What Trump should keep in mind during his meeting with Putin

By Daniel DePetris

In the coming days, President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet the Russian president for the first time this week on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. In normal circumstances, a “pull aside” discussion in between formal meetings at a summit wouldn't make much news, but this week's Trump-Putin meeting is anything but ordinary; indeed, it has the potential to be the most significant dialogue that an American president has had since September 2013, when American and Iranian heads-of-state spoke directly for the first time in 38 years.

So what can we expect from the Trump-Putin mini-summit? Despite concerns among unnamed western officials that the detail-oriented, former KGB spymaster will extract a list of concessions from the U.S, it's unlikely that any blockbuster deals will be signed. This, of course, doesn't mean that Putin will try to charm Trump in the hope of fooling him into a false sense of complacency.

There is certainly an argument to be made about the wisdom of dangling carrots in Putin's face. After all, a negotiation wouldn't be a negotiation if concessions in some form weren't put on the table; as a real estate developer who has spent much of his life in been in Manhattan boardrooms, it's not a stretch to imagine that Trump believes he can strike a good deal on behalf of U.S. national security, regardless of the circumstances. The Russians, unfortunately, aren’t fools susceptible to being swindled; they are in fact savvy and hard-nosed negotiators who are experts at doing the swindling. The National Security Council has probably been briefing the president extensively on Putin's negotiating tactics, his character, what his objectives are, as well as his past history with other American presidents. It will up to President Trump to listen to that advice and prepare himself before trying to haggle with a man like Putin who is a professional in the tactics of the deception.

Whatever the result, Trump's interaction with Putin during the G-20 is a make-or-break moment for the 45th president. If the session goes badly and the White House is perceived to be insufficiently tough with the Russians on cyber hacking or any other number of disagreements between Washington and Moscow, the administration will be forced to come back from the trip and get used to more rhetorical bombshells being fired from a D.C. foreign policy establishment uninterested in improving the frosty U.S.-Russia relationship.

Far from being a national security issue, Russia is now a hyper-polarized issue in an intensely partisan domestic political environment. Too many lawmakers, think tank scholars, and pundits consider diplomacy with the Russians as a dereliction of duty. Trump will discover—if he hasn’t already—that even the smallest of good-will gestures towards Putin will produce a litany of negative commentary..  

But if the meeting goes off without a hitch and Trump is disciplined enough to leave the politics at home during his trip, he and his team have a slim opening to communicate clearly and directly to Putin that the U.S. won’t be sullied into a bad grand bargain or duped into accepting the Kremlin’s promises without concrete action to show for it. At the same time, Trump has the best chance he’s had since being inaugurated to tell his Russian counterpart that while the U.S. will be insistent on defending its core interests and values, it is still willing to exhibit the flexibility to explore other areas where the interests of both align.  

The United States and Russia don’t have to agree on every line item before they can cooperate with one another. Indeed, U.S. and Russian military officials communicate on at least a weekly-basis to deconflict their military forces in Syria, even if both states have different opinions on how Syria should be governed.  Syria, in fact, may be the ultimate testing ground to determine whether U.S. and Russian cooperation at a tactical and strategic level is possible. With Bashar al-Assad presumably safe in power in Damascus and the Russians highly resistant to doing anything that would weaken the Syrian government’s authority, the most prudent course for the administration to take is kicking the Assad can down the road and concentrating on what both nations have stated publicly: defeating the Islamic State or at least diminishing it’s military capability to a more manageable level. 

The first subject on Trump’s itinerary, however, should be the maintenance of international security more generally. This would require an understanding at the presidential level about what is and is not acceptable; what violations of sovereignty and independence would be so serious as to warrant further retaliatory measures; and which disagreements require continuous dialogue between both men. In Europe, for example, communication between NATO and Russian military forces must be increased in order for both sides to limit the surprises and hostile rhetoric that occurs during abrupt military exercises or movements of troops. A written joint statement from both men fully supporting the NATO-Russia Council would be a win-win situation for Trump and Putin and perhaps the beginning of something bigger in the future.

The U.S. and Russian leaders should also commit themselves, in writing, to biweekly or monthly discussions to ensure that any misunderstandings are hashed out.  While none of this is the stuff of masterful diplomacy, it’s will nonetheless assist the two countries with a complicated history and the biggest nuclear weapons stockpiles on the planet in avoiding a flare-up leading to a great power conflict.

If the administration enters the talks with Putin eyes wide-open and leaves the meeting in a better position than they came in, Trump may win himself a little more political breathing room to begin arresting the downfall of U.S.-Russia relations.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on July 7, 2017. Read more HERE