U.S. national security would benefit from a Trump-Putin summit

By Daniel DePetris

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have spoken to each other eight times on the telephone and twice in person, the last of which took place in November 2017 on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vietnam. The two leaders, however, may get an opportunity to participate in a more formal, bilateral, summit-style interaction in July. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has reportedly offered to host a prospective meeting in his country.

Were Trump and Putin to go through with a summit, either before or after the annual North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conference, Trump can be sure to expect a wall of resistance in Washington, D.C. Yet if the administration privileged politics at the expense of statecraft, it would be throwing away a critical chance to stabilize a relationship with Moscow that desperately needs stabilizing.

U.S.-Russia relations have not been this strained since perhaps the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration deployed Pershing land-based missiles in Europe as a deterrence measure against the Soviet Union. The promises of a warming of relations during the Obama administration's first term have long deteriorated into acrimony and adversarial competition between the world’s two largest nuclear armed powers. Multilateral bodies such as the NATO-Russia Council that were formed to encourage regular cooperation have become stagnant and unproductive. Traditional lines of communication at the United Nations Security Council are dampened by severe disagreements on international security issues as diverse as the war in Syria to political developments in the Balkans. The return of Putin to the Russian presidency in 2012 has regressed much of the positivity the U.S. was able to foment with Russia during Dmitri Medvedev’s tenure.

While dire, the freeze in the U.S.-Russia relationship is not an irreversible phenomenon. Notwithstanding the serious allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; Moscow’s military and economic support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine; and more than a dozen assassinations of Russian dissidents in the United Kingdom—the last attempt occurred just this March on a former Russian spy and his daughter—the Trump administration has no option other than to deal with Putin’s Russia to the best possible extent.  Putin’s Russia is a major force in today’s global environment, and no amount of economic sanctions or travel restrictions will make it disappear.

Those in Washington who argue for a more aggressive U.S. policy on the Kremlin believe that diplomatic pressure and economic strangulation alone will be enough of an incentive to persuade Putin to change his behavior. That hypothesis, however, has proven to be wrong; after four years of U.S.-led multilateral economic sanctions, the expulsion of Russia from the G-8 group of advanced economies, and enhanced military readiness on NATO’s eastern frontier, Russia’s foreign policy has remained static. While Presidents Trump and Putin would not resolve all the mistrust and problems plaguing the bilateral relationship overnight, a meeting would at least provide both leaders with an opening to shift the narrative and determine whether there is any room whatsoever for constructive collaboration.

Fortunately, there are issues of mutual concern Trump and Putin would we wide to address.  The New START nuclear reduction treaty signed in 2010 is scheduled to expire in 2021 if the U.S. and Russia can’t agree on a five-year extension. New START has served the nonproliferation and national security interests of both states, a reality reflected in the fact that no treaty-breaking violations have occurred since the agreement was put into effect. The treaty offers both the U.S. and Russian administrations an valuable insight into one another’s nuclear arsenals as well as intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Putin has expressed an interest in extending New START rather than allowing it to expire, a view that correlates with Trump’s worries about a new arms race. A mutual extension would therefore be an easy but substantive win and could very well lay the groundwork for more comprehensive arms control talks in the future.

The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is another subject in which Washington and Moscow’s goals converge. The U.S. position of North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement has long been aligned with Moscow across Republican and Democratic administrations. While it is true that Russian ports are being used by Pyongyang to conduct illicit trade in violation of Security Council resolutions, it is also true that Moscow is thus far supportive of Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. Putin himself referred to Trump’s direct channel with the North Korean leader as a “brave and mature” one, a refreshing break from 25 years of the status-quo. A meeting with Putin would be a chance for Trump to press the Russian leader on whether his words are sincere. There is considerable alarm that the multilateral pressure campaign on Pyongyang will loosen now that diplomacy is ongoing; with Putin at the table, Trump can push him on the numerous instances of lax enforcement of the trade embargo.

Most importantly, a Trump-Putin dialogue can be the first step towards chipping away at a relationship that has been suffering from miscommunication and polarization for years. The anti-Russian attitude in Washington and the inherent cynicism of the U.S. government in Moscow are making it incredibly difficult for diplomats and officials on both sides to work together on anything. The longer the antagonism lasts, the deeper the politicization and harder it will be to arrest the decline. If there is one objective for Trump and Putin during a prospective summit, it is to condition the elites in America and Russia to the notion that pragmatism and selective engagement is a win-win for all.

The Trump administration, of course, must be cleared-eyed about Putin’s motives coming into the meeting. The White House must also prepare itself for the alternative scenario—that dialogue collapses and the Russians redouble their current approach. The U.S. must be prepared to respond unapologetic in the event core U.S. national security interests are jeopardized. 

There are no guarantees in diplomacy, but talking with one’s adversaries is a demonstration of strength, flexibility, and responsibility—not weakness. To not take advantage of one of the most effective tools in the U.S. national security toolbox would be to squander it.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Fox News on June 27, 2018. Read more HERE.