Trump's opportunity at the Putin summit

President Trump is on his way to Helsinki, Finland for his one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The negative media hype over this summit (if we can really consider it a summit when the two leaders have already met twice) is off the charts, but it’s not entirely unwarranted. The opportunities for this to go pear-shaped are many and significant progress is obviously dubious when you’re dealing with someone with Putin’s track record. Still, some of the complaints seem to be a bit more defeatist than is warranted.

Chuck Schumer wants the entire thing canceled, but nobody is listening to him. CBS, among other outlets, is demanding that Trump face down Putin over the recent election meddling indictments. CNBC is fretting (with good cause) over the possibility that Trump may offer a forgive and forget deal over Ukraine and Crimea. The Washington Post spends a great deal of ink talking about what Putin might have to offer, primarily when it comes to Syria, while simultaneously urging Trump to bail on the meeting anyway because Vlad can’t be trusted to keep his promises. (NARRATOR: Putin can’t be fully trusted in any agreements that don’t benefit Putin.)

Heck, even President Trump himself said this weekend that he was going into the meeting with “low expectations.”

Fox News takes a different approach, as you might expect, suggesting that Trump can make a set of demands during the summit which offer Putin the opportunity of a better relationship while simultaneously undermining the perception of America as the common enemy of the Russian people. It’s that perception which helps Putin keep his people loyal. The demands they suggest, however, seem beyond pie in the sky territory. Fox wants Trump to ask Putin to expose all of Moscow’s subversion of American elections, scale back upgrades to their nuclear arsenal and release all government records relating to Russian support of global terror networks. If you ask me, that’s the fastest way to get Putin to stand up and walk out of the meeting.

But there may be some areas of common interest where we could get something substantial out of Putin without totally handing him the keys to the hen-house. Trump has a few things he could offer which would probably be of interest to Russia. They would drive his critics insane, but that’s their normal state of existence these days anyway and the President doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with the opinions of his detractors. In exchange, Putin has his hands on some levers where we have little or no sway these days.

The President can’t afford to “endorse” the annexation of Crimea or even the incursions into Ukraine. But he could suggest that he won’t be supporting any further actions such as additional sanctions. As I said, that’s ammunition for Trump’s critics, but it’s not as if anything short of direct military intervention is going to pry Russia out of those areas anyway. Is that a hill we really want to die on? We can condemn Putin’s actions there without turning it into an inferno.

The indictments of the hackers is pretty much a stalemate. We don’t have an extradition treaty with Russia and Putin’s not going to give them up, so Trump making public demands along those lines simply makes him look powerless. Probably the best the two leaders can get away with is Trump telling Putin he needs to crack down further on future hacking and get Putin to say publicly that he will (while knowing full well that he won’t).

And what can we get in return? Putin is probably a closer ally to Turkey these days than we are. In fact, forget “probably.” He definitely is. He has a lot of influence with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With a good push, Putin might at least be able to get a commitment to release Pastor Brunson and the other American hostages. Also, he could pressure Turkey to keep their troops on their side of the Syrian border and not directly attack the American-backed Kurds in northeastern Syria. Turkey wants to make sure they stay in Russia’s good graces, including their pending missile system purchases. It’s a low cost ask for Putin and a potentially significant benefit for the United States. Russia’s actual influence over Iran is more questionable, but he might even be able to push them to scale back their activity in Syria, particularly in the western regions close to Israel. Heck, he might even be able to put a little pressure on Nicolas Maduro to slow the collapse of Venezuela.

These may sound like small steps mixed with a lot of meaningless diplomatic fluff. That’s because much of it would be. But coming out of the meeting with a few wins and a more open line of communications would still be better than either not going or walking out empty handed. What Donald Trump is actually planning can’t be known since he’s playing this one close to the vest and not even taking his own aides into the meeting. We’ll know soon enough.