Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

When President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit down for their first formal face-to-face meeting in Helsinki Monday, there will be little concrete on the agenda going in. While the two leaders have previously met on the sidelines of other international meetings, this will be the first time they have sat down to formally discuss the extensive range of issues facing the two countries.

The meeting comes against a complicated backdrop that includes a contentious NATO meeting in Brussels in which Trump blasted allies for their paltry defense spending and trade practices and fresh indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

President Trump is determined to forge a better relationship with Moscow, but the pressure on him to confront Putin is rising. Monday’s meeting will be closely watched in Washington and in European capitals as a test of how willing President Trump will be to challenge Putin over its meddling in the US election and other areas of disagreement between the two countries.

Fractures With Europe

Over the past week, President Trump has given European allies plenty of reasons to question whose side he is on. When CBS’ Jeff Glor asked Trump to identify his “biggest foe, globally,” Trump singled out the European Union. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now, you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe. Russia is a foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive,” Mr. Trump said in the interview taped Saturday at his golf club in Turnberry, Scotland.

At the NATO summit in Brussels, Trump lashed out at Germany for their meager defense budget and accused the NATO member country of being “totally controlled” by Russia due to a new natural gas pipeline that will increase their dependence on Russian energy.

Trump’s visit to London didn’t go all that smoothly either. Massive protests, an embarrassing protocol snafu during his meeting with the Queen, and the publication of an interview in which Trump criticized Prime Minister May’s Brexit strategy at the worst possible time, after the resignation of two cabinet members left her in a precarious political position, marred his stop in Britain’s capital.

While European defense commitments and trade practices are legitimate concerns, the fractures Trump is generating align neatly with Putin’s objective of dividing the Western alliance. Trump has an opportunity in Helsinki to reassure nervous allies. However, whether he will do so is an open question.

A Relationship Fraught with Challenges

What Trump will do when he gets into the room with the Russian leader seems as much a mystery to his team as it does to the rest of us.

“You don’t know what’s going to come out of this meeting,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “[B]ut what it will be is the first opportunity for these presidents to actually sit down across a table, alone and then with their teams, to talk about everything from meddling in the election, to areas where we have some shared interests,”

The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has many challenges, including:

  • Russia’s meddling in the US election process, and signs that Russia may continue to interfere in the 2016 midterms and beyond.
  • Moscow’s flaunting of arms control agreements and Putin’s plans to expand its nuclear weapons force.
  • Russia’s annexation of Crimea and presence in Ukraine.
  • Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his ally, Iran.

Common Ground

Still, President Trump hopes to find some common ground with his Russian counterpart. For example, perhaps Trump could secure Russian help in reining in Iran’s activities in Syria.

Trump has also mused about more ambitious goals as well. On Friday, in response to a question from Axios’ Jonathan Swan, Trump expressed a desire to address arms control. “I think… that would be a tremendous achievement if we could do something on nuclear proliferation,” Trump said.

As Swan noted in an article Sunday, two significant treaties should be on the table if Trump is serious about arms reduction:

  • The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (aka “New START”), which was completed in 2011 by President Obama, limited each country to 1,550 deployed strategic offensive nuclear weapons. New START expires in 2021. While Trump has previously been critical of the deal, Helsinki might provide an opportunity to begin a discussion about renewing the agreement, or at least some form of it.
  • An agreement to bring Russia back into compliance with the Reagan-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Russia has been blatantly violating for years, would also be a substantial achievement.

While a significant arms control agreement is probably too ambitious for this meeting, Trump might use the opportunity to start the conversation.

Low Expectations

Trump is setting the bar low for his meeting with Putin. In an interview Friday, Trump told CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor, “I don’t expect anything. I go in with very low expectations.”

President Trump says he will raise the issue of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, but doubted the conversation would yield much. “He may deny it,” Trump said at a press conference following the NATO summit last week. “It’s one of those things. All I can say is, did you? And don’t do it again. But he may deny.”

Although Trump is revealing little about the details of what he hopes to accomplish when he sits down with his Russian counterpart, “nothing bad is going to come out of it,” he told CBS, “and maybe some good will come out.” As President Trump likes to say, we will see.

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