Should Trump-Putin Meeting Cause Alarm?

Should Trump-Putin Meeting Cause Alarm?

Next Monday, President Donald Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Unlike the summit last month between Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore, this upcoming summit will not be the first time the two men have met. Next week’s event will likely be less significant than the last month’s summit, though the ongoing news hype may exaggerate to drive clicks and ratings. The president’s meeting with NATO today and tomorrow may actually prove more important in the long term. After all, the State Department has threatened sanctions against Turkey (an unprecedented move for a NATO ally) if it buys a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system; a trade war has expanded to include the United States and European Union; and Trump is (rightly) criticizing Germany for low military spending. While some worry about Trump’s affinity for Putin, watching the US president’s relations with NATO allies, particularly in terms of trade, is wiser.

The same day the administration announced the summit’s date and location, Trump tweeted that “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” Of course, what Russia says it did is irrelevant. Papa John’s says they make better pizza, but most of us know better. While there can be debate over how much Russian meddling influenced the 2016 presidential election, there’s enough evidence to say it did meddle, whether or not the Trump campaign colluded or coordinated with Moscow. Some argue that Trump’s seemingly pro-Russian tweets and other statements demonstrate that he is an unwitting stooge for the Kremlin, but US policies since he came to office have mostly been against Russian interests.

Instead of surrendering Syria to Putin, Trump has stood his ground. In one incident last February, approximately 500 pro-Assad forces, including many Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, attacked a US outpost in Syria. Forty troops defended the position with air support, and together they killed between 200 to 300 attackers with no casualties. If Trump really was a Russian stooge, he would have probably ordered the small outpost to retreat. As John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, noted, the military under Trump has killed more Russians than any other president, though this off-the-hand remark likely omits America’s 1918 intervention in the Russian Civil War under Woodrow Wilson.

Beyond Syria, the United States has worked against Russian interests in Ukraine. The State Department last December authorized selling Ukraine lethal weapons that could be used against Russians and Russian-backed separatists.

The Trump administration in April also extended sanctions against Russian oligarchs and officials for both Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and its interference in the 2016 election. On June 29, the EU and US extended sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Also in June, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Russian companies and individuals in response to cyberattacks against the US electric grid. Again, if Trump was an unwitting stooge, his administration’s actions would have been less antagonistic to Russia.

Yet America’s allies in Europe are worried about Trump’s summit with Putin. Anna Maria Anders, Poland’s secretary of state, said on July 3 that she is concerned about the Trump-Putin meeting and that her father, who dealt with Stalin, taught her to beware the Russians’ charm. She said “the fear is that President Putin will actually charm President Trump into giving something up,” specifically NATO’s military advantage.

Europeans’ fears may be warranted due to Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un last month. Optically, the event may have appeared successful with North Korea climatically agreeing to denuclearization, but the summit could prove to be mostly fluff unless more concrete agreements occur. Pyongyang already agreed in 2005 to the goal of verifiable denuclearization (though the US and North Korea disagree on what that means) and committed to abandoning its weapons. The latest agreement doesn’t add much. Now satellite photographs, taken nine days after the signing ceremony, show that North Korea has started upgrading a nuclear research site. Reports show that the Kim regime has increased nuclear production and expanded a missile-manufacturing plant. Meanwhile, Trump announced he would stop joint military exercises with South Korea because they are “expensive” and “provocative,” which is a major win for Kim. But as Providence contributing editor Rebeccah Heinrichs argues, “joint ally military exercises are stabilizing, a means of deterring aggression and provocations, and they are more than worth the price of peace.” Even though the administration originally said denuclearization would be quick, Trump now says he won’t rush negotiations. Instead of addressing allegations that the North has already broken its summit vows, he tweeted on July 3 that negotiations were going well. After more bad news surfaced, Trump said on July 9 that China “may be exerting negative pressure” on Pyongyang because of the trade war, but he reaffirmed his confidence in Kim. The Trump-Kim summit plus ongoing negotiations may produce true denuclearization, and the process is worth trying. But prospects may have dimmed, as exemplified when a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman called last week’s talks with Secretary Mike Pompeo “regrettable” because the US was requiring denuclearization. There remains a risk that the summit’s greatest achievement was mere pageantry that boosted Trump’s approval ratings.

European leaders watching last month’s Singapore summit and anticipating the Helsinki summit could conclude that Putin may easily “charm” Trump into giving up something similar without a significant tangible return. If the US president thinks military exercises are provocative and expensive, perhaps he would agree to stop participating in NATO exercises. But this fear seems premature. More likely, Trump will use the opportunity to improve communication with Putin and perhaps work toward smaller, less controversial policy goals. Previous American presidents met with Russian and Soviet counterparts, so it’s not unsurprising that Trump should, too. Comfortingly, John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, said that the US still does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia. When this is added to the Trump administration’s actions against Russian interests, it appears that the summit’s substance should be less dramatic than some fear.

While the substance of a Trump-Putin summit may not be dramatic, the president could use the opportunity to rattle Europeans with some theatrical gesture or a more substantive announcement, particularly if he thinks it could help him in the ongoing trade war negotiations or with midterm voters. After the G7 summit last month, the president sent angry tweets about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his country’s milk tariffs, which the press then covered. Even Trump’s suggestion that Russia rejoin the G7 (making it the G8 again) could be viewed as a bombastic negotiating tactic to terrify America’s trading partners into making concessions. Recent White House actions, such as reviewing the withdrawal of troops from Germany, could also be more about trade negotiations and Europe’s military spending rather than rapprochement with Russia, especially after the US deployed troops near Russia’s border last year. While Trump is in Europe for his summits with NATO and Putin, theatrics like these could drive a narrative that helps him with voters, even if it hurts the US in the medium to long-term.

Christians should not be overly concerned about Trump meeting Putin, for now at least. (More developments may cause a reassessment.) If war is to be a last resort according to the just war tradition, regular face-to-face meetings and other types of diplomacy like this can be part of the process that resolves conflict peacefully. There may be opportunities for limited cooperation with Russia, even though a “Christian alliance” would be unwise, not least because Russia still persecutes non-Orthodox Christians. But thus far any alliance is far-fetched with the current administration, and Americans should instead pay more attention to Trump’s interactions with NATO allies and trading partners.

Mark Melton is Providence’s deputy editor.

Photo Credit: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivering his 2017 New Year Address to the Nation. By Presidential Press and Information Office, via Wikimedia Commons.

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