When I worked in the White House at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012, I wrote briefers for President Barack Obama for his “bilats” with then-President Dmitry Medvedev and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. I have written an (unsolicited) backgrounder deliberately for President Trump; short, simple and with his stated views on Russia in mind ahead of this week’s meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents.
Backgrounder on U.S.-Russia relations
For three decades, American presidents sought to encourage democratic and market reforms inside Russia and integrate Russia into the West. This strategy was motivated by the belief – shared by Republicans and Democrats alike – that a more democratic Russia would serve U.S. security and economic interests. That project is now over. Putin does not want to build democracy and has even become suspicious of free enterprise. He no longer desires to join the West, but instead sees Russia as a bulwark against American hegemony and Western liberal values.
Putin recognizes the asymmetric balance of power between our two countries, but compensates for his weaker position by being willing to take greater risks, be it annexing territory in Ukraine, intervening in Syria, or violating our sovereignty during the 2016 presidential elections.
Putin is a very experienced, effective interlocutor. He will come prepared for this meeting, seeking first to convince you that you both can work together, against common foes such as the “deep state” and “American fake news.” Putin wants the readout of this meeting to be “we had a very good meeting.” Your objective is different. Your goal is not a friendly chat — diplomacy is not a popularity contest — but a clear statement of U.S. national security and economic objectives and an exploration of what issues the United States and Russia could pursue together. Don’t expect any breakthroughs in this first meeting. Your task is to demonstrate to Putin that you are a tough negotiator committed to pursuing American interests, and one that is not willing to offer concessions simply to win Putin’s praise.
Here are the issues that you must address in your talks with Putin.
Russian interference in our 2016 presidential election: You must signal clearly to the Russian president that you know exactly what he did. Leaving any doubt will communicate insecurity or ignorance. You must state bluntly to Putin that Russia can never again violate our sovereignty by stealing and publishing our data, and must stop cyber probes of our electoral machinery. You should hint at potential coercive responses, including sanctions and counter cyber actions, if we are attacked again. You could pledge to not interfere in Russian elections. If the meeting is going well, you might suggest that our two governments should begin negotiations regarding new norms about cyber activities in our two countries, possibly resulting in a treaty.
Ukraine: You should confirm that you want to lift sanctions, but only after Russia ends its support for separatists and implements the existing, but unfulfilled peace agreement, or a new and improved accord. You could tell Putin that you like big deals and want to do a big deal on Ukraine, but not done over the heads of the Ukrainians. Above all else, you cannot hint at a willingness to lift sanctions unilaterally without receiving anything in return. You can inform Putin of your decision to appoint a special envoy for ending the war in Ukraine who would negotiate with his government, the Ukrainian government and our European allies involved. The name of this special envoy could be announced at the press conference with Putin and serve as the one deliverable of this bilat.
Trade and investment: You should signal your desire to deepen our economic ties as a way to create new jobs in America. You even could say that you support Russian investment in the United States. But you cannot pursue this economic agenda until we come to terms on Ukraine.
Syria: You can repeat your desire to work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State, but then ask Putin to task his minster of defense to engage directly with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on developing a comprehensive strategy for cooperation. On this issue, the devil is in the details and Putin knows these details much better than you do, so you want Mattis to take the lead. You should press Putin to make good on his commitment to remove chemical weapons from Syria, and communicate that you see no long-term peaceful outcome in Syria until Bashar al-Assad steps down. Probe to see if Putin shares your assessment. Tell Putin you want peace and stability in Syria, not regime change.
North Korea: You should warn Putin that you will not tolerate the deployment of the nuclear-armed ICBM (even if that may not be true), and so you need his help now to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Press Putin to lean on the Chinese.
The adoption ban: Explain to Putin that lifting the ban on Americans from adopting Russian orphans would be the boldest signal that he is serious about new cooperation with the United States. So that this move would not appear to be a concession, you could pledge to Putin your readiness to put in place new regulations for insuring the safety and well-being of these adopted children.
Time permitting, the Middle East: If time permits, you could share your impressions of your trip to Saudi Arabia and in particular your worry about Iran’s destabilizing actions in the Middle East. Tell Putin that you have no intention of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, but in return want Russia to use its leverage to stop Iranian support for terrorist organizations. Make clear that despite whatever has been said in public, your administration wants to defuse tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Issues to be avoided: NATO (because it’s none of Putin’s business), spheres of influence (because it’s a bad idea), alleged American involvement in Russian elections (because it’s not true) and human rights (because you have said little about these issues and therefore anything said now will be interpreted by Putin as insincere.)
This first meeting, therefore, is extremely important. It is up to you to set a tough but pragmatic tone for your interactions with the Russian president for the next four years.