The summit between President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki is now a certainty. While all such encounters between the United States and Russia carry strategic weight, this one is crucial. The Russian meeting is preceded by Trump’s fraught attendance at the July 11–12 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and a next-day visit to an uneasy United Kingdom. This means the Helsinki summit will climax what may prove to be the most-important six-day period so far this century. Every foreign power —not least, China—will watch closely.
President Vladimir Putin’s obvious goal is to cement and extend his remarkable strategic achievements of the past several years. America’s goals are unclear.
This is a crisis, and it’s time for both sides of America’s domestic political scene to display unity. The United States has its existential security priorities at stake. Washington needs a bipartisan approach to pursue genuine progress in relations with Russia, but also to minimize the prospect of irreparable damage inflicted by rogue behavior. Faced with a savvy, experienced and ruthless interlocutor such as Putin, the U.S. president and entire government must be on guard. Progress in spheres of mutual interest might be reassuring at home and to America’s nervous allies, but Washington dares not sweep away or minimize the core concerns regarding America’s long-term security —or that of its long-term, genuinely indispensable allies.
What occurs—or does not occur—initially at NATO will be closely monitored and analyzed on the eve of the U.S.-Russia Summit. This especially includes the atmosphere, mood, and the ability of America and its allies to continue and collectively plan for crises in long-term. The results of this assessment will inform Putin’s stance and negotiating position. Furthermore, this may be beyond the broad outlines Washington already anticipates. It certainly will play into the psychology of the meeting—the strategy and tactics of discussion, negotiation and diplomacy that go further than this one-on-one meeting. In fact, the Trump-Putin summit will inform U.S. foreign and domestic-policy over the foreseeable future.
As such, the significance of all three upcoming Trump encounters, especially NATO and Helsinki, make them now inextricably intertwined. If the President and his twenty-eight NATO counterparts can get through a surely spirited, frank but somehow collegial session it would level the playing field with Russia. This would be especially true if the NATO summit results in a message of unity and resolve, one that sends a powerful message to the Russians.
If Russia senses or worse sees publically manifested rancor and division among the NATO allies, then the Trump-Putin Summit will become inordinately perilous for NATO. The unity and steadiness of the Atlantic Alliance, one that has weathered numerous dramatic moments over its sixty-nine-year existence, would be in danger.
This is a potential bellwether, a strategic moment where much can go wrong. However, it is critical to focus on its potential benefits as well. The key is President Trump, will he stay disciplined and on message, and if he improvises, could any aspect of such be actually positive?
Right up front, any such Trump-Putin meeting must not minimize the deep issues and grievances between America and Russia. To be credible with an astute interlocutor such as Putin, at a minimum Trump must make more than a desultory mention of the 2016 electoral hacks, the war in Ukraine and the illegal Crimean annexation, corrosive cyber “gray zone” activities versus allies and America, and chemical weapons transgressions amplified by the latest Novichok nerve agent revelation in England. Furthermore, Trump should strongly reiterate the potential costs of any confirmed cyber intrusions into our upcoming November 2018 mid-term elections. In turn, he will have to be prepared to defend NATO’s peaceful enlargement, remind Putin why sanctions are in place and address phobic Russian perceptions of U.S. regime change efforts. Without addressing these, no credible discussion leading even to rudimentary transparency and minimal problem-solving can transpire on issues crying for coordinated attention such as the badly-atrophied Arms Control regimen, Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, counterterrorism and the Arctic.
Much of my nearly four-decade career was oriented on the Soviet Union and Russia. My duty began as a young Cold War-era U.S. Army seco nd lieutenant as part of a nuclear-capable howitzer unit fixated on defending West Germany against a Soviet—Warsaw Pact onslaught (we never want to go back to that Dr. Strangelove world again!. My final posting was as the U.S Senior Military Attache to Moscow during tumultuous 2012-2014, where I have been working deeply and persistently on both hard and soft power aspects of Russia. As such I want to focus the rest of this short article on some stark security-focused aspects that beg highlighting because if America gets this wrong, both Washington and Moscow risk worse case inadvertently blowing each other and everyone else off the planet in a horrific 1914-esque “how did we get here moment?!”