Meeting Putin will be Trump's toughest test

Meeting Putin will be Trump's toughest test
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The July 16 Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE-Vladimir Putin summit in Helsinki, Finland will be a historic event, one which may define the course of U.S.-Russian relations and the direction of the West for years to come. Russia has been trying to change the status quo in Europe since Putin’s 2007 revisionist Munich Security Conference speech. It is vital that the U.S. president and his team put the summit in historic and geopolitical context and take preparations seriously.

The author of “The Art of the Deal” will be meeting with the longest-serving head of a major power — a former KGB case officer and a tough negotiator. Vladimir Putin will certainly do his homework before the summit, as everything in Russia is a “special operation” when it comes to the arch nemesis, America. I was told that the dossier for the 2001 Ljubliana, Slovenia summit with George W. Bush was  hundreds of pages long — and Putin read it all.

Trump appears to have admired the Russian leader for a long time.  However, this is no time to look into Putin’s eyes. Intra-European and trans-Atlantic fissures are stressing NATO — the great politico-military alliance that kept the world peace for seven decades — like never before. If Brexit succeeds, 80 percent of NATO’s budget will come from non-EU members: the US, Canada, Turkey, and the UK.


Germany refuses to meet its 2 percent of GDP defense spending target, and prefers to buy Russian natural gas through the Nordstream II pipeline, enriching the Kremlin by billions of euros every year. On my latest trip to Berlin in late June, German military officers shared with me that there are only a few jets left flying in the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, and no U-boats in the ocean. If not for the U.S. nukes, Russia could march straight to the English Channel if it wanted to.

Yes, demanding that rich Europeans to pay their fair share for U.S. military expenses is right. But the current administration’s treatment of NATO as a rent-a-cop outfit and Trump’s threats to withdraw American troops from Germany is wrong.

Russian elites read domestic and international power balances like a CPA reads balance sheets — and they’ve done it for centuries. Their diagnosis: Europe is morally and militarily weak, and the leader of the free world is disruptive to say the least.

Russia’s agenda for Helsinki is ambitious. Based on my conversations in Moscow, the Kremlin wants Trump to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, recognize that Bashar Assad will stay in power, and permit Russia to keep its military bases on the Mediterranean. This would open the doors for Russia in the Middle East from Algeria to Iraq — selling weapons and nuclear reactors and projecting power all the way to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Trump hinted that he is willing to recognize Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Meanwhile, Russia actually wants Ukraine to take back the Donbass. Its pro-Russian voters could neutralize the pro-Western nationalist majority in Kyiv and vote in pro-Moscow politicians.

The Crimea, however, is not Trump’s to give away. According to international law, Crimea is Ukrainian. It was ethnically cleansed by the Russian Empire and Stalin’s USSR. Any decision on Ukraine should be made in conjunction with the Europeans — after all, it’s in their backyard. However, in order to bring Russia in from the cold, the Trump administration might use the Baltic states model of the 1940s-1990s —  the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, but didn’t do much about it.

The administration should demand the full withdrawal of Russian support for the Donbass separatists and the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and control. But the White House’s ability to lift congressionally-imposed Ukraine sanctions — something that would need to happen to solicit cooperation from the Kremlin — is uncertain.

In Syria, the administration should consult U.S. allies in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia and Israel, and ensure that Russia cooperates in getting Iran fully out of Syria. This is not the time to enshrine a Shia corridor from Tehran to Tartus — and Beirut.

The administration is also likely to demand a pledge from Russia not to use force ever again in the former Soviet Union, with no more changing of borders. Whether the Russians would agree to — much less honor — such a commitment is an open question. 

This summit may be the hardest foreign policy test the Trump presidency has faced so far. One can only hope it passes with flying colors.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a nonresident senior fellow at the nonprofit Atlantic Council.