US President Donald Trump will get a chance to patch up transatlantic ties this week when he meets with NATO allies still rattled by his failure on an earlier trip to embrace the principle that an attack against one member is an attack against all.
Warsaw stopover before G20 Hamburg summit
Trump heads to Warsaw today (5 July) where the White House said he would showcase his commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a speech and in meetings with a group of nations closest to Russia on his way to the G20 summit in Germany on Friday and Saturday (7-8 July).
“He will lay out a vision not only for America’s future relationship with Europe, but the future of our trans-Atlantic alliance, and what that means for American security and American prosperity,” Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told reporters last week.
Poland, a NATO member near Russia that meets its defence spending goals, hosts close to 1,000 US troops and is eager to buy liquefied natural gas from US companies to counterbalance Russian gas supplies in the region.
Aside from shoring up the US relationship with NATO allies, the speech is symbolically significant given Poland’s proximity to Russia and regional fears about Moscow’s ambitions following its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
It was only six weeks ago when Trump, meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels, scolded them for failing to spend enough on defence during a speech in which the Republican president was expected to explicitly endorse NATO’s Article 5, the collective defence provision of the treaty.
He slammed Germany for its trade practices, and shortly after returning home, pulled out of the 2015 Paris climate deal, leaving his officials to try to smooth ruffled feelings.
“They have spent a lot of their time trying to undo or explain away some of the images and the mood that came out of the last trip to Europe,” said Derek Chollet, a top defence official for former Democratic President Barack Obama.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the host of the Group of 20 meeting of leading economies, has signalled she will not back down on climate and trade.
First meeting with Putin
That is not the only tough meeting for Trump during his trip. He will meet for the second time with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom he has expressed some frustration for failing to use enough leverage to curb North Korea’s nuclear program.
Pyongyang said on Tuesday it successfully test-launched a newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile, which analysts said could put all of the US state of Alaska in range for the first time.
Trump is under pressure at home to take a tough line in his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on issues such as Moscow’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war and allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s US election.
During his presidential campaign, Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” with whom he would like to reset tense US-Russian relations.
But as Trump heads to his first face-to-face meeting as president with Putin on Friday at the G20 summit in Germany, he is under pressure at home to take a tough line with the Kremlin.
Allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s US election have alarmed both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who are pushing to extend tough sanctions placed on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine.
Lawmakers including Republican Senator Cory Gardner are also concerned Russia has prolonged the civil war in Syria by backing its President Bashar al-Assad, a strongman whose forces have used chemical weapons against insurgents and civilians. The chaos has fueled instability in the region and a flood of migrants to Europe.
“President (Trump) needs to make it clear that the continued aggression by Russia around the globe … is unacceptable, and that they will be held accountable,” said Gardner, who was among six lawmakers invited by the White House last month to discuss foreign policy with Trump over dinner.
Meanwhile, the appointment of a special counsel who is investigating potential links between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign has weakened the president’s ability to manoeuvre with Russia, foreign policy experts say.
The US intelligence community has concluded Russia sponsored hacking of Democratic Party groups last year to benefit Trump over his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Russia has denied those allegations while Trump has repeatedly dismissed the idea of any coordination between his campaign and Russia as a “witch hunt”.
Still, just the optics of Trump meeting with Putin, a former KGB agent, are fraught with risk, foreign policy experts say.
“If (Trump) smiles, if he wraps his arm around Putin, if he says, ‘I’m honoured to meet you, we’re going to find a way forward,’ … I think Congress is going to react extremely negatively to that,” said Julie Smith, a former national security aide in the Obama Administration.
Evolving US policy
Trump has signalled an interest in cooperating with Russia to defeat Islamic State in Syria and to reduce nuclear stockpiles.
The White House has been mum on what Trump would be willing to give Russia in exchange for that help. But there has been speculation he could ratchet down sanctions, or even return two Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and Long Island. President Barack Obama seized those facilities and expelled 35 Russian diplomats just before he left office as punishment for the election hacks.
While some Trump officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also support engagement, others, such as Vice President Mike Pence and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have taken a hawkish line on Russia.
The lack of a unified strategy has left US allies anxious. And it has lowered expectations for American leadership to help resolve crises in Syria and Ukraine, where Russian cooperation would be critical.
“Trump is like a horse with his front legs tied,” said a German diplomat, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. “He can’t make any big leaps forward on Russia. If he tried people would immediately suspect it was all part of some big conspiracy.”
Trump’s cabinet is still reviewing its Russia policy, a process that may not be wrapped up for a couple of months, a US official said.
Speaking with reporters last week about Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said his boss would like “the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia. But he’s also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilising behaviour”.
Michael McFaul, who was US ambassador to Russia under Obama, said he feared Trump might be headed to the meeting without clear objectives.
“I hope that he would think about first: what is our objective in Ukraine? What is our objective in Syria? And secondarily, how do I go about achieving that in my meeting with Putin?” McFaul said.
— Steven Lee Myers (@stevenleemyers) July 5, 2017
Other Washington veterans say Trump won’t be able to make meaningful progress with Russia on anything until he confronts Putin about the suspected election meddling.
“(Trump) really has to raise the Russian election hacking last year, and has to say something like, ‘Vladimir, don’t do this again. There will be consequences,'” said Steve Pifer, a long-time State Department official focused on US-Russia relations.
So far Trump has shown little inclination to do so, a situation that has heightened speculation about the potential impact from his coming encounter with the Russian leader.
“The shadow of all these investigations hangs over this,” said Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University and former National Intelligence Officer for Russia.