Donald Trump made an effort to “wake up” NATO members to the danger that they face with the “Russian Bear”. The President pointed out the folly of becoming too entrenched with Russia for energy needs. He pointed out that the Russians are very interested in re-creating their lost empire. They have defined themselves as a land-based military, and have structured their military smartly with that in mind. They are highly capable from a land-based perspective and NATO border states are in jeopardy. This is especially true for Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, all of which have large Russian minorities in their populations. Remember the Ukraine, and what is happening there. The Russians have armed Ukraine’s Ethnic Russian minority and supplanted their leadership with Russian Special Operations troops, have taken Crimea and are making a play to take the whole region back bit by bit. This may be the same fate for these 3 Baltic states, especially if NATO does not have the strength or the will to invoke Article 5 of the Washington treaty, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all NATO members, and a collective response is required. With most NATO members currently contributing little to the military alliance, it is doubtful that any response could happen unless the USA fully commits with little help from other NATO members. Our President insists that each member commits at least 2% of their GDP to their respective military’s, and the commitment should be more an upgrade to fighting materials rather that just wages for soldiers. After some hand wringing, there seems to be an agreement to his request.
This is an important first step before meeting with Mr. Putin next Monday. Nothing would make Putin happier than to negotiate with President Trump alongside a destabilized NATO. With an agreement to invest in NATO’S military capability in his pocket, that is one item that is technically “off the table”. Our President comes in to the meeting with a very strong hand. For one, Russia’s economy is small, roughly only 8% of our own. We invest strongly in defense, with a defense budget over ten times that of the Russians. That doesn’t mean that Russia is holding bad cards. Russia has invested in their military wisely, with new weapons that compliment a land-based military. They have more tanks, artillery, and more trained personnel on the ground than we do. Their naval force is strongest with submarines, with a strategy of denying enemy combatants access to trade routes. They also have a big interest in re-inventing their lost empire, as we can see with their actions in the Ukraine and Syria. A direct war with the USA would be a big mistake for Putin, but if NATO sits it out as he takes back the Baltic states and the USA disengages from the organization, his dream of empire could well come true. He is also looking at the Middle East with lust in his eyes, and Syria has given him a foothold in that area, strengthened by our lack of future commitment in that region.
Donald Trump is hoping that he can establish a working relationship with Vladimir Putin. He is going to try to work with him using mutual respect as the basis for this mini-summit in Helsinki. He would like to get Russia to step back from the Ukraine, leave Syria, and back off from fortifying the border with the Baltic states. He also will be discussing Russian interference in our elections, and Russian hacking in general. The point he will make is that if we can live in peace, the international sanctions on Russia can be eventually lifted. Putin wants those sanctions lifted in the worst way. His economy is virtually on the ropes, and needs trade to diversify from an oil based economy to one that can compete with the rest of the world with manufacturing and technology. Although that may be his main goal for meeting with Trump, it is not the only one.
Mr. Putin wants the President to validate his incursion into Syria and subsequent establishment of permanent military bases there. He is in the process of replacing the USA as the chief power broker in the Mideast, and he wants US troops out of the area. He knows that Trump has stated in the past that he wants all of our troops home. He will dangle a proposition of working with the President on containing Iran, although it is doubtful that Putin actually has any leverage over the Mullah’s.
He also wants the prestige that this meeting presents. He wants desperately to be seen as the leader of a superpower, resurrecting the leverage that the Soviets once had. This is important to him on many levels. He needs to prop up his own standing at home, because as a dictator he does not enjoy the legitimacy of being an elected leader. He also wants to prop up his image on the world stage. Since his invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, he has been persona non grata in Europe and elsewhere, and he wants that isolation to end.
Putin also wants our President to bless his annexation of the Crimea. He will dangle an agreement for Russia to disengage from their military and political activity in the remainder of the Ukraine. He will also ask Trump to stop arming the Ukraine army, on the pretense that weapons are not needed if Russia is truly disengaged from the area.
Putin will also probably throw in some kind of arms control agreement to sweeten the pot. He will bank on Trumps ego being so big that he won’t be able to pass up a “win” on an agreement to incrementally de-nuclearize. The Pentagon, however has already informed the President that the Russians are cheating on the 1987 INF treaty. Most likely Putin will bank that won’t have much of an effect on Trump, because he has in the past stated he believes that he can change Putin’s behavior through his power of persuasion.
Once again, our President is going to a meeting with an adversary. His hopes are high. He believes he can change this despot’s behavior. Putin also believes he can change Trumps behavior, get sanctions eliminated, and use the invigorated economy to build a more powerful war machine to realize his dream of empire. Trump believes that his power of negotiation will win. Putin believes his understanding of what makes Trump tick, exploiting character flaws to get what he wants will win. I for one will put my money on a stalemate.
One thing that we all look forward to is what the left will spin this into, regardless of the outcome. They may say “Putin won, and no wonder, Trump is in his back pocket”! Articles are probably already written on his failure before the meeting starts. Creative writers on staff at newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like the New Republic most likely already have stories ready to go. Editorial articles written where they only have to “fill in the blanks”. I wouldn’t surprise me if somehow the new nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, will somehow be tied to the supposed failure, with his notion that sitting Presidents cannot be charged with a crime, and yes, of course, all of this has to be tied to Trump/Russian collusion. The creativity is endless!