June 29, 2018 9:18AM

The Trump‐​Putin Summit: Opportunities and Pitfalls

Domestic and international politics surrounding the Trump administration’s planned summit with Moscow are largely overshadowing the tangible U.S. national interests at play. Trump’s frequently expressed esteem for President Putin, along with his apparent admiration for authoritarian strongmen from Kim Jong Un to Rodrigo Duterte, rubs much of Washington and many U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, the wrong way for two reasons. First, it suggests that Trump is abandoning America’s purported role as a global defender of democracy. Second, it suggests that Trump is unwilling to take a tough stance toward Moscow despite the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and constitutes a major, continuing threat to America’s security and geopolitical interests.

But even if Trump is more brazen than his predecessors in his fondness for autocrats, the United States has a long history of showering brutal dictators with rhetorical praise and direct support. And while Trump has been rhetorically easy on Putin in a way that has made NATO allies, and the U.S. foreign policy community, uncomfortable, the nuts and bolts of U.S. policy toward Russia have not changed. The Trump administration has pushed to expand NATO, boosted U.S. troop deployments in the Baltics, conducted provocative military exercises with its alliance partners in various East European locales as well as the Black Sea, and refused to give ground to Russian interests in Ukraine or the Balkans. Indeed, the administration has even engaged in military exercises with Ukrainian forces and approved the sale of “defensive” arms to Kiev.

Proposals for a tougher approach toward Russia essentially amount to imposing more economic sanctions, which have not proven effective in changing Russia’s policies or strategic calculus, and retaliatory covert cyber operations, which would likely escalate tensions to little greater effect. Moreover, some of the anger toward Moscow among politicians and pundits has generated a worrisome intolerance of those in the policy community who dare advocate a more conciliatory posture. Indeed, at times that shrill criticism is reminiscent of the excesses that Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers exhibited. That development damages America’s political culture.

Contrary to much of the political commentary, meeting with adversaries, such as Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong‐​un, is not tantamount to appeasement. Nor are sensible negotiations and a willingness to compromise. While Russian meddling in the 2016 election was a serious offense, we must avoid letting it drive U.S. policy into determined, unrelenting hostility. The two countries are already perilously close to a second Cold War, and it is imperative to keep the lines of communication and diplomacy open. 

The alleged threat from Russia, including the apparent election meddling, must be kept in perspective. The United States remains the world’s economic and military superpower and is remarkably insulated from external security threats. Meanwhile, Russia’s economy is approximately the size of Spain’s, it has limited conventional power projection capabilities, and it suffers from burdensome domestic problems, including corruption, as well as demographic trends that are likely to sap its power potential in future years.

A Trump‐​Putin summit is worthwhile, as there are a number of contentious issues that need to be addressed and require diplomacy to resolve. Those volatile disagreements include sharp differences over policy toward Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Ukraine. Even a candid bilateral dialogue at the highest level may not resolve those differences, at least not quickly. But just as the Trump‐​Kim summit helped ease tensions and the risk of a dangerous confrontation, the summit meeting between Trump and Putin may help dampen the growing U.S.-Russian animosity. That would be useful, because it will be difficult to make even modest progress toward solving problems such as Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea without substantial Russian input and cooperation.

To achieve a bilateral détente, though, U.S. objectives must remain limited and realistic. It may be possible to induce the Kremlin to dial back its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine or limit the Russian military presence in Syria. It is not an achievable objective to insist that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine. Moscow will no more do that than Israel will return the Golan Heights to Syria or Turkey relinquish occupied northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus.

President Trump has yet to demonstrate the strategic acumen necessary to deftly engage in nuanced diplomacy with adversaries in a way that tangibly advances U.S. interests. The summit with Kim was a mixed bag. The achievement consisted primarily of changing the overall dynamics of the bilateral relationship in a less confrontational direction. Although that meeting did not deserve the knee‐​jerk negative response from Trump’s political opponents (or, for that matter, the knee‐​jerk positive response from his supporters), there also were few truly tangible gains. Moreover, the president seemed more interested in stagecraft, rather than statecraft. He needs to improve that performance in his summit with Vladimir Putin.