U.S.- Russia Relations and a Second Trump-Putin Summit

Just days after what was widely regarded in the United States as an abysmal performance by President Trump in Helsinki, the White House disclosed an invitation for President Putin to visit Washington. That has led to numerous negative reactions, from Democrats and Republicans alike, for whom a second summit seems likely to be a setback for U.S. interests.

To be sure, a proper summit could prove useful and begin the necessary process of moving the U.S.-Russia relationship to a better place.  For example, Russian officials said Putin raised extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Helsinki.  (We have to go on the basis of what Russian officials say, as U.S. officials have said little about this or other agreements.)  Extending New START would be in the security interests of both the United States and Russia.

Likewise, it could be useful if the presidents agreed to instruct officials to resolve compliance concerns about the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  They could also have agreed to energize U.S.-Russia discussions to facilitate a genuine end to the simmering conflict in Donbas and restoration of full Ukrainian sovereignty there, as called for by the Minsk agreements.  Progress on these questions would remove important obstacles to improved relations between Washington and Moscow and result in the partial lifting of U.S. sanctions.

A good summit, however, would also require that the two leaders be candid with one another on problematic issues.  In Helsinki, Trump shocked American commentators, including those on Fox News, when he sided with Putin against the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.  Back in Washington the next day, Trump tried to correct this, but on Sunday he reverted back to calling the story a “big hoax.”

Trump could have sidestepped this controversy with a single sentence in his Helsinki press conference:  “I told the Russian president that such interference is unacceptable and that there will be consequences if it continues.”  Trump did not say that publicly, however, and few believe he said that to Putin in private. 

The American president’s poor handling of his press conference and the White House’s refusal to discuss what agreements were reached—especially when the Russian Defense Ministry, the Russian ambassador to the United States and Putin have all referred to agreements—leaves many Americans concerned about whether a second summit would advance U.S. interests.  Right now, we do not know enough about what the first summit produced.  Secretary of State Pompeo’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee only partially alleviated the problem, particularly as he answered so many questions by saying “U.S. policy is …” instead of “The president told Putin in Helsinki …”

One worry that preceded Helsinki was that Putin would take advantage of a gullible and unprepared American counterpart.  That appears to have happened.  Putin suggested Special Counsel Mueller’s team could interview the Russian military intelligence officers indicted on July 13—provided that Russian investigators could interview U.S. officials about the activities of British businessman Bill Browder.

Trump approvingly—and naively—called that an “incredible offer.”  Did he really believe that Mueller’s lawyers would have worthwhile interviews with GRU officers?  Did he mean to equate the two transgressions?  Did he not grasp the implications for diplomatic immunity?  It took the White House four days to straighten that mess out and dismiss the idea, just as the Senate was voting 98-zero to oppose making current and former U.S. officials available for interviews.

All this is not to say that another U.S.-Russian summit could not do some good for bilateral relations.  But that would require a summit that is well planned.  It would also require a Trump who takes time to prepare, listens carefully to his advisors, avoids going with his (often wrong) gut instincts, and is ready to confront Putin, not in a hostile manner but frankly, on U.S.-Russian differences.  Unfortunately, that Trump was nowhere to be seen in Helsinki, and there’s little reason to think that he would show up at a second summit with Putin.

Lurking in the background, of course, is the Mueller investigation and concern about possible collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign in 2016, as well as broader domestic political considerations.  The White House decision to postpone a Putin visit until early 2019 no doubt pleased Republicans running in the November Congressional midterm elections, who did not want a repeat of Helsinki just as American voters went to the polls.

Sadly, U.S.-Russian relations have now hit a post-Cold War nadir.  The bilateral relationship needs help, and a presidential summit could provide help.  The problem for many of us in America, however, is that it is difficult to see another Trump-Putin meeting providing that needed help.

Steven Pifer is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a retired U.S. diplomat.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.