Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.
The eyes of the world are now on Donald Trump’s performance in Helsinki next week against a formidable foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As Trump emerges from administering a fresh round of tongue-lashings to his NATO allies, not to mention a contentious visit to the United Kingdom, many of us will be keenly observing which leader – the American or the Russian – out-mansplains the other.
The smart money is on Putin, a sly former KGB agent with a black belt in judo. But unlike the heady days of glasnost, there will be no chic, Raisa Gorbachev-type first lady from the Russian side to satisfy the appetites of fashion watchers. With Putin’s rumored partner, gold-winning Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, rarely making public appearances, Melania Trump will have the stage all to herself.
The timing of the summit, expected to last about five hours and include a one-on-one with the two men, is eerie: it occurs almost four years to the day when a Malaysia airliner was blown out of the sky over eastern Ukraine. According to a Dutch-led team of investigators, flight MH 17 was struck by a BUK missile transported from a Russian Air Force base to Ukraine. Russia has never apologized to the families of the 298 victims, let alone owned up to any involvement. We can be certain that Trump, who has suggested pro-Russian rebels aren’t to blame for the downing, won’t bring up the matter.
Another safe prediction is that Trump will tread carefully around the issue of Russian meddling in US elections, even though the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee and multiple intelligence agencies have affirmed that Moscow tried to help Trump win the 2016 election.
The President is extremely paranoid that his thin election win could be delegitimized by allegations of foreign interference or collusion, yet he needs to put the Russians on notice that further meddling in this year’s November midterms and beyond is unacceptable. An indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers announced Friday by the US Justice Department ought to make it that much more difficult for Putin to receive absolution from Trump on election meddling.
But one thing is abundantly clear. Trump, who is obsessed with his place in history, will likely not wish to leave Helsinki without cementing a deal. The North Korea gambit didn’t turn out as he expected. He needs a real foreign policy win now.
This is why big-ticket items such as Crimea, Syria, the future of the Donbas – where in 2014 Russian-backed rebels invaded Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine, starting a conflict which has claimed well over 10,000 lives and displaced millions – arms control and terrorism are likely to be on the agenda.
In exchange for Russian cooperation on fighting ISIS or exiting Syria, Trump could offer to recognize Russian ownership of Crimea, which it forcibly annexed in 2014. While the move would infuriate Kiev and European allies, Trump may have already signaled that he is inclined to grant Moscow this win: a Buzzfeed article citing unnamed diplomatic sources alludes to this possibility. If he did, such recognition could potentially set in motion the lifting of US sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration shortly after its “little green men” landed on the peninsula and even pave the way for re-admission of Russia into the G7, which Trump suggested in early June.
Sadly, Trump may not have the capacity to process what legitimizing the first major annexation of territory in Europe since the end of the Second World War would mean for Putin: a free pass to seize additional territory – with the three Baltic states serving as easy pickings. It would also send the wrong message to other rogue states that US promises or threats mean very little.
But it seems that the groundwork for easing up on Putin’s past misdeeds was laid during the Independence Day weekend visit of several GOP lawmakers to Moscow. In their public statements, few had anything bad to say about the regime – several voiced hopes for a “new beginning” in the relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Given the high stakes for Ukraine, former US Ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center John Herbst told me recently that he doesn’t expect a change of US policy toward Crimea, but added: “I do not rule out President Trump saying something unhelpful about Crimea.”
And just before departing for Europe, Trump pushed the possibility of detente further, describing the upcoming meeting with the same alpha male confidence with which he handles real estate deals: “I have NATO. I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil. And I have Putin. Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?” And when asked if he regarded Putin as an ally or an enemy, Trump said he saw the Russian leader as a “competitor.”
Eager to reduce existing headwinds to economic growth, Russia may be looking for a dignified way to rid itself of punishing Western sanctions that have placed many officials in Putin’s inner circle on a blacklist. Could the two men surprise us with a deal that hands the Donbas back to Ukraine in exchange for a Russian sphere of influence elsewhere, such as in Syria? With a rising death toll, widespread damage to infrastructure and even growing criticism from the Russian media, it may no longer be worth it for Putin to continue this particular war.
But then, as diplomats remind me, when has Putin ever cared about Russia’s international reputation? And with Syria and the Donbas acting as convenient distractions to economic ills at home, why get rid of them?
As for the master of the Art of the Deal, Trump has strengths and weaknesses to consider in the run-up to July 16. His base probably couldn’t care less about what happens in Helsinki, so he has a free hand to deal with Putin in a way few other US presidents have. But, as former CIA Director John Brennan has suggested, the Russians may have kompromat, or compromising material, on Trump from his days as a property developer and beauty contest host, and that could tie his hands significantly.
As much as Trump needs a big foreign policy win, what is more important to him is protecting himself, no matter what the cost. So, it is not unthinkable for him to make concessions to Putin in return for keeping quiet on whatever dirt the Russians may have on him. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has described reports of the Russians holding kompromat on Trump as “utter nonsense.
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To be sure, few US-Russia summits have had this level of suspense. The outcome is further complicated with the two men sharing such grievances as fake news and hidden enemies. This will be even more the case with Trump coming out of the NATO summit portraying traditional allies, such as Germany, as controlled by Russia.
Trump likes to fashion himself after Winston Churchill. But, in the end, the trip may end up alienating America’s closest European allies for at least a generation and erode American power for decades to come.