When Donald Meets Vladimir, The Russians Will Hold All The Cards
When Donald Trump meets Vladimir Putin on Friday for the first time since the Russian president’s brilliantly successful plot to hand the 2016 presidential election to him, only one of them will have an agenda, and it sure isn’t the ignoramus who has been occupying the Oval Office for the last five months.
While White House officials acknowledge that Trump has no agenda and, as is typical, hasn’t bothered to prepare, Putin will be able to use the neophyte Trump as an intelligence asset to (again) be played like a cheap violin when they meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany.
Trump is said to want a sit-down meeting and not merely the usual hallway tête-à-tête, which concerns his aides because of the president’s weakness for authoritarian leaders like President Xi Jinping of China and King Salman of Saudia Arabia, who are mere amateurs compared to the masterful Putin.
The Trump-Putin meeting comes at a pivotal time in the growing Russian scandal.
As the first concrete evidence of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian hackers emerges, you would expect Trump to put as much distance between himself and the wily Putin as possible, if not call Russia out on its interference in the election, but Trump is nothing if not reliably irrational, and seems increasingly incapable of communicating outside the framework of 140 exclamation point-laced characters.
Unfortunately for Trump — but fortunately for you and I — realpolitik has conspired to drive a wedge into Trump’s oft-stated desire for warmer relations between Washington and Moscow.
Beyond the several scandal investigations, the Senate has informed Trump that any effort to ease Obama-era economic sanctions will be blocked, while any concessions to Putin (or “deliverables” in diplomat-speak) will incite fresh waves of scrutiny back home. This include’s Moscow’s oft-stated demand that the U.S. return two Russian spy compounds in Maryland and on Long Island that Obama ordered vacated late last year when the full scope of Putin’s election interference had become known. Trump has weighed acquiescing in discussions with his aides.
In Warsaw on Thursday, Trump finally — if barely — moved away from his contention that the Russia scandal is a “witch hunt” to opine that Russia may have sort of interfered. But he quickly added, “I won’t be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere” before bashing the U.S. intelligence community, claiming Obama deliberately didn’t address Russian hacking for political reasons and then moved on to yet another ad hominem attack on CNN and the news media. He did chide Russia for its destabilizing activities in the Ukraine and support for hostile regimes.
Trump has no options that won’t create further political problems, even including his usual bromantic platitudes about the thuggish Putin.
Says Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush:
The president is boxed in. Why would you give Putin any kind of concession at the first meeting? What has he done to deserve that? If you try to curry favor, offer concessions, pulls back on the pressure, he’ll take advantage. He’ll see weakness in a vacuum.
The state of U.S.-Russian relations is at an extraordinary turn. Never in the 70-plus years since the end of World War II has an American president or vice president met with a Soviet or Russian leader in such a weakened state.
Recall Nixon standing down Krushchev in Moscow in the so-called 1959 Kitchen Debate, JFK speaking his mind with Krushchev in Vienna in 1961, the LBJ-Kosygin rapprochement in Glassboro in 1967, Nixon and Kosygin signing the first SALT Treaty in Moscow in 1972, Ford and Brezhnev agreeing to the Helsinki Accords in Finland in 1975, and Reagan facing down Gorbachev during a series of meetings in the 1980s.
As Fred Kaplan notes at Slate, many of the more than a dozen treaties negotiated and signed over the Cold War years that capped or reduced nuclear weapons were token stand-ins for diplomacy because it was politically impossible to talk about deeper fissures, but they also were opportunities to step back from the brink.
Yet despite its annexation of Crimea, support of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, indifference to North Korea’s bellicosity and U.S. election interference, Russia is in its strongest position since the end of the Cold War while the U.S. is at its weakest because of an apprentice president who can’t even get his stories straight about the man he owes his job to, let alone form a coherent sentence or formulate a policy.
Will Trump blink when he and Putin lock eyes for the first time? Next question, please.