As the Helsinki summit approaches, President Trump appears to be on the verge of acquiescing to parts of the belligerent strategy and behavior that Moscow has been pursuing for decades.
The summit will be a culmination of Trump’s often-proclaimed eagerness for better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s not my enemy. And hopefully someday maybe he’ll be a friend,” Trump said Thursday during a news conference in Brussels. Critics ask: At what cost, and for what reason?
Trump obviously relishes this latest installment in the reality-television series that is his presidency. The danger is that the summit will implicitly condone Putin’s brutal tactics in Ukraine, Syria, the European Union and the United States — and foster further discord within the NATO alliance, a Russian goal for nearly 70 years. Trump should consider the possibility that “Helsinki” could someday become a symbolic name for appeasement, like Munich in 1938 or Yalta in 1945.
Russia’s new diplomatic ascendancy is a Kremlin dream fulfilled. When I was in Moscow last summer, Sergey Karaganov, the head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, bluntly proclaimed Russia’s hope to dissolve the “liberal international order” symbolized by NATO and the other institutions that long sustained American power. “That order we did not like, and we are doing away with it,” he said.
“Putin is about to get absolution,” fears Tom Donilon, who was a national security adviser for President Barack Obama. In Trump’s enthusiasm for reconciliation with Russia, he seems unaware that he may be seen as ratifying a long string of malign Russian goals and actions, including:
● Uncoupling the United States from its allies in Europe. Trump’s recent sideswipes at a “captive” Germany and an “unfair” NATO deepened European worries that, in a showdown with Russia, the United States wouldn’t risk nuclear war to defend its allies. Once the credibility of this U.S. commitment is gone, NATO’s ability to deter Russia becomes hollow. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas lamented last month that under Trump, “the Atlantic has become wider.”
● Sowing political division in America and Europe, thereby undermining democracies. U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was “the most recent expression of Moscow’s long-standing desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” The Senate Intelligence Committee last week endorsed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to help Trump, who continues to deride the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.” For Kremlin covert-action planners, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.
● Dominating the political future of Syria and gaining new leverage across the Middle East. With Trump’s acquiescence, Russia’s successful military intervention to rescue Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made the Kremlin the new indispensable power in the region — simultaneously maintaining close relations with Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. One little-noted sign of Russia’s new influence is its partnership with Saudi Arabia in shaping global oil production and prices, through what analysts call “OPEC Plus.”
● Annexing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine. Trump has all but capitulated U.S. opposition to Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, arguing that it occurred on Obama’s watch and isn’t his problem. “What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That, I can’t tell you,” he said Thursday. As president, Trump hasn’t uttered a peep about the July 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, killing 298 people. The Dutch government, after lengthy investigation, said this past May that the evidence showed Russia was responsible.
● Hacking into U.S. nuclear power plants and other energy facilities in what was described as a “multistage intrusion campaign” in a March 15 report by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. This cyberassault is one example of a pervasive, global Russian campaign to harass and subvert U.S. interests. Another is the Kremlin’s covert supply of weapons to Taliban fighters that are killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “We know that the Russians are involved,” declared Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Kabul, in March.
● Poisoning an ex-Russian spy living in Britain, using a deadly nerve agent called Novichok. This reckless and sloppy attack nearly killed Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March , and residue appears to have killed a passerby this month. Russia denies any involvement, despite evidence gathered by Scotland Yard. It’s brazen behavior, even by Kremlin standards.
Improving relations with Russia is a worthy goal — so long as it doesn’t undermine security or reward bad behavior. Putin is a bully who is emboldened by his every success. You could say he and Trump were made for each other.