On July 16, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are to meet in Helsinki, Finland, for what promises to be an historic summit—one likely to define the course of U.S.-Russian relations for many years to come. Following on the heels of the July 12 NATO summit in Brussels, the outcome of these U.S.-Russia talks may affect the unity, and even the survival, of the West. Trump should coordinate his stance on Russia with America’s European allies, and under no circumstances allow the NATO summit to end in disarray, as the recent G-7 meeting did.
However, Trump is unlikely to get the deeply divided NATO allies to support his Iran policy or the burgeoning trade war with China, which raises questions about the future of the Western Alliance.
Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, would like nothing more than to see the U.S. retreat from the 70-year-old Pax Americana, abandoning the transatlantic Alliance and the global rules-based system, including the World Trade Organization, in favor of America First isolationism.
An American retreat will mean a more chaotic world, one in which transaction costs—from national security to shipping insurance, to regulatory burdens—are likely to skyrocket, and with them, the possibilities of costly wars—trade and otherwise.
Yet, Trump has expressed a rather favorable attitude towards Putin, a man the Washington establishment loathes, while Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections continues.
Trump may dismiss Putin’s KGB pedigree at his own peril, but the Russian president does his homework: Russian sources told me that Putin read the George W. Bush dossier, which ran to the hundreds of pages, before the 2001 Ljubljana, Slovenia, summit—where he told Bush about his secret baptism, and the U.S. president got “a sense of his soul.”
Now, it’s Trump dossier reading time in Moscow.
Russia’s agenda for Helsinki is chock-full of geopolitical asks, and it is up to Trump to refuse, accept or bargain. Putin will demand recognition of Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea, a settlement in Eastern Ukraine that favors Russia, keeping Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria, and lifting U.S. sanctions imposed over interference in the U.S. 2016 elections and the invasion of Ukraine. In short, Russia wants to come in from the cold.
Trump has indicated that the Crimea is Russia’s because people speak Russian there. It is not. The peninsula was detached from the Ottoman Empire and conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783. Ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars continued through the 19th century. In the 1939 Soviet census, Russians were still a minority on the peninsula. That changed with Joseph Stalin’s deportation of all the remaining Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944. One-third of them perished in exile. Stalin also exiled all the Armenians, Greeks, Italians and Germans residing there; and the Nazis killed all the Jews. Most people in the Crimea today speak Russian because of Russian imperialist policies; and any decisions on the Crimea’s future should be made in consultation with Ukraine and Europe. After all, it’s their backyard.
On Syria, the U.S. needs to consult its allies in the Middle East, first, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and ensure that Russia cooperates in getting the Iranian advisors, militias, and terrorist organizations Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, out of the country.
On arms control, both sides can agree to update and extend the INF and New START treaties, which respectively limit intermediate and strategic missiles.
Russia has suffered from the sanctions the U.S. and the West imposed in 2014 in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion. Its budget depends on oil and gas revenues, which have been growing, but economic growth eludes it in the absence of rule of law, while foreign investment is drastically dropping. Germany is key to Russia’s natural gas exports, which are about to grow due to the opening of the North Stream Two undersea pipeline, which Trump opposes.
Despite decades of talk, and with Brexit looming, Europe is far away from joint defense, despite its massive industrial base. At the July 12 NATO summit, Trump would do the U.S. a service by urging the members to meet the Wales two percent criteria and consolidating a transatlantic position on Russia.
Europe needs to back the U.S., while Trump should not further insult and alienate the Europeans. Only a united West united can stand up to Putin.