When US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, some Americans will watch with apprehension: What if they hatch a plan that will harm US interests? What if Trump is meeting with his handler rather than his counterpart?
They should not worry. There is 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 US administration, with or without Trump at its head.
Still, Putin will come prepared, with a clear picture of the interests that he might share with Trump, even if neither leader might be in a position to achieve anything concrete.
Illustration: Constance Chou
The most obvious common ground is Syria. Trump wants to pull out US troops as soon as possible, but without ceding territory to Iranian units or Lebanon-based, pro-Iranian Hezbollah. Putin wants the US out so that his client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, can take control of more territory, particularly the oil-rich areas that he needs to generate revenue to rebuild the country.
However, Putin is unwilling — and probably unable — to push out the Iranians, even though the Israel and Saudi Arabia, which 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 does not want to send ground forces to prop it up. By helping Assad, Iran guarantees that Syria will continue to welcome Russian military bases. Besides, there is nothing that Russia could promise Iran in exchange for pulling back.
Putin could back the idea of limiting Iranian influence in Syria in exchange for US concessions on Ukraine, such as the recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia, which Trump has hinted he could consider. However, Putin is probably aware that Trump cannot formally recognize the land grab without congressional approval.
Nor does Putin expect any US concessions on eastern Ukraine, another reason for European and US sanctions on Russian companies and individuals.
US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker has said that he believes Russia has dug in for the long haul.
So, instead of seeking a meaningful deal on Syria, Putin might instead promise Trump an agreement that he does not intend to fulfill, a tactic that the Russian leader has used a number of times in Syria-related talks with the US, 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 EU, primarily German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Germany.
For Trump, it is a matter of winning a trade war and bringing what he sees as a group of free riders to heel. For Putin, it is 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. Putin is keen to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany to reduce natural gas supplies through Ukraine. Trump does not care about the Ukrainians, but he opposes Nord Stream 2 because it will compete with liquefied natural gas supplies from the US.
For Putin, the pipeline is not a bargaining chip, but a vital part of his energy strategy.
Although Putin and Trump share a contempt for Europe, they do not need to agree on a common plan of action. Both can continue backing far-right political forces within the EU without concluding 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 NATO, which Trump has repeatedly derided, but the US president’s visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels this week showed that he does not intend to blow up the alliance.
Despite making some loud demands for member states to increase their military spending, Trump signed a declaration reaffirming the allies’ commitment to mutual defense — and to containing Russia. Trump likely understands that there are no domestic victories for him in ending or even weakening NATO.
Putin’s greatest priority might 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 has not 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.
However, Putin understands that Trump cannot be seen trying to roll back sanctions on Russia and that the US Congress would probably prevent him from doing so. All that Putin 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 would not enforce, in exchange for a vague, non-public promise of no harsh new sanctions that Trump would not have to keep.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion Web site Slon.ru.
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