Trump and America’s allies must stand firm while also not sleep-walking into war.
The summit between President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki is now a certainty. While all such encounters between the United States and Russia carry strategic weight, this one is crucial. The Russian meeting is preceded by Trump’s fraught attendance at the July 11–12 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and a next-day visit to an uneasy United Kingdom. This means the Helsinki summit will climax what may prove to be the most-important six-day period so far this century. Every foreign power —not least, China—will watch closely.
President Vladimir Putin’s obvious goal is to cement and extend his remarkable strategic achievements of the past several years. America’s goals are unclear.
This is a crisis, and it’s time for both sides of America’s domestic political scene to display unity. The United States has its existential security priorities at stake. Washington needs a bipartisan approach to pursue genuine progress in relations with Russia, but also to minimize the prospect of irreparable damage inflicted by rogue behavior. Faced with a savvy, experienced and ruthless interlocutor such as Putin, the U.S. president and entire government must be on guard. Progress in spheres of mutual interest might be reassuring at home and to America’s nervous allies, but Washington dares not sweep away or minimize the core concerns regarding America’s long-term security —or that of its long-term, genuinely indispensable allies.
What occurs—or does not occur—initially at NATO will be closely monitored and analyzed on the eve of the U.S.-Russia Summit. This especially includes the atmosphere, mood, and the ability of America and its allies to continue and collectively plan for crises in long-term. The results of this assessment will inform Putin’s stance and negotiating position. Furthermore, this may be beyond the broad outlines Washington already anticipates. It certainly will play into the psychology of the meeting—the strategy and tactics of discussion, negotiation and diplomacy that go further than this one-on-one meeting. In fact, the Trump-Putin summit will inform U.S. foreign and domestic-policy over the foreseeable future.
As such, the significance of all three upcoming Trump encounters, especially NATO and Helsinki, make them now inextricably intertwined. If the President and his twenty-eight NATO counterparts can get through a surely spirited, frank but somehow collegial session it would level the playing field with Russia. This would be especially true if the NATO summit results in a message of unity and resolve, one that sends a powerful message to the Russians.
If Russia senses or worse sees publically manifested rancor and division among the NATO allies, then the Trump-Putin Summit will become inordinately perilous for NATO. The unity and steadiness of the Atlantic Alliance, one that has weathered numerous dramatic moments over its sixty-nine-year existence, would be in danger.
This is a potential bellwether, a strategic moment where much can go wrong. However, it is critical to focus on its potential benefits as well. The key is President Trump, will he stay disciplined and on message, and if he improvises, could any aspect of such be actually positive?
Right up front, any such Trump-Putin meeting must not minimize the deep issues and grievances between America and Russia. To be credible with an astute interlocutor such as Putin, at a minimum Trump must make more than a desultory mention of the 2016 electoral hacks, the war in Ukraine and the illegal Crimean annexation, corrosive cyber “gray zone” activities versus allies and America, and chemical weapons transgressions amplified by the latest Novichok nerve agent revelation in England. Furthermore, Trump should strongly reiterate the potential costs of any confirmed cyber intrusions into our upcoming November 2018 mid-term elections. In turn, he will have to be prepared to defend NATO’s peaceful enlargement, remind Putin why sanctions are in place and address phobic Russian perceptions of U.S. regime change efforts. Without addressing these, no credible discussion leading even to rudimentary transparency and minimal problem-solving can transpire on issues crying for coordinated attention such as the badly-atrophied Arms Control regimen, Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, counterterrorism and the Arctic.
Much of my nearly four-decade career was oriented on the Soviet Union and Russia. My duty began as a young Cold War-era U.S. Army seco nd lieutenant as part of a nuclear-capable howitzer unit fixated on defending West Germany against a Soviet—Warsaw Pact onslaught (we never want to go back to that Dr. Strangelove world again!. My final posting was as the U.S Senior Military Attache to Moscow during tumultuous 2012-2014, where I have been working deeply and persistently on both hard and soft power aspects of Russia. As such I want to focus the rest of this short article on some stark security-focused aspects that beg highlighting because if America gets this wrong, both Washington and Moscow risk worse case inadvertently blowing each other and everyone else off the planet in a horrific 1914-esque “how did we get here moment?!”
It’s essential we review the fundamentals of why it is so important that these two men, the leaders of the world’s most lethal, nuclear-tipped nations, develop a relationship, as unsavory it may appear to some.
First and most frightening, heavily-armed U.S. and Russian military platforms continue to fly, cruise and face each other worldwide. This proximity, especially during tense times coupled with a dearth of military to military contacts to mitigate the dangers of a cyber-fast accident or incident risking regional or global catastrophe.
Therefore a hierarchy of pragmatic contact from strategic top to operational and even tactical down must be reestablished worldwide between America and Russia. Goodness will not flow from the bottom up but rather starts with the Presidents. Nothing of stabilizing consequence will occur without some relationship between the two. From such, the existing senior-level military contacts between Washington D.C., Brussels and Moscow could be expanded and reinforced. These conduits should be further built out to include U.S. and Russian military commanders and staffs world-wide, representing corresponding forces in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Arctic and strategic nuclear forces.
The familiarity and “de-demonization” that would come from frank, regular dialogue between these key interlocutors worldwide is especially important in an era when U.S., NATO and Russian operational leaders very rarely meet. Major changes in relationship, attitude or posture do not magically happen. Such require planned encounters between enabled interlocutors, face-to-face meetings bringing some semblance of a relationship even if stressed and distrustful. It is from such meeting that an understanding on key issues, if not agreement, can emerge along with some personal familiarity that helps to break-down this near-organic distrust. One does not want commanders who have never met trying to initially deconflict a fast-breaking crisis in distant regions far from Washington DC or Moscow.
Paradoxically these links were more robust during the depths of the Cold War. But thankfully the current deconfliction mechanism between Russia and U.S. forces in and around Syria provides a possible baseline from which to build. Looking back, as difficult as it was, we saw another example of this in mid-1990s Bosnia where U.S., NATO and Russian forces worked to contain the violence that had engulfed former Yugoslavia after its break-up.
Providing context for this discussion, I just spent two weeks in Russia visiting Moscow and two provincial cities in the hinterland. Throughout I spoke to numerous Russians veterans, thinktankers and academics, citizens and expats. The prospect of a Trump-Putin Summit was in the air but not confirmed. What I found was a proud, almost defiant Russia firmly supporting, despite occasional domestic demonstrations and flare-ups, a re-elected Putin who appears firmly and confidently in Russia’s saddle after eighteen years of power. The country was deeply absorbed in World Cup preparations, reveling in the completion of its eleven-mile Kerch Strait connector bridge from the Russian mainland to annexed Crimea, and state media was paying close attention to G7 discord and the just announced U.S. tariffs. The level of distrust toward the U.S. and West overall was even higher from my time in Moscow during 2014 and seemingly more mean-spirited too. This level of distrust and mean-spiritedness was also reflected in American views towards Russia. Particularly troubling was a discussion of potential war—amplified on late-night state-owned television—with the U.S. and the West that permeated not just through policy and political entities also through Russian society. The Russians do not want war, but are preparing militarily and societally for it in a way that it is difficult for our own distracted public to fathom.
Putin’s Russia seems to be muddling through and playing its weak economic and geostrategic hand unusually well and flexibly during these complex times. It appears to be adequately deflecting domestic backlash with its state-controlled media and constant denial of any substantive bad news and egregious acts. The sanctions regime was placed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and later transgressions. While those embargos remain quite irritating to Russian elites and slow down military modernization, they also seem no longer as convincingly coercive as they appeared between 2014–2016. Workarounds proliferate whether through foodstuffs grown locally in all-season greenhouses and Russia has increased imports from China, Central Asia, the Caucasus and even some from Europe. Russia is exercising its own resilience and, up to some difficult-to-define point, the Russian population—including the bulk of its youth—is on board and proud of their proclaimed toughness.
This is the environment in Russia and the source of Vladimir Putin’s strength and renewed confidence that serves as the backdrop to his meeting with President Trump. Moreover, Trump despite his own confidence represents a politically divided America, one that is the key member of an increasingly uncertain Alliance. The Russians were positive, in some quarters elated, when he won the Presidential election, but then disappointed when relations continued to worsen. My canvasing discerned that the Russian population, while wary, do want better relations with America and hope that Trump and Putin can achieve a favorable relationship and reduction in tensions. Notably, the Russian mainstream, perhaps as a manifestation of its totally different societies, does not fully understand the depths of American anger with its current regime, particularly over the Russian cyber intrusions into America’s cherished body politic during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In closing to borrow the famous line from Churchill, much of America’s relationship with Russia remains “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The United States must come out of this summit with at least a small fraction of the tension-reducing points outlined above. In doing so, both sides would break down perception barriers and help demystify each other. Otherwise, if the summit fails to accomplish this, America and Russia are fated to continue living in an increasingly dangerous, hair-trigger world where over-reaction based on the miscalculation of threat and intention could ruin all that is dear to us.
Brig. Gen. (retired) Peter B. Zwack writes as the senior Russia-Eurasia fellow from the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. These are his own views and perspectives. He is publishing a personal memoir of his experiences in Russia— Swimming the Volga —later this year.
Image: Belarusian military jets fly during the Zapad 2017 war games near the village of Volka, Belarus September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Grits/Pool