Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Trump and Putin are meeting next month. What could possibly go wrong? If recent history is any guide, we have no shortage of reasons to worry.
Russia rushed to announce the summit before the final details were ironed out, perhaps betraying the Kremlin’s excitement. After all, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who has the most to gain from the controversial meeting. The biggest losers, depending on how President Donald Trump acts during his busy July on the global stage, could be America’s closest allies and the security of the United States.
From the early days of his presidential campaign, Trump exhibited unabashed admiration for the Russian strongman. Once in office, he has shown a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge that Putin’s government interfered in the 2016 elections, followed by continuing efforts to downplay Russia’s misdeeds.
All of that has been coupled with Trump’s persistent mockery and criticism of America’s closest friends. This praise-your-enemies and kick-your-friends foreign policy could reach its most dramatic display in the coming weeks, when Trump will meet not only Putin but also US allies at the NATO summit in Brussels and on a visit to London.
Perhaps Trump will surprise us, but what the world has seen so far explains why there is so much apprehension among America’s allies and so much glee in Moscow. There is every reason to predict that Trump will treat the allies with contempt while lavishing praise on Putin, even though Trump’s own intelligence chief has declared that the Russians not only interfered in the last election, but continues targeting American democracy. The risks, however, go beyond symbolism.
The itinerary brings to mind Trump’s June meetings, which left America’s friends close to despair. You’ll recall the President attended the G7 summit in Canada. Before he left, he declared that Russia should be brought back into the exclusive group of democracies that expelled Russia after it illegally seized Crimea from Ukraine.
While Putin had much to celebrate, America’s friends were alarmed at Trump’s behavior. Then Trump went to Singapore to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He not only offered over-the-top praise for one of the world’s most brutal dictators, he made concrete concessions that have not been reciprocated.
Watching Trump’s Art of the Deal in action, America’s friends are deeply concerned.
The prospect of Trump sitting down with Putin opens up a host of troubling possibilities. Sure, Trump could surprise us all. He could speak out clearly against Putin’s seizure of another country’s territory and his interference in other country’s elections. He could show a united front with NATO allies, declaring unequivocally that America remains committed to mutual defense and vowing that the United States and NATO will maintain a protective umbrella over Eastern Europeans who fear Russia’s expansionist policies.
If the NATO summit shows a unified alliance, an outcome that was never in doubt before Trump took office, it will have been a success. But that seems unlikely.
Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric has never quite stopped. In one of his most bizarre speeches, just this week he again complained about how much the alliance costs the United States.
The parallel with North Korea is inescapable. After meeting with Kim, Trump announced he was canceling military exercises with South Korea, claiming it would save a lot of money, even as military strategists worried about what amounted to a huge concession to North Korea. Poland fears a similar gift to Putin. Anna Maria Anders, a Polish senator and secretary of state, said the Poles fear that Trump will be “charmed” by Putin. “Above all,” she said, “we don’t want him to give up US forces on Polish soil.” The fears are palpable. “We’re praying this will not happen.”
Europe’s profound unease is hard to miss. Former Vice President Joe Biden said several European leaders have told him that Trump’s bizarre, insulting behavior has left them confused about Trump’s intentions. “There’s overwhelming anxiety,” Biden said, calling it “the most serious transatlantic crisis in 70 years,” with disastrous consequences for the United States.
That can only be music to Putin’s ears. In his worldview of Russia against the West, a weakened Western alliance means a stronger Russia.
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So, what does Putin want from Trump? Already Trump has delivered one of the top items on his agenda – the anguish and uncertainty among America’s allies about the forthcoming meeting is a massive strategic gain for Moscow.
But beyond the meeting itself – a triumph for Putin – Russia has a longer wish list. It no doubt includes the lifting of sanctions against Russia. The United States and its allies imposed them in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Separately, the United States imposed more sanctions over its interference in American elections, and human rights abuses.
Russia views the law known as the Magnitsky Act as a particular irritant. Putin would like to hear Trump accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, downplay its role in a civil war in Ukraine, and dismiss concerns about Putin’s dismantlement of what was a fledgling Russian democracy.
Trump cannot unilaterally lift sanctions, but even if he doesn’t grant Putin any of those wishes during their upcoming summit, Trump has already given the Russian President the item that was at the top of his list: the fraying of the ties that bound Western democracies, which had allowed the United States to lead the world’s strongest alliance for the past 70 years. What more could go wrong?