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Analysis: Which Russia Policy Will Trump Bring to Helsinki?

President’s conciliatory tone toward Moscow contrasts with administration’s occasional hard line

President Donald Trump, here at the Capitol last month, made sure a NATO summit got off to an awkward start. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump, here at the Capitol last month, made sure a NATO summit got off to an awkward start. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland next month, some observers are wondering which U.S. policy will have the upper hand: the appeasement policy of Donald Trump, or the confrontational policy of the Trump administration.

Trump himself has been almost entirely conciliatory toward Russia and Putin, and the U.S. president has often been scathingly critical of America’s traditional allies.

But the Trump administration, by contrast, has occasionally punched Putin.

“The president seems to have his own policy, and he’s unwillingly going along with that other policy,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in an interview.

Watch: Trump Says News Media ‘Almost Treasonous’ for North Korea Deal Coverage

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A Janus-faced government

Trump has been oddly flattering of Putin for years and has rarely challenged the Russian ruler.

“I’ve said it from Day One, getting along with Russia and with China and with everybody is a very good thing,” Trump said Wednesday. “It’s good for the world. It’s good for us. It’s good for everybody.”

It’s not just in style but also in substance that Trump has been inexplicably amicable toward Putin — so much so as to seemingly lend credence to speculation that the Russian president has some leverage over him.

Trump suggested last month before a meeting of the G-7 group of leading industrial nations that Russia should be invited back in to the group. Russia was kicked out in 2014 after Moscow had illegally annexed Crimea, which until then was part of Ukraine. Trump’s pro-Russian recommendation came despite the fact that Moscow has not altered its behavior in Ukraine. In fact, the Kremlin is still conducting destabilizing paramilitary activities and information operations in eastern Ukraine.

Before, during and after the G-7 meeting, Trump trashed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over a relatively minor trade dispute and excoriated other NATO allies on that subject and for not spending enough on their own defense.

It was the kind of internal Western dissension that Russians have previously only dreamed of.

Trump’s advisers, by contrast, have often taken Russia on — and forcefully. The core national security policy documents of the Trump team, made public in the last six months, reflect that viewpoint.

The new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, for instance, make clear that the primary challenge to America in the years ahead are the ambitions of Russia and China. Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review espouses development of new varieties of nuclear weapons and justifies them mainly as responses to a more aggressive Russian nuclear doctrine and to Moscow’s own development of novel atomic arms.

The Trump administration, with scant public rhetoric from the president himself, has also continued a buildup of U.S. and NATO forces in eastern Europe and has agreed to sell lethal arms to Ukraine’s government.

The aggressive U.S. policy toward Russia — in spite of, not because of, Trump — is also evident in Syria. Even as the American and Russian militaries seek to generally avoid running into each other there, U.S. military forces in a February firefight killed more than 200 forces allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad, and most of those slain were said to be Russian mercenaries.

At the same time, U.S. military ships and planes frequently find themselves nose-to-nose with their Russian counterparts in many other parts of the world, from Alaska to the Baltic Sea.

Lastly, senior Trump administration officials, but not the president himself, have accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bars deployment of missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Unspoken topics, invisible figures

The Trump-Putin meeting, set for July 16 in Helsinki, would be their first formal encounter, setting aside chats between the two men on the sidelines of international summits last year. Those included an hourlong conversation during a dinner last July when only a Russian interpreter joined the two leaders — a meeting that the administration never disclosed until after it was revealed by the U.S. press.

Certainly, one single Trump-Putin summit will not resolve the tension between Trump’s conciliatory inclinations and his administration’s much more confrontational bent.

In fact, there is a good chance that the Helsinki summit will turn out to be much like last month’s Singapore summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea.

That meeting resulted in almost no concrete plan for the “denuclearization” of North Korea, even though Trump had set up the complete and verifiable elimination of atomic weapons from Kim’s arsenal as his key goal.

The Trump-Kim meeting might yet lead to an agreement, just as the forthcoming Trump-Putin summit might deepen a bond between the two leaders that could one day net positive results for both countries, regardless of how much is accomplished immediately.

Trump said Wednesday that Ukraine, Syria and “many other subjects” will be on the Helsinki agenda. The leaders may also talk about their burgeoning nuclear arms race or the mounting number of assertive interactions between their militaries or concerns about arms control treaties — both the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the New START nuclear deal, which must be renewed in 2021.

One thing that Trump is unlikely to discuss: human rights. The March poisoning in England of a former Russian spy and his daughter, a sophisticated attack that involved a military-grade chemical agent and one that law enforcement experts suspect was the Kremlin’s handiwork, is unlikely to be on the agenda.

It is even less likely that Trump will ask Putin about the unsolved murders — inside his country and beyond — of Russian journalists and critics of the Putin government.

In that sense, the Helsinki summit may echo the Singapore summit in its validation of a brutal despot.

Also to be determined is whether Trump will talk with Putin about Russian interference in the U.S. election process in 2016 and Russian bots’ sowing of dissent in U.S. social media circles since then.

National security adviser John Bolton met with Putin on Wednesday and apparently brought the subject up. Putin, of course, denied it.

Trump suggested on Twitter on Thursday morning that he has no reason to disagree with Putin on that point.

“Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” he tweeted.

It was not the first time he has suggested that the Kremlin’s viewpoint on this subject holds more water than the unanimous and contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence services.

Indeed, Trump knows full well that a third figure will join him and Putin in Helsinki, albeit an invisible figure: the shadow of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Kremlin.

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