War Stories

The Putin Summit Awaits

Is there any way this won’t be a disaster?

Vladimir Putin looks toward Donald Trump as they converse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump at the APEC Summit in 2017.
Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

Is it so terrible that President Donald Trump is hankering for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Not necessarily. It depends on what Trump wants, what Putin gets, and whether they address or avoid the conflicts between their two nations.

Most U.S. allies dread the meeting because all signs suggest that Trump views it not as a session to clear misunderstandings and reduce tensions on issues where the two sides have common interests (military and intelligence officers have these sorts of discussions routinely), but rather as a summit to build trust and friendship where there is no basis for either.

The fear is compounded by the fact that Trump plans to meet Putin, probably in Austria, right after the July 11–12 NATO summit in Brussels. This timing might be acceptable, even reassuring, if Trump used the occasion to consult with the allies about his subsequent discussions with Putin. But there are no such consultations in the works, and Trump has spent similar sessions berating the elected leaders of America’s most stalwart friends. Most notably, at the G-7 meeting earlier this month in Quebec, he contemptuously flung candy at German Chancellor Angela Merkel and insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau before flying off to Singapore to praise North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a “great personality” and to hail their tête-a-tête as the beginning of a “terrific relationship.”

The G-7 debacle is all the more ominous for the upcoming NATO summit, in that Trump made a big pitch—before, during, and after the Quebec meeting—for bringing Russia back into the small group of Western democracies. (Putin was expelled from what was then known as the G-8, in 2014, after annexing Crimea and invading Eastern Ukraine.) Trump explained his reasoning as follows: “We have a world to run, and … we should have Russia at the negotiating table,” thereby comically inflating the G-7’s power and distorting how it operates. He later made a still more preposterous case for bringing Moscow back into the fold: “If Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me at a table … I could say, ‘Would you do me a favor and get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor, would you get out of Ukraine?’ ”

Here, on display more baldly than usual, was Trump’s naïve belief that personal relationships—specifically, his own charisma—can transcend national interests. (Along the same lines, he claimed the real reason for Russia’s expulsion from the group was that President Barack Obama “didn’t like” Putin.) To believe that Putin would “get out” of Syria (his sole military outpost outside the former Soviet Union) and Ukraine (which he considers part of Greater Russia), simply as a “favor” to Trump, is beyond naïve—it’s narcissistic and potentially dangerous.

And yet, Trump may think he can accomplish these withdrawals through charm and willpower. He truly seems to believe that Kim agreed to dismantle all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, even though he did no such thing. (Trump has also said that Kim has already “denuking,” although U.S. intelligence indicates otherwise.)

The odd thing about Trump’s ongoing kowtowing to Putin—a pattern that Robert Mueller’s probe may, at some point, help explain—is that it runs absolutely counter to statements, and in some cases actions, from every corner of his administration. NATO itself, very much including the U.S. delegates, have done a great deal in the past two years mobilizing reinforcements and renovating logistical networks to bolster, in particular, the defense of the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, which are all NATO members.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and many Republican senators, who otherwise speak up for Trump, have persistently criticized Russia for its aggression abroad and its blatant interference in America’s 2016 election. Just one week ago, on June 15, in a commencement address at the U.S. Naval War College, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned, “Putin seeks to shatter NATO. He aims to diminish the appeal of the Western democratic model and attempts to undermine America’s moral authority. His actions are designed not to challenge our arms at this point but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals.”

Many listeners—and perhaps even Mattis, who seems to be increasingly shuffled off to the sidelines of this administration—could be forgiven for musing that the description applies to many actions taken by Trump as well.

And that’s the point: It is hard to define “U.S. foreign policy” or a “Trump administration foreign policy.” The meaning of these terms varies, depending on what member of the administration you talk to. And that means the terms have no meaning at all.

Usually the president or the national security adviser would assemble an interagency group to hammer out policy on high-level issues—first the agencies’ deputy secretaries, then the Cabinet secretaries, sometimes with the president in attendance, to resolve any remaining disputes. But there were no such meetings before Trump’s trip to Singapore, and it wouldn’t be surprising if no such meetings were held before his trip to Europe. On foreign policy in general, there is no formal process; expertise and experience have random impact, at best. The only person who matters is Trump, and he relies, by his own accounting, not on advisers or history or principles or interests but rather on his instincts and his gut.

That is what has the allies worried—and, no doubt, has Putin (just as it had Kim) salivating for advantage.