likely to be extremely concerned by what Trump will agree to when he gets into a room with Putin. Western European powers have been pushing to isolate Russia for a range of behavior, including meddling in foreign elections, alleged assassinations on foreign soil, support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and the annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine. After previous conversations with Putin, Trump has appeared to accept the Russian leader’s word that the Kremlin did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election. (He did so again in a tweet Thursday morning.) And at the recent G-7 meeting in Canada, he pushed for readmitting Russia to that group and reportedly endorsed Putin’s position on Crimea. Trump probably didn’t do much to reassure these allies with a speech Wednesday night in which he denounced the European Union as an organization that was “set up to take advantage of the United States.”
The Trump-Putin summit would surely have happened much earlier if not for the politics surrounding the ongoing investigation into Russia’s relationship with the Trump presidential campaign and the opposition of members of his Cabinet. Trump now has a far more pliant national security team, and after what he perceives as the overwhelming success of some recent moves—moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the summit meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore—he’s clearly gaining confidence.
But meeting with Putin is different, for obvious reasons. The Mueller investigation isn’t going away, and if Trump grants Putin any substantive concessions on Syria, Ukraine, or sanctions, it’s going to cause far more controversy and come under far more scrutiny than any of his foreign-policy moves so far. But at this point, the president may simply not care.