If he missed an opportunity to appropriately engage with the Russian President, Trump would be putting the United States at even greater risk from several fronts, including Russia, North Korea and spillover from a Saudi-Iranian conflict.
After working on scores of bilateral meetings, I can tell that they aren't always pleasant and they aren't always easy. I worked for two presidents -- a Republican and a Democrat -- and we prepared for every meeting by identifying positive areas to discuss alongside seemingly intractable ones (which in this case would include Russian election interference, their annexation of Crimea, the list goes on). A meeting with President Putin will undoubtedly be heavier on the latter but there are some areas for cooperation that can help balance things out.
US national security has suffered from the inappropriate response administrations have taken to the direct Russian attack
on our democratic institutions in the runup to the 2016 election, not to mention the ongoing Russian information warfare campaign that's manipulating online ads and using bot attacks to sow division in the American electorate President Putin weathered some slaps on the wrist -- some diplomats were expelled and Russian properties seized -- but the US responses are disproportionately weak given the scale of the Russians' attack.
The process of implementing the bipartisan sanctions that Congress passed this summer, which would finally start to send a clear message that Russian actions have consequences, is behind schedule. This inactivity leaves the door wide open for Putin to attack the United States again, and the 2018 elections are not far off.
Indeed, Putin has no reason not to attack the United States again in the digital theater.
When President Trump took the oath of office, he swore to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Preventing another attack on our democratic institutions should be part of upholding his oath. He needs to tell Putin privately that he will be implementing sanctions on time, and if Putin attacks the United States again, there will be more. Trump's past patterns of behavior make this unlikely, but it's the right policy approach.
If Trump fails to impose clear repercussions for the Russian attacks, he's also exposing the United States to greater risk from North Korea. If we won't even stand up to the Russians after they attack us at home, Kim Jong Un may not believe the United States is willing to follow through on Trump's threat to "totally destroy" his country in the event of an attack on America. That's a dangerous message to send to a leader like Kim, who has threatened to launch missiles directly at the United States and who has real cyberwarfare capabilities of his own.
The Russians can squeeze North Korea
A bilateral meeting is an opportunity to pull a new, Russian lever on North Korea. Trump has talked a lot about China doing more to squeeze North Korea, but Putin has room to put more pressure on Kim.
Russia and North Korea have a deep history. As a Soviet satellite state, North Korea benefited from Soviet expertise and patronage through the fall of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union started training North Korean scientists in the 1950s and gave the North Koreans their first nuclear research reactor. Under Putin, the relationship between the two countries has continued.
Pyongyang -- the first visit by a Russian or Soviet leader -- and has criticized Trump's rhetoric on North Korea, indicating that it's "counterproductive" to escalate the situation further. He wants to see
a diplomatic outcome.
Trump can use a bilateral meeting to underscore some key messages: 1) that the United States has specific, detailed plans to strike North Korea if it doesn't denuclearize or moves on its threats to strike the United States, and 2) understanding that Putin doesn't want to see the United States more deeply involved on the Korean Peninsula, share that a military scenario could result in more US troops in the region, which is inimical to Putin's interests. If Trump can drive these points home, Putin may be more willing to put pressure on North Korea, including financially; trade
between North Korea and Russia more than doubled in the first half of 2017.
Putin could cut off oil exports to North Korea, but he won't do so unless Trump meets with him and paints a credible picture of what an alternative scenario will look like.
Russia doesn't want another war in the Middle East
There is one area of potential cooperation that Trump and Putin can work on -- and surprisingly it is in the Middle East. Neither the United States nor Russia want to see another Middle Eastern crisis. Fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is ongoing, threatening more lives, extremist activity and US and Russian time, attention and resources.
After Iranian-backed rebels fired a missile at Riyadh over the weekend, an Iranian-Saudi confrontation is looking more and more likely. Putin just returned from Iran, and the King of Saudi Arabia just visited Moscow (and signed a memo of understanding to buy a Russian anti-missile system).
We know that Putin likes to feel both important and empowered, and President Trump can play into Putin's desire for both these things by agreeing to work together to resolve this crisis and by asking Putin to speak with the leaders of both countries to urge restraint. This is one time that we have a shared goal: preventing another war.
It's no secret that President Obama and President Putin had a strained relationship, or that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had their differences. But because the policy stakes were so high, the national security council carefully prepared President Obama to use these meetings to be candid about the US position on the full range of issues between our countries.
A Trump-Putin bilateral meeting is similarly going to require a lot of work -- analysis of what Putin really wants, carefully crafted talking points that speak to Putin's Cold War zero-sum perspective of the world, and the restraint to not get thrown by any subtle traps. Our national security depends on it.