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History shows why Trump needs clear objectives for Putin summit

President Donald Trump speaks besides U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a news conference at the 2018 NATO Summit.
President Trump speaks besides Secretary of State Pompeo during a news conference at the 2018 NATO Summit on July 12, 2018, in Brussels. He will go to Helsinki next week. Photo: Jasper Juinen via Getty Images

Next week's Helsinki summit poses the risk that President Trump could make a rash offer to Vladimir Putin in an attempt to improve U.S.–Russian relations. It's possible he might recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, assent to Syrian President Assad’s continued rule or waver on America’s commitment to NATO.

The big picture: As much as Trump may want to turn the page with Putin, his recent call for a one-on-one meeting without aides is risky. Putin is a shrewd negotiator. A conciliatory approach with Russia has not worked out for the past three American presidents or a long list of European leaders, and it likely won't for Trump either.

Putin has been playing leaders for years:

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel spearheaded the Minsk agreement in 2015 to end the Ukraine war, which Russia never seriously implemented.
  • Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered the end to the Russian–Georgian war in 2008. Putin reportedly signed off on the ceasefire, but Russia flouted it nonetheless.
  • Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all thought maintaining a personal rapport with their Russian counterpart would advance U.S. interests. In most cases, it didn't. (Clinton's attempt to cultivate Russia ended in bitterness over the Kosovo war, while Bush's own infamous overtures preceded Russia's invasion of Georgia.)

Trump wants splashy deliverables to show he can go toe-to-toe with Putin on the global stage. But instead of agreeing to whatever Putin wants on Ukraine or Syria for the sake of a deal, Trump should articulate a vision for how his administration plans to secure U.S. interests vis-à-vis Russia. Reviving arms-control discussions or agreeing to increase educational, cultural and scientific exchanges would be good places to start. Both would help rebuild trust and lay the groundwork for future improvements in relations.

The bottom line: Trump boasts of not “preparing very much” for high-stakes diplomacy — an approach that has not secured results with North Korea's denuclearization. To avoid getting played again, he should approach the Helsinki summit with concrete objectives to avoid improvising a costly deal.

Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

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