Trump looks to make more history, this time with Putin

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Fresh off a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that saw history-making images plastered on screens around the globe, President Trump is zeroing in on another headline-making summit — one with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

National security adviser John Bolton is heading to Moscow next week to discuss a potential meeting between the two leaders.

A summit could provide the opportunity to push Putin on his misdeeds: the invasion of Ukraine, support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, the poisoning of an ex-spy in England and interference in U.S. and other Western elections.

“There’s no point in having a summit unless you’re going to stand up to Putin,” said Nile Gardiner, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

But it’s not clear Trump is looking for a confrontational summit with the Russian leader.

Trump has frequently talked of how it would be a good thing if he could improve relations with Russia, despite all the difficulties Moscow has caused previous administrations.

It’s been a source of frustration to some Republicans, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

After Trump congratulated Putin on his reelection win in March, McCain and other GOP senators unleashed on the president.

“An American president does not lead the Free World by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections,” McCain said.

Trump and Putin have met in person twice since Trump office, once on the sidelines of the Group of 20 and again on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Now, a Trump–Putin summit is reportedly being eyed for mid-July, when Trump is traveling to Europe for a NATO summit and a visit to the United Kingdom.

Trump first floated the idea for a summit with Putin during that phone call, and also suggested the former KGB spy visit the White House.

In defending the call, Trump said he and Putin would meet to discuss the “arms race.”

“I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control,” Trump told reporters in March. “But we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.”

Trump did not elaborate on what he meant by an arms race. But the United States has accused Russia of violating a landmark arms control treaty and of adopting a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” in which Moscow would be willing to use a nuclear weapon early on in a conflict. In response, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review calls for a so-called low yield nuclear warhead.

Trump has cast himself as a decider in chief, turning the diplomatic process on its head. The idiosyncrasy was on full display earlier this month during the summit with Kim, as the president mostly put aside warnings that the meeting would amount to a propaganda win for Kim.

Trump appeared to bask in headlines noting the historic nature of the Kim summit, a dynamic that may be in play with a Putin summit.

“Just the visuals coming out of a summit with Putin, Trump may see as politically advantageous, the focus being more on the photo op than actually resolving any of the issues in the relationship,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former deputy secretary-general of NATO who is now at the Atlantic Council.

As with the Kim meeting, however, there are risks. And they might even be greater, politically, in a meeting with Putin.

Images of Trump looking chummy with a man the international community has been trying to isolate could reinforce the idea that Trump is soft on Moscow. And they could come back to haunt him depending on the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

U.S.–Russia relations have been rocky since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 — a move Western nations say was illegal — and then backed separatists elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.

Outside of Ukraine, the United States and Russia have been at odds over Syria, where Moscow backs Assad. As recently as Thursday, the State Department warned Russia of “serious repercussions” of Assad violating a de-escalation zone in southwest Syria.

Moscow was also accused in March of using a military-grade nerve agent to carry out an attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England — the first use of a nerve agent on NATO territory since the alliance’s founding.

Still, Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin, calling him a “strong leader” and a “talented person.”

Meanwhile, Mueller continues to investigate Russia’s election interference and whether the Trump campaign had any connections to it, an investigation Trump has dismissed as a “witch hunt.”

The Trump administration has stood firm against Russia in a number of ways, Gardiner said, such as the U.S. military’s February strike on Russian mercenaries in Syria who were attacking U.S.-backed forces.

But Trump needs to stand up to Putin face-to-face, Gardiner added.

“This is an important moment for Donald Trump to stand up to Vladimir Putin,” he said. “There has to be a recognition that Putin is not our friend or ally or possible partner. Putin poses a huge threat to America’s allies and must be treated as an adversary.”

Vershbow, though, was skeptical of both Putin and Trump.

“There’s no sign that Putin is ready to give any ground on the occupation of eastern Ukraine. … The same can be said of Syria,” Vershbow said. “Clearly from [Trump’s] statements, his reluctance for years now to say anything critical of Putin makes it difficult to believe he’ll take a firm line on Ukraine or anything for that matter.”

Without concrete results, Vershbow added, the summit could be a propaganda win for Putin.

“Putin is keen to break out of his isolation that he’s been faced with since he invaded Crimea, invaded Ukraine,” Vershbow said. “So just having the summit would be a political boost for Putin and they would play it in Russia propaganda as kind of the West is coming to its senses and giving up on the isolation policy.

Still, he said, the United States may need to work with Russia to implement any North Korea denuclearization deal. Other summit topics could include what is happening after Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, of which Russia is a party, and Afghanistan, where Russia has been accused of supporting the Taliban, he added.

Lawmakers in both parties said a summit with Putin could be useful to address Ukraine, Syria, election interference, the U.K. poisoning and other issues. But Democrats were skeptical about Trump’s willingness to push back on Putin.

“I’m always in favor of communication and talking and opening up dialogue,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But I must tell you, I have a great deal of concern about this because of Mr. Trump’s record with Mr. Putin.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Trump risks looking weak if he doesn’t push Putin.

Trump’s message should be, Graham said, “We’d like to work with you, but we’re not going to sit on the sidelines and watch you dismember democracies — a stern warning that if you continue to interfere in our election process there’s going to be a heavy, heavy price.”

“Anything short of that,” Graham concluded, “would be a sign of weakness in the eyes of Putin.”

Tags Ben Cardin Donald Trump John McCain Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Robert Mueller Russia

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