The Perils of a Putin-Trump Summit

By Steven L. Hall

Steven L. Hall retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing intelligence operations in Eurasia and Latin America.  Mr. Hall served as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, the small cadre of officers who are the senior-most leaders of the CIA's Clandestine Service.  Most of Mr. Hall's career was spent abroad, overseeing intelligence operations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact.

As a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, I’m worried about the upcoming summit between the Chekist former KGB officer, President Vladimir Putin, and the former real estate businessman and reality show personality, President Donald Trump.

My concerns center around the fact that Russia has much to gain, and from my perspective, the United States profits little, if at all.  The very fact that Putin has scored a meeting with the President of the United States helps the Russian leader immensely with his urgent desire to demonstrate that Russia is still a central player on the world stage.  There is no reverse benefit of that, however, for the U.S., meaning that neither the U.S. nor our allies have much to gain from the face-to-face sit down.

Let’s just take a look at President Trump’s recent statements, and I’m not talking about his old commentary (“Crimea actually wanted to be part of Russia” and “NATO may be obsolete”), but rather new comments Trump uttered to the press on June 29th aboard Air Force One:

(Regarding general topics of discussion for the summit): “I’ll talk to him (Putin) about everything… we’ll be talking about Ukraine, we’re going to be talking about Syria, we’re going to be talking about elections.  And we don’t want anybody tampering with elections”.

(Regarding loosening sanctions on Russia): “We’ll see what Russia does”.

(Regarding NATO): “NATO is very interesting… but (NATO allies) have to spend more… it’s unfair about what they’ve done to the United States… we’re being treated unfairly.”

(Regarding international diplomacy): “I think having a relationship with China, Russia, and everybody else is a good thing, not a bad thing”.

As we lay this out to determine if there is a strategy and what it might be, let’s begin with the last comment about having a relationship (assumedly good, which Trump has indicated in the past) with Russia.  While it is quickly becoming hackneyed, it is nevertheless true to say that the United States needs to have a more nuanced policy towards Putin’s Russia beyond simply “having a good relationship”.  Such an approach is akin to stating, in the face of your teenager coming home drunk, getting thrown out of school, and trashing his room, that you as a parent “want to have a good relationship” with your offspring.  That kind of wishful thinking, flying in the face of facts, is not a good substitute for a specific, thoughtful plan and set of policy goals.  Dealing with a teenager by saying you just want to have a good relationship with them might accurately be referred to as naïve or bad parenting.  When the President goes into a summit with Putin saying his goal is simply to have a good relationship, it is dangerous to the United States and our allies.  It is not a policy.

A viable counterargument might be, ‘Okay, but the President also said he wanted to talk about Ukraine, Syria, elections, and sanctions.  Surely those are legitimate issues.’  The answer is that of course they are legitimate topics that should be discussed. The problem, is that how the President raises and discusses these issues is of critical importance, and he will only be effective if he conveys a tough message to Putin.  But it is unlikely Trump will do so.  Based on what the Kremlin and what Trump himself have already said, we can pretty well guess how the discussion between the two Presidents will go regarding the Russian attack on U.S. elections:

Trump:  “I need to raise the issue of your tampering with our elections.”

Putin:  “As we have already informed your government, we have never tampered with your or anybody else’s elections.  Elections are the internal affairs of sovereign nations with with Russia does not interfere”.

Trump:  “Well, okay, but still.”

A very similar but slightly more historically complex conversation will likely occur about Crimea.  Putin, as he has in the past, will attempt to lecture Trump as to why he decided to illegally annex Crimea (incidentally, massively interfering with the internal affairs of another sovereign nation, Ukraine).  Looking at his past comments on the matter, Trump’s response could very well be, “Well, okay, still it was a bad thing… but I really want good relations with you, and what’s done is done.  You’re lucky Obama was president when you did that, by the way, because I would have handled it differently”.  Putin will shrug this off.

Here’s what frightens me most.  The Russians attacking elections in the U.S. and other countries is certainly bad.  Illegally annexing a part of another sovereign country (Ukraine) is bad.  Attempting, and even carrying out assassinations of Russians in the United Kingdom is bad.  But these are only individual elements of a much grander plan of Putin’s:  disrupting and eventually weakening Western democracies to the point where Putin (perhaps with cooperation from several of his key allies, such as China, Iran, Syria, and others) can begin to re-organize the geopolitical security system to something more to his liking.  If there is anything at all that could be discussed that would be in the interests of the United States and our allies, it is this.  It would require, however, that Trump make a forceful argument against Putin, which seems unlikely.

This brings us to Trump’s approach to our allies.  I will not make light of the complexities involved in developing U.S. and multinational policy and then implementing it with difficult players like Putin.  There are many possible right ways (as well as wrong ways) to do this. But squarely in the no-brainer category is working and coordinating closely with your allies.  In dealing with Russia, NATO allies should be an American priority; other non-NATO European powers are also important.  Make no mistake, it is a good thing that Trump will be visiting these allies before he meets with Putin.  But what has our President said recently about our NATO allies?  “NATO is very interesting.  And were going to see what happens there, too.  But (NATO allies) have to spend more… it’s unfair about what they’ve done to the United States… we’re being treated unfairly.”

A reasonable argument can be made for increasing pressure on some NATO partners to keep up with their financial obligations to the alliance.  But that is a discussion to be held privately with our NATO partners, not aired out like so much dirty laundry to be picked from the clothesline by Putin for later use.  If the West’s policy goal is at least in part to ensure that Russia does not succeed in significantly weakening Western democracies, then Western allies – usually led by the United States – must be unified in the face of Russia. The United States does not always have to agree with our allies, and neither the United States nor other NATO countries will always get everything they want.  But allies are like families, in that they should stick together in the face of outside threats while dealing with their internal disagreements quietly, and among themselves.  Russia is such a threat.

Complaining that Putin has already won by getting a meeting with the President of the United States (which is a true statement – it shows to Russia and the world that Russia still has a claim to great power status) might be crying over spilled milk.  The meeting will happen, because both Putin and Trump want it.  So in an ideal world, what should the U.S. goals be for this summit, and how should they be pursued?

First, the President should tell Putin directly that Russia, under his leadership, has acted in a fashion that is abhorrent to the civilized world.  Trump should cite Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s continued military destabilization of eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s continued attacks on Western electoral processes as examples.  (There are other cases in point if Trump chooses to use them).  The President should not entertain any attempts on the part of Putin to deny or explain his actions.  If Putin refuses to accept these facts, then Trump should do what he promised he would do with Kim Jung Un if things did not go well, namely, terminate the meeting and leave.

Second, President Trump should make it clear to Putin that while NATO member countries are working through several issues internal to the alliance, all of NATO agrees that Russia’s behavior under Putin’s leadership has been unacceptable.  Trump should ensure Putin understands NATO and other American allies fully support the principle that economic and other sanctions against Russia will continue until Russia’s behavior changes.  Here, Trump has the opportunity to convey directly to Putin the message he has already tried to convey in the U.S.:  nobody is tougher on Russia than Trump.

Third, the President should let Putin know that simply because Russia will have to continue to endure sanctions and other unpleasantness due to its bad behavior internationally, this does not mean there can be no communication whatsoever between the United States and Russia.  Just as during the Cold War, there are a few issues in which contact with Russia would be in the United States’ national interest.  One example might be continued work on arms negotiations agreements, and there might be others.  But Trump should be clear:  there is no need for summits between presidents for such discussions.  To the extent meetings need to occur on such issues, they can be dealt with by Russian and American experts.  This would stymie Putin’s attempts to grandstand and attempt to portray Russia as a great world power.

There is one other intriguing possibility regarding the upcoming summit. Trump might be made to understand there is a way to make it a win-win for both himself and the United States.  Putin, of course should in no way benefit, based on his actions over the past several years.  But for Trump, the summit is an opportunity to show both domestic doubters and troubled allies that he is willing to be firm, even hard, with Russia and that he is in fact, the skilled negotiator he has always claimed to be.  Talks with Russia could be much easier than talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, in that all Trump has to do is go into a meeting with Putin and hold the hard line that the U.S. and NATO allies have already laid out.  No compromising on the annexation of Crimea.  Hold Putin’s feet to the fire regarding Eastern Ukraine.  Talk about the debilitating consequences Russia will endure if the U.S. intelligence community detects further attempts to attack elections.

If he takes an openly hard approach with Putin, Trump would create an opportunity to take the wind out of the sails of his critics.  Many are already positing that the President will go easy with Putin because Trump fears the Russian leader.  They believe that he fears that more information on questionable contacts between the Trump campaign team (to include his family) and Russia will come to light, that more details may emerge, with Putin’s assistance, about Trump’s past business dealings with Russia.  Taking a hard line with Putin makes it more difficult for those suspicious of the President’s ties to Russia to make their case.

I already disagree with the President’s decision to meet with Putin.  Instead, and  ideally, the international community should be isolating Russia.  We should be containing Russia, not engaging at the senior-most levels.  But there are still ways Trump could send the right message to Putin, and indeed, if he fails to confront Putin on such issues as attacking Western democracies, changing borders of a neighboring country illegally, and conducting military operations to destabilize other nations, Trump will appear to Putin (and Trump’s own critics) to be weak.

Will President Trump take this opportunity to rob his critics of the argument that he fears Putin and what he might reveal?

I doubt it.  But I do  hope that Trump might – just might – understand that if he does so, it might work out better for him.  Self-interest is not the ideal motivation for presidents, but for this one, in these circumstances, it just might be enough.

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