Thursday, July 6, 2017

Trump’s Putin Test

The Russian will interpret concessions as a sign of weakness.

By Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
July 6, 2017

Donald Trump thinks of himself as a great judge of character and master deal-maker, and that could be a dangerous combination when the President meets with Vladimir Putin for the first time Friday during the G-20 meeting in Germany. The Russian strongman respects only strength, not charm, which is what Mr. Trump will have to show if he wants to help U.S. interests abroad and his own at home.

The meeting comes amid the various probes of Russian meddling into the 2016 election, and Mr. Trump’s curious refusal to denounce it. There’s no evidence of Trump-Russia campaign collusion, nor that Russian interference influenced the result. But the Kremlin’s attempt was a deliberate affront to democracy and it has done considerable harm to Mr. Trump’s Presidency. Mr. Trump should be angry at Mr. Putin on America’s behalf, and his apparent insouciance has played into Democratic hands.

The irony is that on policy Mr. Trump has been tougher on Mr. Putin than either of his two predecessors. Over Kremlin objections, the U.S. President has endorsed Montenegro’s entry into NATO and new NATO combat deployments in Eastern Europe. He has approved military action against Russian ally Bashar Assad in Syria even after Russian threats of retaliation.

The White House was also wise to visit Poland a day before he meets Mr. Putin. In Warsaw on Thursday he can reinforce traditional American support for Polish freedom and assert his personal and public support for NATO’s Article 5 that an attack on one alliance member is an attack on all.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Trump has unleashed U.S. oil and gas production that has the potential to weaken Mr. Putin at home and in Europe. The Russian strongman needs high oil prices and wields the leverage of natural-gas supplies over Europe, and U.S. production undermines both.

Yet Mr. Putin will be looking to see if he can leverage Mr. Trump’s desire for better U.S.-Russia relations to gain unilateral concessions. One Kremlin priority is easing Western sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine and President Obama’s December 2016 sanctions for its election interference. The Russian foreign ministry is in particular demanding that the U.S. let Russia reopen compounds in Maryland and New York that Mr. Obama shut down.

Mr. Trump will be tempted to oblige because the compounds are ultimately of no great consequence, but the political symbolism of reopening them would still be damaging if the President gets nothing in return. Mr. Putin still denies any Russian election hacking, and to adapt Michael Corleone’s line to Carlo in “The Godfather Part II,” he should stop lying because it insults our intelligence. Mr. Trump should at least follow French President Emmanuel Macron’s precedent and issue a face-to-face public rebuke unless Mr. Putin apologizes.

Mr. Putin, the former KGB man, concluded early that Barack Obama could be pushed around because he bent to the Russian’s demands on nuclear arms and missile defenses in Europe. This week he’ll be looking to take Mr. Trump’s measure.

The American can quickly show he’s not Mr. Obama by suggesting he’ll sell lethal military aid to Ukraine if Mr. Putin refuses to implement the Minsk accords that call for defusing the military conflict. Mr. Putin knew he could get away with violating Minsk because he judged, correctly, that Mr. Obama would never risk confrontation.

Mr. Trump says he wants good relations with Russia, but the question as always in foreign affairs is on what terms? Mr. Putin wants to push the U.S. out of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and he will be looking to exploit any presidential weakness toward that goal. No single meeting will determine the Trump-Putin relationship over four years, but first impressions matter. Mr. Trump will have a better chance at a better relationship if he shows Mr. Putin that the price of improved ties is better Russian behavior.

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