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What to expect from Trump and Putin meeting?

Author : Marek Świerczyński

This time the presidents are going to not communicate on the margins of the international summit, but to organize a full-fledged bilateral meeting, like the one that recently took place between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
21:37, 2 July 2018

Read original article at Polityka

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Donald Trump began to dream of meeting with Vladimir Putin during his election campaign. When the future president could afford more freedom in his statements, and accusations of suspicious contacts with Russia had not yet taken the form of a federal investigation, he was literally an apologist for the Kremlin. Suspicions about the intervention of Russians in the elections increased, but the candidate Trump, as the American media estimated, several times in a neutral or positive manner mentioned in his speeches Russia or Putin.

Even then the topic of a personal meeting of the two leaders arose, including before the official entry of the new president into office. "It would be wonderful," dreamed Trump in October 2016, and spoke about how good it would be together with Putin to defeat ISIS. Apparently, he did not know that the Russian troops have been in Syria for a year, and the Russian president is not fighting terrorists there, but supporting the criminal regime of Assad, whom the US president later called an animal.

Meeting with Putin – Trump’s priority

When the FBI opened Pandora's box, from which ghosts of mysterious and unfair legal contacts of Trump's circle with Russian agents began to appear, this rhetoric had to be abandoned. Even such an arrogant person as the elected president and a little later the inhabitant of the White House Trump could not afford to strengthen suspicions of collusion with Russia by his own actions. The intention to meet as soon as possible with Putin, which seemed a priority before the inauguration, was forgotten for several months.

The first meeting between Trump and Putin took place a year ago, in July 2017, at the memorable summit of the G20 in Hamburg. In Poland, we did not pay special attention to this event, living at that moment with emotions caused by the speech with which the "leader of the free world" spoke in Warsaw yesterday. However, it was after more than two hours of talking with Putin that Trump believed that Russia had nothing to do with interference in the American elections. At least that's what he told the world.

A month and a half earlier, at the G-7 summit in Sicilian Taormina, Trump first showed the true leaders of the West his real face. Many of them realized that he was a more likely colleague of Russia than, for example, of Europe, so they probably were not surprised when the American president agreed on another meeting with Putin, which was to be held in Vietnam at the APEC summit. If in July this year the next meeting will take place, the regularity that the leaders meet every six months will be preserved.

Will the meeting take place in Austria?

This time the presidents are going to not communicate on the margins of the international summit, but to organize a full-fledged bilateral meeting, like the one that recently took place between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This is the main reason for concern. This time the role of the neutral site should be taken by Vienna, although Helsinki also declares its readiness to receive the presidents of the United States and Russia. The Austrian capital can be called neutral only formally: the new government of Sebastian Kurtz is considered one of the most pro-Putin in Western Europe, proving this by his actions. Putin visited Vienna three weeks ago, and it was quite a friendly visit. The young Austrian chancellor at the request of the Russians repeated the proposal to host the summit of the leaders of the two superpowers, and in addition, he signed an agreement for the supply of Russian gas until 2040. Thus, the Viennese soil will help Putin, although, of course, this is just the scene on which the show will unfold. Anxiety is caused by the approach to this of one of the main actors.
 
The chance to repeat the Singapore scheme

If President Trump chooses a North Korean strategy at the meeting with Putin, we can see unexpected and unsymmetrical concessions towards Russia. Let me remind you how it looked in Singapore. On the general words of Kim about the desire for denuclearization, Trump unexpectedly responded with a statement about the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea. This decision was a surprise for both Seoul and the Pentagon. The military unquestioningly obeyed it, despite the fact that it was contrary to the interests of the US and its allies in East Asia, and was in the hands of exclusively Beijing and Moscow. Trump was ready to go to such a gesture in return for statements from his interlocutor about good intentions. At the present stage, denuclearization is an exclusively political goal, no timetable, coordinated procedures or control mechanisms yet.

Moreover, at a second press conference after the Singapore summit, Trump reflected on the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean peninsula, saying that this was his long-term goal. The Minister of Defense immediately made a statement that there was no talk of this, but the Seoul politicians and residents of South Korea were surely nervous. Will Trump behave at a meeting with Putin in the same way? We do not know, but the risk of this is big.

The change in policy towards Russia will create greater risks

It should be noted that the most disturbing topics related to NATO and the role of the US in the defense of Europe, most likely, will not be the subject of bargaining. Any concessions of Trump in the military sphere the United States will see as the final proof that the president has conspired with the Kremlin. Such a move would infuriate the opposition and cross out the Republican Party's chances for success in the forthcoming additional congressional elections.

The topic of strategic relations with an aggressive power, which is usually of little interest to a simple American voter, can come to the fore, and neither Trump nor even the Republicans want it.

In the party itself, there may be a split against this background, since the faction of the "hawks" who criticize Putin traditionally takes a strong position there. It is possible that a sharp change of course towards Russia will lead to resignations in the presidential administration, which in the past year and a half has maintained a strict sanction regime, increased spending on the military presence in Europe and sought to persuade NATO to engage in more activity. Some military (and the defense minister) may find the concessions of the commander-in-chief unacceptable. It's hard to imagine what a storm will be caused by NATO's gestures against Putin, in the worst case scenario they can even lead to the collapse of the Alliance.

Strategy for Action in the Middle East

The foregoing does not mean that the topics on the US military activity in the world will not appear on the negotiating table. The Middle East will be the first. Trump repeatedly signaled that he would like to withdraw troops from Syria, but he is afraid that Iran will then play a dominant role there. Putin decided to take advantage of the situation and in May, unexpectedly supported the demand of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging Tehran to withdraw from Syria the armed groups subordinate to him. The deal may look like Washington will allow Moscow (possibly with the participation of the UN, the EU or even NATO) to control Syria, and in return will receive a promise from Russia to limit Iran's influence.

Putin will, as a result, not only strengthen his position in the Middle East but also get another chance for rapprochement with the West. Trump, in turn, will have the opportunity to announce the end of the unpopular war and return home four thousand US military. Of course, the Syrian Kurds, who will lose immediate support from the Americans, and the opposition left at the mercy of Assad and Putin, will suffer the most from such a deal. However, the scenario in which the great powers abandon their allies, considering that the matter is no longer of interest, is an ordinary story. It's also not worth worrying about the impact such a decision will have on the US strategy in the Middle East: there is ample evidence to say that it simply does not exist (unless you consider the strategy to withdraw the military).

Important nuclear topics

If the Middle East is an arena in which mediated confrontation unfolds, then the nuclear issue is directly related to the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Trump has repeatedly stated that he attaches great importance to nuclear disarmament (this was connected with his desire to meet with Kim Jong-un). In the context of Russia, of course, there is no talk of denuclearization, however, a reduction of strategic nuclear weapons would be beneficial to both sides. The START III treaty ends in 2021.

In recent years, the atmosphere, to put it mildly, was not comfortable at the beginning of a new round of negotiations. Three thousand strategic warheads, which each side have according to the existing agreement, is much more than required from a military point of view, especially since both powers openly rely on high-precision tactical nuclear weapons. The deal may be that both countries will agree to reduce the number of strategic warheads, which will reduce the cost of their maintenance, but does not violate the balance of power. Trump at the same time declares himself as a leader who not only dreams of a world without bombs but also actually achieves reduction of nuclear arsenals.

Putin and his energy interests

America is more interested to achieve some progress in nuclear disarmament than Russia. What will it get in return? We are not talking about a complete listing of the sanctions, but we can imagine that Washington will be ready to mitigate them, and this will allow Moscow to again actively engage in the most important (that is, energy) projects. Trump can hardly be indifferent to watching how, in response to his own policy, the "mini-reset" of relations with Moscow is launched by European countries. The Austrian contract has already been discussed above, in addition, recently access to Russian Arctic fields was received by the French company Total. The agreement was signed in St. Petersburg in the presence of presidents Putin and Macron.

Of course, Russia's main energy project remains Nord Stream-2, which is gaining more and more realistic features, although the role of elements of the Kremlin's strategic policy in it is becoming increasingly evident. The Americans, apparently, have not yet used their strongest arguments to block the investment, the only question is whether they will be able to use them after the Trump-Putin meeting. Raw materials in Russia will suffice for everyone. It is worth recalling that ExxonMobil when it was led by Rex Tillerson, acted as one of the largest investors in Siberia. Ironically, in March, it had to abandon cooperation with Rosneft after Tillerson approved a new sanctions list. If the entrepreneurial principle prevails in Trump, who knows, maybe the restart will begin.

Don’t joke with Putin

The most disturbing question is which of the parties will be able to reverse the course of a possible summit in its favor. If Trump decides to act spontaneously, without preparation, focusing on his own feelings, then a much more experienced diplomat, Putin will be in a winning position. A judo expert knows how to use the strength of an opponent to defeat him. If Trump will strive at all costs for success (even only image one), he will make it easier for the Russian president. But if the American leader listens to his diplomats and takes into account the concerns of the European allies, and understands the risks that the political agreement with Moscow carries, he will act more cautiously.

With this development of events, there may be a signal that Washington is ready to weaken Russia's isolation if it gives concrete guarantees regarding the implementation of the Minsk agreements or the reduction of nuclear arsenals. The difference from the agreement with North Korea will be that this process will be under international supervision and on a clear schedule.

It is least likely that the US will decide to set tough conditions and negotiate from a position of strength. Trump likes to say that he adheres to this approach in diplomacy, but in practice, he uses it only in contacts with weak partners, and with the strength he behaves indecisively (as seen, for example, in relations with China). With Putin, this probably will not work, although, of course, the American president is so unpredictable that it is impossible to completely exclude the transition not to reboot, but to escalation.

Washington will have to monitor Trump

Unilateral concessions of the United States or Putin's victory, who will be able to charm Trump with promises, is the most negative scenario. If there is a statement about the refusal to create additional military facilities in Poland and the Baltic countries, the suspension or restriction of exercises on the eastern flank of NATO, Moscow will win. It should be noted, however, that the Pentagon and the State Department can control their president to some extent.

In the case of Korea, they either "did not follow" him, or they decided to choose the lesser of evils, so as not to provoke a conflict between the Washington authorities. Another similar situation can not be allowed. Irrelevant and asymmetrical concessions towards Russia carry huge strategic risks. It remains to hope that no one in Washington will allow events to develop in this way.

A much smaller risk (it can be kept under control) is associated with possible de-escalation methods, which the parties can agree on. Against the backdrop of the fact that Russia has a tactical advantage in the region, and the process of restoring the potential of the North Atlantic alliance has not yet come to an end, any restriction of the Western military presence will create an imbalance of forces, which threatens to turn into aggression that will be difficult to stop.

Of course, the worst thing will happen if, following the results of the summit, Putin decides to move to active action in Ukraine, the Black Sea region, Syria or on the eastern flank of NATO. The answer to such steps will, however, be at least a symmetrical response from the United States. In the short term, the Baltic States and Poland may face increased military pressure from Russia and Russian provocations.

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