A Trump deal with Putin could leave Europe in the cold and weaken Nato
US President Donald Trump will take his art of the deal to the Nato summit on July 11, then to Helsinki days later for his first official summit with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, on July 16. Mr Trump might decide to be confrontational and stand-offish at one of the summits or both and could use one to get what he wants from the other.
The European leaders are anxious that the man in the White House might cut a deal with the master of the Kremlin, one that would leave Europe by the wayside, weaken Nato and produce economic dynamics that are unfavourable for their countries. For their part, the Russians distrust US intentions and the lack of coherence of Mr Trump’s policies.
In truth, Mr Putin himself might be the first to pay the price should the post-Second World War global order, including Nato, collapse, as this could mean German and Japanese re-armament. Either way, the two summits are of major importance, not only in terms of relations with Washington but also for Nato’s internal dynamics, ties with Russia and position on key issues including Iran.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis has been on a tour of Asia and Europe to reassure allies, even as the US National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Moscow ahead of the two summits. In truth, however, Mr Mattis, a career military man, is no dove and is as much of a hawk as Mr Bolton, a civilian militant with isolationist tendencies, yet one who understands well the merits of pragmatism. Today the mood in the White House tends towards strengthening the civilians because the generals have been trying to contain the ambitions and policies of their rogue president.
Yet there are concerns in Europe that the White House could sideline Mr Mattis, an advocate of a strong Nato, who believes weakening the alliance would harm western interests and US leadership in the world. As such, Mr Mattis is seen as the voice of reason in the Trump administration when it comes to transatlantic relations, as well as the Iranian issue, because despite his fiery statements, he, like the military, does not want war with Iran.
In Asia, the US’s allies are concerned that the bid for a denuclearisation agreement with North Korea could result in downsizing US military commitment after Mr Trump declared an end to joint drills with South Korea as part of the diplomatic engagement with its northern neighbour. One implication of this could be Japanese re-armament.
Mr Mattis flew to Asia and Europe to reassure friends and allies but the man in the Kremlin must be equally concerned, not because he is fond of US military overreach but because Russia does not benefit from the prospect of Japanese and German militarisation. The world order has benefited Russia and still benefits Mr Putin’s vision, despite the presence of US military stationed near Russia’s borders.
But Mr Trump believes this global order is costly to the US and benefits other nations more. He believes the US is subsidising collective security at the expense of its treasury and interests while others in Europe and Asia produce better technology and goods, secure under the US umbrella. For this reason, Mr Trump has sent a tough message to Nato members to say the US has grown tired of funding European defence and that the time has come to share the costs.
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As the Nato summit takes place before Mr Trump’s summit with Mr Putin, the Europeans want to avoid the emergence of cracks in the ranks of the alliance and do not want Mr Trump to show its weakness when he goes to meet Russia’s strongman. But perhaps Mr Trump is using this dynamic deliberately to extract concessions from his allies in terms of both sharing the burden and European policies that are hindering key strategies pursued by the administration, most notably on Iran.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has finally realised that Iran is her problem too and that there is no way to continue accommodating Tehran at any cost. Indeed, Mr Trump’s pressures have already forced German firms to diverge from Mrs Merkel’s policies. In turn, this seems to have prompted her to use a new language during her meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, when she called for an urgent solution to “Iran's aggressive tendencies”. However, Mrs Merkel also stressed the importance of preserving the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite its activities in Syria.
Mr Trump does not see this logic because he takes a more binary view and does not understand half-measures. Some Germans fear reprisals against Germany as a result, including by leveraging Russia against them. German newspaper Die Welt ran an article saying that any deal between Mr Trump and Mr Putin that excludes Europe could bring catastrophic scenarios. The article expressed concern the summit would lead to Washington ending its participation in Nato drills in eastern Europe in return for Russia suspending its war games in its western flank, which it said would weaken the alliance and raise question marks over its fundamental principles. The article also expressed fear over the possibility of the two leaders agreeing on easing sanctions against Russia, which would force Europe to follow suit.
Mr Putin is prepared to turn his meeting with Mr Trump into an inflection point in ties with the US. Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said Russia was prepared to discuss Iran’s role in the Middle East, although this does not mean Moscow is ready for a divorce with Iran, especially in Syria. However, Russia is indeed suggesting it is willing to parley about the issue. The price might not be too high for Washington because Mr Trump does not object to Russia maintaining its bases and interests in Syria - only to a Russian monopoly of that nation’s strategic affairs.
There is a lot of speculation about a putative deal between the two men. Some say Washington could accept Bashar Al Assad staying on in return for Moscow securing the exit of Iran and its allies from Syria.
According to the Kremlin, the talks between Mr Trump and Mr Putin will address the current situation and the prospects for developing Russian-American relations. According to the White House, the two presidents will discuss relations between the US and Russia, in addition to a number of national security issues. The key words here are “developing” the relationship and “national security” as the basis for accords.
As the preparations indicate, the climate surrounding the US-Russia summit suggests less of a boxing match and more of a duel, with a view to launching a set of agreements as a prelude to that elusive grand bargain. It is still not clear today whether that outcome is imminent or completely off the table.
Updated: June 30, 2018 09:27 PM