It’s official: President Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 17 days — making America’s allies even more nervous about the growing closeness between Washington and Moscow.
According to the White House, Trump and the Russian leader will meet in Helsinki on July 16, just four days after he NATO summit concludes on July 11 and 12.
“President Trump believes so strongly that it was time to have this kind of meeting and as you can see, President Putin agreed,” said National Security Adviser John Bolton, who traveled to the Russian capital on Wednesday to meet with Putin and spoke with reporters at a Wednesday press conference.
The summit is expected to last several hours as both leaders discuss US-Russia relations, the war in Syria, and possibly nuclear weapons issues.
This summit was months in the making. Trump called Putin in March to congratulate him on winning his rigged election (despite Trump’s staff imploring the president not to) and even invited him to meet at the White House.
That led Trump’s aides to scramble to set up a summit with the Russian leader which will now happen in just over the two weeks.
The two men have met before on the sidelines of international gatherings. But this will be the first time Trump and Putin meet without another reason for being in the same room.
There is concern that Trump is putting his desire to grow closer to Putin ahead of the feelings of America’s friends. “I hope that we will see signs that the administration is proceeding cautiously and with consideration for European allies,” Alina Polykova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, told me.
Others seem less troubled. “I’m not as concerned about the meeting as some other people are,” says Rachel Rizzo, a European security expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “Trump already has such animosity toward Europe that we can expect the NATO summit to be highly contentious no matter what. Meeting or not meeting with Putin isn’t going to drastically swing the president’s views in either direction. They’ve been pretty consistent since the beginning of his presidency.”
It’s a fraught time for Trump and Putin to meet
In two weeks the US and its 28 NATO allies will gather in Brussels to discuss, among other security issues, the threat from Russia. That’s a mainstay of any NATO meeting, but it has become an even more vital subject in recent years.
Putin ordered an incursion into eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Relations between Russia and Europe have plummeted ever since, especially since Moscow continues to behave aggressively in Eastern Europe — even holding war games near NATO’s borders with hundreds of thousands of troops. Russia has also interfered in European elections in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
In this climate, one would expect the American president to unequivocally back its European friends as much as possible. That’s not been the case with Trump.
He has continually undermined America’s support for the alliance since he become president. In May 2017 Trump failed to commit America to NATO’s Article 5, which says an attack on one ally is an attack on all. (The following month he did commit to the common-defense provision in an impromptu comment at a White House press conference.) But Trump’s tepid support has led some European allies to question if the US would come to their aid if, say, Russia attacked them.
Trump has also harshly criticized alliance members for not spending enough on defense. NATO requires allies spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on the military, but many fall short. It’s normal for US administrations to pressure their allies to contribute more to European security — President Barack Obama did so — but Trump has taken it a step further by sending letters about about the issue to European capitals.
“Norway ... remains the only NATO ally sharing a border with Russia that lacks a credible plan to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense,” Trump wrote to Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway on June 19.
There have been others: It is “increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security,” read one letter addressed to an unidentified European leader, as reported by Foreign Policy on Wednesday. “I, therefore, expect to see a strong recommitment by [the country] to meet the goals to which we all agreed.” Foreign Policy omitted the name of the country from the letter.
It didn’t help that the June Group of Seven economic meeting in Canada — including NATO allies the UK, Germany, and France — ended badly. Trump first signed, then backed out of, the joint statement put out by the group’s leaders. Just hours after leaving the summit in Quebec, Trump abruptly retracted US support for a joint statement signed by every nation in the group and blasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “meek and mild.”
Firing off tweets aboard Air Force One, Trump said he was reversing the US position in response to Trudeau’s comments at a press conference at the summit’s end. Trudeau had pledged to impose tariffs on the US in response to Trump’s recent steel and aluminum tariffs against Canada.
“PM Justin Trudeau of Canada acted so meek and mild during our @G7 meetings only to give a news conference after I left saying that, ‘US Tariffs were kind of insulting’ and he ‘will not be pushed around,’” Trump tweeted. “Very dishonest & weak.”
The statements signed at the end of these multilateral gatherings, like the one Trump refused to sign, are normally harmless. They contain remarks about improving global relations and striving toward peace that are not even remotely controversial.
Trump’s erratic behavior at the G7 summit bodes poorly for any kind of agreement that NATO allies might try to strike.
It should be noted, though, that the Trump administration has been tough on Russia despite the president’s pro-Moscow inclinations. For example, the US has sanctioned Russia over its election meddling and a nerve agent attack against a Russian ex-spy on British soil. That has led to a very odd mismatch between Trump’s nice words about Russia and his approval of harsh measures against it.
And while it’s one thing for Trump to be overly critical of America’s friends, as he undoubtedly has been, it’s another to be overly deferential to Russia. That may actually be the biggest fear Europeans have about the Trump-Putin summit.
According to the Washington Post, allies are worrying that Putin might sway Trump to take stances that hurt NATO and help Russia, such as pushing to lift sanctions on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. If that’s the case, Trump could undermine NATO and bolster Russia simply by agreeing to policies advocated by Putin.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Putin swayed the American president. When Putin and Trump met in July 2017, Trump reportedly believed the Russian leader’s claim that Moscow had not interfered in the 2016 presidential election. This is despite the fact that three American intelligence agencies had concluded six months earlier that Russia had meddled — a finding that Trump continues to ignore.
The summit with Putin also comes amid special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to win the 2016 election. It’s jarring for the president to want to meet with the Russian leader despite knowing it might be negatively perceived by critics who believe Moscow may have undue influence over Trump.
The president might feel that chatting with Putin is ultimately worth it, no matter what others’ perceptions may be. “Would it be great if we got along with Russia?” Trump said during an August 2016 campaign rally. It’s a sentiment he has repeated many times while president.
America’s NATO allies, though, clearly don’t feel the same way.