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An Agenda for the Trump Putin Summit



President Donald Trump will meet Russian Vladimir Putin next month in Helsinki, Finland. President Trump has been searching for this summit for a long time, and talking is better than silence. However, without a change in US policy, it is not clear what positive results will be achieved.

Much of Washington has committed to the Russian Federation as America's most dangerous enemy. Democrats who fired Mitt Romney when he fingered Moscow in 2012 now treat the White House as Russian-occupied territory. Republicans outrage any nation that opposes US authority, see Putin as a leader of the global resistance. American politicians strangely treat Russia as the threat it wants to be.

The President should approach the summit with a realistic assessment of Moscow's capabilities and intentions. Putin is not a friend of Western liberalism, but many US allies are no less authoritarian. There is no evidence that he carries ideological animus towards America or Europe. KGB officers were among the most secular and cynical Soviet officials. Although Putin regrets the geopolitical debris field of the collapse of the USSR, he has done little to recreate the realm of evil. Conquering Crimea and gaining influence in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Donbass does not count for much.

Putin's policy suggests that his ambitions are those of a modern czar. A global empire is unrealistic and unnecessary. Instead, he insists on respect for the interests of his nation, expects safe borders, tries to ward off possible military threats, and wants to sit in global power bodies. There are no signs of aggression against Europe. And the Europeans do not believe it either: even the countries that scream for US troops spend barely two percent of GDP on their forces, ridiculous values, if they really fear an attack.

The US may prefer the embarrassingly weak 1990s Russia, but it's gone forever. Moscow is no longer a superpower – it lacks the necessary population and economy. However, Russia is able to assert itself, as shown by its confrontational policy towards Georgia and Ukraine. But even there, the Putin government's ambitions were limited: to take control of selected territories and freeze conflicts to prevent the two nations from joining NATO. Putin's behavior was ugly, but effective, and no worse than that of US allies such as Saudi Arabia, which is leading a brutal and self-serving war with Yemen with American support.

While many in the West fear Moscow's security, this perspective of America's history is easier to sustain than the history of Russia. Add to this Washington's widespread attempts at regime change, support for "color revolutions" and calculated mendacies about NATO expansion: Russian skepticism about Western intentions is understandable. What Moscow sees as criminal acts may not justify its actions, but its detailed listing certainly helps explain Russia's aggressiveness.

Relationships, though bad, have not yet turned into another Cold War. To improve bilateral relations, the two Heads of State and Government should first compare national objectives. There are no significant conflicts. Even where the two governments are at odds, such as Syria and North Korea, the differences are manageable. Moscow wants to take part in the action and Washington can not deny Russia a role.

In fact, Syria shows that US politicians too often succumb to the interventionist temptation and interfere in the world, even if it is not in American interest. Moscow allies with Damascus for a long time. A continuing Russian bridgehead there is doing little to lessen Washington's influence: after all, the United States is allied with Israel, the Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and almost everyone else in the region. Washington politicians just want everything, but that's not always possible.

Presidents Trump and Putin also shared interests that were open to cooperation. Terrorism is an area. Maybe Syria and North Korea, if the United States is ready to share the stage. In fact, President Trump is reportedly keen to use the upcoming summit to reach an agreement on Syria that would allow exit from the US, a worthy goal. Maybe there is an agreement to meet Iran, as Moscow seems interested in getting the latter out of Syria.

It would be even more important to work together to restrict China, that is to moderate its ambitions and influence. The United States has unnecessarily pushed Moscow toward Beijing in a foolish, if unintentional, reversal of President Richard Nixon's geopolitical strategy. Tensions between China and Russia, the junior partner in every respect, are obvious. Moscow may prefer to look west, where its economic and territorial interests are less overwhelmed.

In order to establish better relations, Washington and Moscow must solve the problems that most sever them. Since Putin is unlikely to admit to meddling in America's elections, the two presidents should agree to stay out of each others' internal affairs. In fact, the United States is a more active mediator than Russia. Washington has intervened in at least eighty-one elections worldwide, including the 1996 Russian competition. And that does not include coups and other forms of coercion. Recognizing his misconduct in the past would give Washington more credibility to complain about in the future.


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