President Trump should not seek a grand bargain in Helsinki. There is no grand bargain to be had with President Putin, a world-class deceiver. Likewise, Trump should not try to charm, flatter, or appease Putin. Previous presidents have tried that approach, and rather than resetting the relationship, it only made matters worse.
Regardless of how much American presidents wish it were not so, Russia is a prideful country with a long history that views the United States as an opponent.
Trump should use the opportunity in his meeting with Putin to plainly state the positions of the United States where the two nuclear superpowers continue to clash. Clarity is essential. Here are just five necessary points of clarification.
One, the United States will not recognize Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine and will continue to send aid to assist the Ukrainians in fighting for their sovereignty. The president doesn’t need to say more or less on this point. If Trump leaves any doubt in Putin’s mind about his intolerance for invasions and annexations of territory belonging to U.S. allies, Russia will be encouraged to do it again elsewhere. Small wars lead to great wars, and great wars are best avoided when the small wars are nipped early. For a president like Trump, willing to use military force but very reluctant to keep U.S. deployments or add to them, this is something to keep in mind.
Two, Putin can deny all he wants about his direct involvement or knowledge in the cyberattacks on U.S. entities leading up to the U.S. presidential election, but Trump has information that shows that we do know Russian intelligence officers did it. When Putin denies, once again, that he had anything to do with the election meddling, Trump should show him evidence that calls Putin out on his lies. This issue has political consequences at home for Trump since the so-called Resistance believes his election is illegitimate due to Russian meddling. But Trump knows better, and there is no risk to him politically by calling Putin out privately. He should do so, he should inform Putin that U.S. sanctions will remain in place as a result, and he should inform Putin that if he tries something like that in another U.S. election, there will be consequences that are not worth whatever Putin thinks there is to gain.
Three, the United States remains committed to NATO and NATO is not only prepared to defend against any act of aggression by Russia, but it is also getting stronger. Trump should tell Putin that he is aware that Russia has militarized the Black Sea, is flying military aircraft near European airspace, and of course, has employed a deadly nerve agent on United Kingdom soil in an assassination attempt (which may have caused an unintended casualty).
For emphasis, Trump should single out a few countries by name that have the unconditional backing of the United States, lest there be confusion — solid allies that continue to demonstrate their commitment to the alliance, their survival, and support of the United States— Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland. Trump is tough on some Western NATO allies, but the toughness has always been due to some NATO countries’ unwillingness to take their defense more seriously. Trump’s demand that NATO countries commit more to defense is not good news for Putin and Trump should matter-of-factly tell Putin that NATO isn’t going away any time soon and it’s only getting stronger thanks to him (Trump).
Joint military exercises with NATO are essential to ensure our forces are ready and also to demonstrate the solidarity of the alliance. This show of strength is not provocative. At its heart, it is defensive, and its object is the preservation of peace. Trump should also tell Putin that he will remain committed to diversifying the energy market in Europe. Trump was publicly very tough toward Germany’s Chancellor Merkel about Nord Stream 2, the undersea pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to the EU network at Germany’s Baltic coast. The president can inform Putin that he’ll continue to oppose that.
Four, if Russia does not abide by arms control treaties, the United States will not remain party to them. Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and the Trump administration is taking action to try to force Russia to comply with that treaty, but our patience should have a limit. President Trump has expressed his dissatisfaction with the New START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction treaty negotiated during the Obama administration. As of now, the U.S. government has publicly said it believes Russia is complying with that treaty. Despite the treaty’s failings, and there are serious ones, it did earn the support of the Senate, and it does provide useful insight into Russia’s nuclear program. Moreover, the Trump administration is moving forward with the long-overdue modernization of U.S. nuclear forces as well as supplementing the credibility of its deterrence. There is no downside to telling Putin that Trump has an open mind on extending the treaty before its deadline in 2021, but that the extension is conditional on continued compliance. Telling Putin in Helsinki Trump wants to renegotiate it or extend it trades away priceless leverage. This can wait.
Five, as long as President Trump is in office, the United States will not limit its missile defense system to placate Russia. Putin will tell Trump he wants the United States to withdraw missile defense systems from Central Europe and not to expand deployments in the region. He’ll tell him he opposes the United States increasing its defensive capability to not only defend against rogue nations like North Korea and Iran but to defend against Russia as well. Trump should not budge an inch and should state that the days of the United States intentionally remaining vulnerable to Russian nuclear weapons are over. Trump has long supported missile defense and even advocated for a much more capable missile defense system in an interview with Wolf Blitzer in 1999. As a presidential candidate he did as well, and he has continued to do so as president, but it has practically happened at a very slow crawl. Much more is required to leave a legacy of a serious, robust, missile defense system in place. The Trump administration has yet to release the Missile Defense Review, which will lay out the next steps for missile defense. It should include a commitment to immediately begin deployment of a space sensor layer for birth-to-death-tracking of missile threats, including the hypersonics Russia is developing; new technologies to provide for boost phase defense, and a more serious testing schedule across the board of missile defense systems to improve reliability. The president can use this meeting in Helsinki to tell Putin there is no amount of complaining or threatening that will change his mind. It will be done.
As long as President Trump remains as firm as he is quite capable of being, Putin will respect him. That would improve U.S.-Russian relations, deter the worst kinds of aggression Putin could be considering, and protect Americans and our interests.