July 13, 2018, by Leonid Bershidsky
When President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, some Americans will watch with apprehension: What if they hatch a plan that’ll harm U.S. interests? What if Trump is meeting with his handler rather than his counterpart?
They shouldn’t worry. There’s little doubt that Putin can handle Trump, but not as an intelligence asset, as some conspiracy theorists suggest. Even if, as many believe, Putin “has something on Trump,” he has nothing to gain by releasing the kompromat, except an even more hostile U.S. administration, with or without Trump at its head.
Still, Putin will come prepared, with a clear picture of the interests he might share with the U.S. president, even if neither leader may be in a position to achieve anything concrete.
The most obvious common ground is Syria. Trump wants to pull out U.S. troops as soon as possible, but without ceding territory to Iranian units or Lebanon-based, pro-Iranian Hezbollah. Putin wants the Americans out so his client, President Bashar al-Assad, can take control of more territory, particularly the oil-rich areas he needs to generate revenue for rebuilding the country.
But Putin is unwilling (and probably unable) to push out the Iranians, even though the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, who both collaborate with Russia in some areas, have pleaded with him to do so. Without Iranian support, the Assad regime is likely to fall, and Putin doesn’t want to send ground forces to prop it up. By helping Assad, Iran guarantees Syria will continue to welcome Russian military bases. Besides, there’s nothing Russia could promise Iran in exchange for pulling back.
Putin could back the idea of limiting Iranian influence in Syria in exchange for U.S. concessions on Ukraine, such as the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, which Trump has hinted he could consider. Putin is probably aware, however, that Trump can’t formally recognize the land grab without congressional approval. Nor does Putin expect any U.S. concessions on eastern Ukraine, another reason for European and American sanctions on Russian companies and individuals. Trump’s envoy for eastern Ukraine, Kurt Volker, said recently he believed that Russia had dug in for the long haul.
So, instead of seeking a meaningful deal on Syria, Putin may instead promise Trump an agreement he doesn’t intend to fulfill, a tactic the Russian leader has used a number of times in Syria-related talks with the U.S. and in Ukraine-related negotiations with France and Germany. Trump likes to announce deals; Putin could have something for him on Syria, perhaps a new edition of de-escalation zones free from Iranian forces.
Another area of common interest is undermining the European Union, primarily Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Germany. For Trump, it’s a matter of winning a trade war and bringing what he sees as a group of free riders to heel. For Putin, it’s a matter of ending sanctions: Merkel is one of the few remaining staunch advocates for the restrictions in Europe; the more right-wing governments in Italy, Austria and Hungary would like to lift them and resume business as usual with Russia.
Yet Putin and Trump are unlikely to reach a consensus on weakening Merkel. The Russian leader is keen to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany to reduce natural gas supplies through Ukraine. Trump doesn’t care about the Ukrainians, but he opposes Nord Stream 2 because it will compete with liquefied natural gas supplies from the U.S. For Putin, the pipeline isn’t a bargaining chip, but a vital part of his energy strategy.
Although Putin and Trump share a contempt for Europe, they don’t need to agree on a common action plan. Both can continue backing far-right political forces within the EU without doing any kind of deal: Their uncoordinated efforts are doing as much damage as any joint ones would.
Putin is interested in promoting the disintegration of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has repeatedly derided. But the U.S. president’s visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels this week showed that he doesn’t intend to blow up the alliance. Despite making some loud demands for member states to increase their military spending, he signed a declaration reaffirming the allies’ commitment to mutual defense — and to containing Russia. Trump likely understands there are no domestic victories for him in ending or even weakening NATO.
Putin’s greatest priority may be to remove the sanctions that prevent Russian capital from circulating freely. The economic system he has built requires access to external markets, and the Kremlin hasn’t been shy about buying influence in the West. Strong evidence exists that Trump’s real estate business has already benefited from that source of cash.
Putin understands, however, that Trump can’t be seen trying to roll back Russia sanctions and that Congress would probably prevent him from doing so. All the Russian leader can hope for is an informal moratorium on new measures, including sanctions against the European companies that fund Nord Stream 2.
Trump and Putin share some interests and goals, but it will be hard to formalize them or even to package them into informal bargains that both parties would hold up. The most that can come from the meeting is a nebulous agreement on limiting Iran’s influence in Syria that Russia won’t enforce, in exchange for a vague, non-public promise of no harsh new sanctions that Trump won’t have to keep.