by The Editorial Board
It’s good for American presidents to meet with adversaries, to clarify differences and resolve disputes. But when President Trump sits down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Finland next month, it will be a meeting of kindred spirits, and that’s a problem.
One would think that at a tête-à-tête with the Russian autocrat, the president of the United States would take on some of the major concerns of America and its closest allies. Say, for instance, Mr. Putin’s seizure of Crimea and attack on Ukraine, which led to punishing international sanctions. But at the Group of 7 meeting in Quebec this month, Mr. Trump reportedly told his fellow heads of state that Crimea is Russian because everyone there speaks that language. And, of course, Trump aides talked to Russian officials about lifting some sanctions even before he took office.
One would hope that the president of the United States would let Mr. Putin know that he faces a united front of Mr. Trump and his fellow NATO leaders, with whom he would have met days before the summit in Helsinki. But Axios reported that during the meeting in Quebec, Mr. Trump said, “NATO is as bad as Nafta,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is one of Mr. Trump’s favorite boogeymen.
Certainly the president would mention that even the people he appointed to run America’s intelligence services believe unequivocally that Mr. Putin interfered in the 2016 election to put him in office and is continuing to undermine American democracy. Right? But on Thursday morning, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!”
More likely, Mr. Trump will congratulate Mr. Putin, once again, for winning another term in a sham election, as he did in March, even though his aides explicitly warned him not to. And he has already proposed readmitting Russia to the Group of 7, from which it was ousted after the Ukraine invasion.
Summits once tended to be carefully scripted, and presidents were attended by senior advisers and American interpreters. At dinner during a Group of 20 meeting last July, Mr. Trump walked over to Mr. Putin and had a casual conversation with no other American representative present. He later said they discussed adoptions — the same issue that he falsely claimed was the subject of a meeting at Trump Tower in 2016 between his representatives and Russian operatives who said they had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
It’s clear that Mr. Trump isn’t a conventional president, but instead one intent on eroding institutions that undergird democracy and peace. Mr. Trump “doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all” and believes that “permanent destabilization creates American advantage,” according to unnamed administration officials quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic.
Such thinking goes further than most Americans have been led to believe were Mr. Trump’s views on issues central to allied security. He has often given grudging lip service to supporting NATO, even while complaining frequently about allies’ military spending and unfair trade policies.
The tensions Mr. Trump has sharpened with our allies should please Mr. Putin, whose goal is to fracture the West and assert Russian influence in places where the Americans and Europeans have played big roles, like the Middle East, the Balkans and the Baltic States.
Yet despite growing anxieties among European allies, Mr. Trump is relying on his advisers less than ever because, “He now thinks he’s mastered this,” one senior member of Congress said in an interview. That’s a chilling thought given his inability, so far, to show serious progress on any major security issue. Despite Mr. Trump’s talk of quick denuclearization after his headline-grabbing meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, experts say satellite imagery shows the North is actually improving its nuclear capability.
While the White House hasn’t disclosed an agenda for the Putin meeting, there’s a lot the two leaders should be discussing, starting with Russian cyberintrusions. Mr. Trump, though, has implied that Mr. Putin could help the United States guard against election hacking. And although Congress last year mandated sweeping sanctions against Russia to deter such behavior, Mr. Trump has failed to implement many of them.
In a similar vein, should Mr. Trump agree to unilaterally lift sanctions imposed after Moscow invaded Ukraine and started a war, it would further upset alliance members, which joined the United States in imposing sanctions at some cost to themselves. Moreover, what would deter Mr. Putin from pursuing future land grabs?
Mr. Trump could compound that by canceling military exercises, as he did with South Korea after the meeting with Mr. Kim, and by withdrawing American troops that are intended to keep Russia from aggressive action in the Baltics.
Another fraught topic is Syria. Mr. Trump has signaled his desire to withdraw American troops from Syria, a move that would leave the country more firmly in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad and his two allies, Russia and Iran. Russia, in particular, is calling the shots on the battlefield and in drafting a political settlement that could end the fighting, presumably after opposition forces are routed.
What progress could be made at this summit, then? Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin may find it easier to cooperate in preventing a new nuclear arms race by extending New Start, a treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons that expires in 2021.
Another priority: bringing Russia back into compliance with the I.N.F. treaty, which eliminated all U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, until Russia tested and deployed a prohibited cruise missile.
Mr. Trump’s top national security advisers are more cleareyed about the Russian threat than he is. So are the Republicans who control the Senate. They have more responsibility than ever to try to persuade Mr. Trump that the country’s security is at stake when he meets Mr. Putin, and that he should prepare carefully for the encounter.