Trump, Putin Prepare for Summit Amid Global Tensions

With NATO and Robert Mueller watching, Trump and Putin prepare a change in international relations

By Abby White

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump meet at the sidelines of the G20 summit in July 2017.

The White House announced June 27 that President Donald Trump would join Russian President Vladimir Putin for one-on-one discussions July 16 in Helsinki, Finland. The talks will be the leaders’ first formal summit meeting together, although Trump and Putin have met twice at annual gatherings of world leaders.

The summit comes at a delicate moment. In January 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and NSA, released a report concluding Russia had meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate the Trump campaign’s possible Russian ties. American midterm elections loom, and the summit with Putin — coming just days after the NATO Summit in Brussels — may further strain U.S. relationships with NATO allies.

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Putin and Trump have a discussion on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in November 2017.

Trump has made clear he believes Putin’s denials of meddling in the U.S. election, taking the Russian president at his word as of November 2017. However, his national security adviser John Bolton suggested July 1 that Trump would press Putin on Russian meddling in the 2016 election at the summit.

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Putin and Trump approved a joint statement on Syria at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in November 2017.

Bolton also suggested Trump and Putin would discuss Syria, indicating that the U.S. had dropped its rhetorical opposition to Bashar al Assad, Syria’s violent dictator and a Russian ally. Instead, the U.S. may focus on severing Putin’s ties with Iran and its goal of pushing Iranian forces out of Syria. Putin, meanwhile, may push for the U.S. to give us its base of operations in al Tanf, Syria.

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Putin and Trump have a discussion at the G20 summit in July 2017.

Experts have speculated on other deals the leaders might make. Matthew Rojansky, the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told the New Yorker he expects Putin to try to persuade Trump to alleviate U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia for its foreign interventions and election meddling. Arms control may come up as well: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) ends in 2021, the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement is in disrepair, and in 2007 Russia suspended participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

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Trump and Putin interact at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang, Vietnam in November 2017.

Beyond that speculation, however, the leaders’ other topics of discussion remain unclear. In its initial statement, the White House said “the two leaders will discuss relations between the United States and Russia and a range of national security issues.” Bolton has not clarified topics for the summit beyond Russia’s role in the 2016 election and the countries’ relationships to Syria and Iran.

Putin’s priorities for the meeting remain murky as well. However, experts say he could succeed in the summit by doing relatively little.

“I fear [Trump’s] eagerness to get along with Putin might produce concessions that do not serve American national interests,” Michael McFaul, a former American ambassador to Russia, told the New York Times. “If Trump heaps the kind of praise on Putin that he devoted to Kim Jong-un, that will be a giant victory for Putin. That’s all Putin needs for a successful meeting.”

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