Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will meet for first time at the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7 and 8. While few oppose the two leaders meeting face to face, the meeting itself carries serious risks, especially as National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster claimed on Thursday that the administration has “no specific agenda” for the meeting. Putin does have an agenda, though.
According to European intelligence sources Putin believes he can get concessions on sanctions by promising Trump cooperation in Syria. Trump, who has expressed admiration for Putin’s leadership style and refused to criticize him, clearly wants to show he can do something past presidents couldn’t: strengthen and stabilize the U.S.-Russia relationship without getting played. The problem, of course, is that for months the United States has been getting played. After interfering in the U.S. election last fall and experiencing little more than a rhetorical slap on the wrist, Putin’s takeaway is simple: Russia’s aggressive actions such disinformation campaigns, buzzing U.S. ships and planes, energy coercion, and hacking carry no consequences. And if Trump and his White House team don’t come up with a plan fast, the United States will get played once again when the two leaders meet next week. Trump needs both a strategy and a message.
The first message Trump needs to send to Putin should be one of transatlantic resolve, and he can do that during his stop in Poland, which will proceed his meeting with Putin in Hamburg. In Warsaw, Trump can reassure skittish allies and showcase transatlantic unity by reaffirming his commitment to transatlantic values, NATO’s Article 5, and enhanced deterrence. In his speech there, Trump should stress that, while we sometimes have differences with our allies over issues like defense spending, we will not tolerate Russia’s attempts to undermine our democratic systems and divide Europe from the United States. Putin has no doubt enjoyed watching the transatlantic partners spend months wringing their hands over the future of the relationship as Trump’s views on Europe and Russia have remained vague. Putin needs to see and hear from Trump personally that the ties that bind the two sides of the Atlantic are as strong as ever.
After the visit to Poland, when Trump finally sits down with Putin in Hamburg, he should open by stating unequivocally that while the United States values engagement with Russia, it is not prepared to make trades, particularly over the heads of U.S. allies and partners. In other words, the United States will not trade cooperation in Syria for the lifting of sanctions, especially after Russia recently threatened to shoot down anything “west of the Euphrates,” including U.S. jets. Trump should remind Putin that U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria is in everyone’s interest — Moscow included — and that alone should drive our efforts to diffuse tensions between our two countries and work towards a long-term solution in Syria.
Putin will use the meeting to plug all of the amazing things Russia can do to help Trump achieve his goals in defeating the Islamic State. Trump shouldn’t believe him. Why? Experience shows that Putin often promises his counterparts the moon and consistently under delivers. Remember when Putin pledged his cooperation in Syria when he met with President Barack Obama at the U.N. in the fall of 2015? Russia launched its first strikes in Syria just days later.
Trump should also view Putin’s pledges of support with some skepticism because it’s not clear what Russia even brings to the fight. Putin can offer more air power but that isn’t what the United States needs. More troubling, Russia’s partners in the Syrian conflict (Assad and the Iranians) and its rules of engagement (or lack thereof) put Moscow and Washington on opposing sides both geostrategically and tactically. That doesn’t mean Trump and Putin should avoid talking about Syria. It just means Trump should proceed with extreme caution, and he shouldn’t exchange anything — especially those two Russian compounds the U.S. government seized last fall — for loose pledges of support.
In addition to Syria, the two leaders need to discuss Russia’s increasingly aggressive use of asymmetric tactics like hacking and disinformation campaigns. Trump could take a page from French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit with Putin and challenge him (publicly or privately) on Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. democratic institutions. Trump should make clear that we know these attacks often stem directly from the Russian government and that they won’t be tolerated. In the week before the two leaders meet, Trump’s team should make a list of concrete actions that the United States will take if such behavior continues. Given the severity of the threat, this subject requires far more than a “cut it out.”
There are plenty of other issues to cover, which again, makes it surprising that McMaster said that the Trump team doesn’t have much of an agenda. The two leaders should talk about extending New START, instability in the Balkans, the INF Treaty, and how to take risk-reduction steps. Sam Nunn, Igor Ivanov, Des Browne, and Wolfgang Ischinger in a recent letter to Trump suggested the two countries also create a NATO-Russia Military Crisis Management Group. Whatever the two leaders discuss, it is important that Trump seek input and advice from some of our closest Europeans allies, many of whom he will see in Hamburg before he sees Putin.