When and where? So far we don’t know either, but the long-awaited meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump has been slated. At least, that’s what the Kremlin says:
The United States and Russia have agreed to hold a summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said Wednesday.
The two countries have also agreed on a date and location for the meeting, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said.
That’s still on the down-low, but Ushakov added that the meeting would take place in a third country, not the US or Russia. That likely was for the benefit of Trump, who doesn’t need the optics of a White House meeting with Putin while Robert Mueller is still probing whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. A visit to Moscow would probably look even worse.
The summit itself is no surprise. John Bolton traveled there this week for the purpose of arranging it, talking about the prospects of improving relations between the two global competitors. According to CNBC, Bolton wants to propose some coordination between the National Security Council and its Russian counterpart, while Russia decried the “sad state” of the relationship:
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said at the start of a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that he was looking forward to discussions about improving relations between Moscow and Washington.
The TASS news agency reported that Bolton had discussed potential cooperation between the two countries’ security councils with Yuri Averyanov, the first deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council. …
The Kremlin said on Wednesday that Putin and Bolton would discuss what it described as “the sad state” of U.S-Russia relations.
The summit, if it happens, is expected to take place around the second half of July after Trump attends a NATO summit in Brussels and visits Britain. A senior U.S. official said on Tuesday the Finnish capital of Helsinki was being considered as a location.
The use of Bolton as Trump’s lead on this effort is interesting in itself. Just a few months ago, Bolton called Russia the lead in a new “axis of evil,” which might have contributed to the “sad state” lamented by Russia. In February, before joining Trump’s nat-sec team, he wanted the president to pivot to an aggressive cyberwarfare stance against Moscow:
“I think that this is actually now a perfect time for President Trump to pivot to make it clear that he’s not going to permit additional [Russian] meddling, or meddling by any other foreign government in our election process,” Bolton said. “Whether you think [the Russians] were trying to collude with the Trump campaign or trying to collude with the Clinton campaign, their interference is unacceptable. It’s really an attack on the American Constitution.”
The United States should respond in “cyberspace and elsewhere,” Bolton said, suggesting offensive action against the Russian operatives that perpetrated the interference. Only if the response is overwhelming will Russia and other countries be deterred.
“I don’t think the response should be proportionate, I think it should be very disproportionate,” he said.
But Bolton doesn’t want Trump to stop there. As he explained during his extensive remarks, the United States should also push back on a range of Kremlin transgressions: its support for Syria, its alliance with Iran, its undermining of North Korea sanctions, and its coordination with China to thwart the West.
That makes the choice of Bolton as the make-nice envoy to Moscow rather, um … interesting. Bolton has solid credentials as a diplomat, of course, but is hard line on foreign policy and national security. He has had few illusions of Russian benevolence, unlike other members of the Trump administration — or for that matter, the Obama administration until the final few months of its existence. Maybe Sergei Lavrov agreed to the summit just to stop dealing with Bolton, but that’s what makes Bolton good for this job, too.
If this does go ahead in late July, as CNBC suggests, it doesn’t leave much time for concrete action. In that sense, it would be akin to the summit with Kim Jong-un — a get-acquainted, clear-the-air-a-bit effort rather than a climax to a specific and meaningful treaty. Just as with North Korea, there are definitely large and complex issues to resolve, but one has to begin the communication process as the first step towards resolutions. We have had continuous diplomatic relations with Russia (as opposed to none at all with North Korea), with Jon Huntsman as our ambassador since September of last year, but it’s safe to characterize the relationship as contentious, if not “sad.” (Which brings up another question: why Bolton instead of Huntsman?)
That poses another problem for Trump, however. If he comes away from a Putin summit with some significant agreement, no problem. If all it turns out to be is a grip-and-grin, though, it won’t have much payoff for the heightened attention a summit will bring to Robert Mueller’s probe or to Europe’s security concerns over an aggressive Putin regime. Bolton’s smart enough to know that, but will Trump pay attention to any warnings on that score, or especially on the risks of attempting to create an agreement on something extemporaneously?