The American president’s lack of experience in diplomacy could put the Western alliance’s already deteriorating relationship with Russia further at risk.

By Zsófia Baumann

The date and place for the upcoming bilateral summit between the US and Russia have been set. Trump and Putin will be meeting on 16 July in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, a longtime favorite for US-Russia rendezvous under the Cold War.

Though this is not the first opportunity for the two presidents to meet – they have talked in person on the sidelines of multiple international summits, such as the G20 summit last year in Germany and the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam a few months later – it will be the first bilateral meeting organized between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The July 16 meeting will come after Trump’s trip to Europe for a NATO summit in Brussels on 11-12 July and his first official visit to the UK in the following days. The American president’s state of mind while entering talks with his Russian counterpart, and thus the outcome of their reunion, will therefore strongly depend on the success of prior meetings with his European allies.

So far, the agenda for the bilateral meeting contains foreign policy and Russia’s interference in the 2016 US elections, both topics of great concern for European countries. With Trump’s history of attacking his Western allies while cozying up to the Russian president, his lack of acknowledgement of Russia’s meddling in both US and European elections, his ignorance regarding human rights and democratic values all make the outcome of the talks of such crucial topics highly questionable.

That being said, a meeting between the US president and Putin is not a bad idea. On the contrary, EU leaders meet with their Russian colleague on a regular basis and as Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General was quoted saying, the upcoming meeting is a “sign of strength” as it is in NATO’s interest to build a strong bilateral relationship with Russia. The uncertainty lies in Trump’s unpredictable behavior and Putin’s willingness to exploit it.

The experiences from the historic but ambivalent US-North Korea summit less than a month ago in Singapore also underlines this cause for concern. While the bilateral talks with Kim Jong-un were advertised as an opportunity to start the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it prove largely worthless due to Trump’s lack of diplomatic experience, non-existent knowledge of international relations and proneness to self-importance and flattery. Kim’s vague commitment to the goal of denuclearization earned him a pledge from the US president to suspend military exercises with South Korea and, more importantly, the opportunity to increase his legitimacy within the international community. Meanwhile, Trump was content with boasting about pulling off an unprecedented meeting, which ultimately had no real purpose other than fulfilling a campaign promise.

Putin on the other hand, is a highly-skilled politician – and not incidentally a master manipulator – who will undoubtedly try to use Trump for his own benefit. Though the details about what foreign policy topics will be covered remain unknown, it is likely that the Syrian war, NATO’s military exercises on the alliance’s border with Russia and possibly the situation in Ukraine (as it was brought up at the G7 summit last month as a condition to Russia’s participation in the meeting) could be put on the agenda.

If one wants to be pessimistic, the possibilities of what Putin could get out of his meeting with Trump are endless: loosening sanctions on Russia (that are currently tied to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula), halting NATO military exercises in Poland and the Baltics, or even pulling out American forces from Syria. All of the above would have grave consequences, not only for the US, but for the international community as a whole. Ultimately, the outcome of the summit in Helsinki will greatly depend on Trump’s awareness regarding the responsibilities he bares towards his country and his allies when meeting the president of Russia.

Cover Photo: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017, © / Wikimedia Commons