When President Donald Trump flew to Singapore last month to meet with Kim Jong Un, he had a clear agenda: to try personal diplomacy, rather than insults and threats, in a still-unsuccessful effort to convince North Korea to give up its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
But Trump has no obvious goal and no agreed-upon agenda other than basking in the global spotlight when he meets here Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently planning to wing it — much as he did in Singapore — in hopes of charming the former KGB officer.
Although Trump himself proposed the summit in March, only one White House aide, national security adviser John Bolton, has met with senior Russians officials, a stark departure from typical planning. The two sides similarly have set no “deliverables,” tangible results that are normally determined long before a high-stakes summit.
Trump has sought to lower expectations of any substantive breakthrough on the critical policy and security divisions between Washington and Moscow, including the Kremlin’s interference in the U.S. election in 2016, its illegal seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, its military role and support for Iranian forces in Syria, and the New START arms control treaty set to expire in 2021.
“We go into that meeting not looking for so much,” Trump told reporters Thursday after he had bashed Germany and roiled the NATO summit in Brussels, rifts that Putin is likely to applaud given his antipathy to the military alliance that is the continent’s main bulwark against Russian aggression.
Trump exhibited remarkable nonchalance about what he called his “loose meeting” with the Russian strongman, whom he has never publicly criticized. “Hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend,” he said.
Russia’s efforts to subvert the 2016 U.S. elections grew far more clear Friday when the Justice Department announced criminal charges against a dozen Russian military intelligence officers for the systemic hacking of computers used by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, state boards of elections and other entities.
Trump said Friday in Britain that he would bring the issue up with Putin. But he did not condemn the Kremlin-backed operation or suggest he would demand a halt to what has now been laid out in two federal indictments and confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies, and the House and Senate intelligence committees.
“I will absolutely, firmly ask the question, and hopefully we’ll have a very good relationship with Russia,” he said.
Many foreign policy experts in Washington and in allied capitals fear that Trump may offer to ease sanctions, trim U.S. military operations in Europe, or make other concessions to Putin during a lengthy scheduled private meeting, without aides, early Monday.
They point to Trump’s private meeting with the North Korean dictator on Sentosa Island on June 12. Afterward, Trump unexpectedly announced that he had agreed to halt joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea, a concession to Kim that blindsided the Pentagon and allies in Seoul and Tokyo.
Indeed, asked on Thursday if he would consider scrapping military exercises in the Baltic states if Putin asked him to do so, Trump replied, “Perhaps we’ll talk about that,” raising alarms in the frontline states.
“I don’t even dare to speculate,” said one official from a NATO member state when asked about his expectations for Helsinki. “It’s so unpredictable right now in the current circumstances.”
Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Russia who served as a deputy secretary-general of NATO, said the summit “raises apprehensions” in Europe that Trump’s “going to become more friendly toward a brutal dictator than he is to his own allies.”
Anything Trump says to undercut the NATO declaration that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “illegal and illegitimate” would ease international pressure on Putin and be tantamount to “codifying aggression,” Vershbow said.
But Stephen Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, said Trump’s willingness to engage with Putin shouldn’t be viewed as a blunder in and of itself.
“Putin is a spoiler all around the world, trying to frustrate the U.S. everywhere,” Hadley said. “At some point, we’ll need to find a way to get a more constructive relationship with Russia. Trump could be able to do that.”
Other analysts view Trump’s eagerness to meet Putin, with all the theatrics a summit will entail, as a diplomatic coup for Moscow since it remains under U.S. and international sanctions for its seizure of Crimea in 2014.
The meeting “is Putin’s victory. He was waiting for this moment since 2014,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent political analyst in Russia. “The positive atmospherics of the ‘historic and monumental summit’ will do.”
Putin’s goal is “to clear the air, ratchet down the tensions and reset the relationship back to normal without yielding any ground on Ukraine and Crimea, Russian meddling and the intervention in Syria,” Frolov said.
The Russians “aren’t going to expect much in the way of practical points to come out of the meeting,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and an expert on European security issues. “This will simply give them an opportunity to really encourage Trump to lob a grenade into Western unity, without the Kremlin really having to do much themselves.”
The U.S. “remains the world’s only real superpower,” he added. “But the capacity of America to be able to leverage that for positive leadership is diminished pretty much every time Trump opens his mouth.”
Trump’s outreach to Putin is all the more mystifying since it is at odds with his own administration’s far more wary stance on Russia. The U.S. ambassadors to Russia and NATO, for example, have expressed more traditionally hawkish views of Russia’s intentions and operations.
Even those State Department and Pentagon officials who support his efforts to improve relations with Moscow worry the president is being naive about the danger Putin poses to U.S. interests and allies.