Today, June 28th, the White House and the Kremlin simultaneously released statements announcing that US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a summit in the Finnish capital of Helsinki on July 16th, following the NATO summit in Brussels and Trump’s visit with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London. This summit is set to occur amidst a US-Russia relationship that has been strained by disagreement over the Syrian conflict, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its involvement in eastern Ukraine, and allegations of political meddling.
The arrangement of this meeting is no surprise, as Trump has pushed to strengthen diplomatic ties between the US and Russia since taking office last year. In fact, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton stated, “Even in earlier days when our countries had differences our leaders and their advisors met and I think that was good for both countries, good for stability in the world, and President Trump feels very strongly on the subject.”
The announcement of this summit occurred just one day after Bolton met with Putin and Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov in Russia, during which Putin reportedly told Bolton, “Your visit to Moscow gives us hope that we can make at least the first steps toward restoring full-scale relations between our countries.” During this visit Ushakov named four main summit themes: strategic nuclear stability, the fight against international terrorism, regional issues like the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and US-Russia ties. The subject of US sanctions on Russia has yet to come up.
In light of this announcement, many US politicians, European leaders, and critics of Trump have expressed concerns. Senator Christopher Coons stated, “I’m very concerned that President Trump can’t help himself but try to please another autocrat at the expense of our democracy,” while other critics are worried that, in his eagerness to strike a deal at the summit, Trump will concede too much to Putin without getting enough in return. Some fear that Trump may avoid directly confronting Putin on issues such as Russia’s election interference, its alleged poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain, its support for Assad’s government in Syria, and its occupation of Crimea.
An additional factor to consider is the fact that President Trump’s summit with Putin threatens to further injure the US’ relationship with European leaders and is likely to raise additional doubts about his commitment to the traditional alliances of the United States. A number of US allies, such as Great Britain, want to isolate Putin and are discomforted by Trump’s overly friendly attitude towards the Russian president.
It is in America’s interest and an appropriate act of diplomacy to hold a US-Russia summit, but it is crucial that Trump proceeds very carefully. Vladimir Putin is not about making deals — he is a skilled manipulator, trained in the art of deception. But as Senator Coons stated, “If we can have a better and stronger relationship with any country in the world and directly address challenges we have with them that’s to our benefit… But it doesn’t advance America’s interest to knuckle under or brush aside significant threats to our security or our allies’ security.” At the summit, Trump should directly confront Putin on the issues that need to be discussed and avoid giving in to his requests without justification or appropriate Russian concessions. Trump should also discuss this summit with US allies in order to assure them that the US is not acting against their national security interests or aligning itself with Russia. Overall, the president must be sure to discuss issues crucial to the US-Russia relationship while also ensuring that the US is not isolating its allies or putting its national security at risk.