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What’s Really at Stake When Trump Sits Down With Putin

U.S. and European leaders alike are terrified of what could happen when the president sits down with the Russian authoritarian next week

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin

Evan Vucci/AP/REX Shutterstock, 2; Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/REX Shutterstock

One day after meeting Kim Jong-un in Singapore, President Trump tweeted that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” Because nothing substantial has been put in writing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to North Korea last week to outline parameters for denuclearization. It didn’t go well. On Friday, Kim taunted Pompeo, suggesting that he “might not have slept well” based on the talks. Pompeo insisted everything was fine, but a day later, North Korea released a statement castigating America’s “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” Meanwhile, reports have indicated not only that North Korea is unlikely to denuclearize, but that it could be increasing its production of nuclear fuel and concealing other elements of its weapons program from the United States. Trump isn’t worried.

Next week, Trump will meet with another traditionally adversarial leader of an authoritarian regime: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Considering it barely took more than lunch for Kim to cajole Trump to the point where he not only praised Kim effusively, but repeatedly defended North Korea’s human rights abuses, there’s plenty of concern around how thoroughly Putin may be able to work over Trump when they meet in Helsinki. On Sunday, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) cautioned the president. “I think it’s fine to talk to the Russians, but the president should clearly understand that neither the Russians nor dictators like Kim Jong-un are going to be charmed by anybody,” Blunt said on Meet the Press“They are very cold-blooded, calculating,” he added. “Putin would be in that category.”

It’s unclear if Trump understands this. Though some wish to believe the president is working over these leaders in some way that has not made itself apparent, the evidence suggests otherwise. Kim and Putin have flattered Trump, which seems to have led Trump to value their word above all else. Trump legitimized Kim on a global stage and suspended America’s joint military exercises with South Korea while assuming a handshake was as good as denuclearization. Trump has also undermined U.S. intelligence agencies and multiple congressional committees by disagreeing with them about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election simply because Putin told him it wasn’t true.

Russian election interference will reportedly be on the agenda when Trump meets with Putin next week, but there’s little doubt as to how that portion of the summit will play out – if Trump even brings it up at all. Trump tweeted this one year ago today:

Also on the agenda in Helsinki will be Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which in 2014 got the nation booted from the G8. While meeting with the G7 prior to his summit with Kim, Trump wondered why Russia hadn’t been brought back into the fold, and reportedly said Crimea should be part of Russia anyway because everyone who lives there speaks Russian. When pressed recently by Margaret Brennan of CBS about whether the U.S. endorses the idea “that international border can be redrawn by force,” National Security Adviser John Bolton refused to shut the door on the idea that the United States could ultimately recognize the annexation, a frightening prospect for America’s allies in Europe.

The timing of the summit, which will come directly after Trump attends a NATO meeting in Belgium, could also be problematic. The president has repeatedly attacked against the longstanding alliance, bemoaning how much the U.S. contributes financially relative to other nations. On Monday morning, he resumed his criticism, tweeting that the current arrangement is not “acceptable.” It’s hard to imagine the upcoming summit won’t be contentious, and that Trump won’t leave feeling even more embittered toward America’s allies. Putin will almost certainly attempt to seize on this vulnerability. On Friday, the Washington Post reported as much, quoting White House officials who are worried about how Putin is able to curry favor with Trump by complaining about “fake news” and the “deep state.”

The Manhattan Institute’s Claire Berlinski on Monday posted a Twitter thread illuminating why alliances like NATO are so important to the United States – even if other countries aren’t paying their “fair share” – and why authoritarian leaders like Putin want to do everything they can to undermine these alliances. “A United Europe – and the United States – are together strong enough to sustain the liberal democratic tradition and Western values,” Berlinski wrote. “This is precisely why the enemies of liberal democracy are trying to drive a stake through our seventy-year alliance.”

“Since World War II, we have been deployed in Eurasia to ensure it cannot be dominated by a single power capable of monopolizing, and turning against us, the resources of Europe or East Asia,” she added. “We do this by suppressing security competition in those regions. We build our own overwhelmingly massive military assets and locate them, strategically, as a warning: You cannot win. Don’t even try. By this means, we prevent local arms races before they begin.”

Trump doesn’t understand any of this, and if he does, he doesn’t care. As the Post notes, their discussions with U.S. and European officials “reflect a president who has shown little interest in the long history that undergirds America’s alliances or the collective foreign policy expertise of the U.S. government.”

To Trump, the past is prologue to his own personal relationships. He likes Kim and he likes Putin, which means they are, in effect, allies. Even more dangerously, it means he thinks these “cold-blooded, calculating” autocrats are trustworthy. The most likely outcome of Trump’s relationship with Kim is that the dictator will continue to string along the United States without ever really denuclearizing. The worst possible outcome is that the two nations end up in a nuclear war. Senator Lindsey Graham has already resumed the threatening rhetoric in response to North Korea’s recent concern over Pompeo’s ability to sleep. “If you knew what I knew about what we could do to the leadership of North Korea, you wouldn’t sleep very well,” he said on Sunday.

Though nuclear war isn’t likely to result from Trump’s relationship with Putin, the dissolution of trust between the United States and Europe could be cataclysmic. It’s also far more likely. Trump has backed up his harsh words for the EU by introducing steel and aluminum tariffs, which has led to an all-out trade war. European leaders are now in the process of coming to grips with the fact that they can no longer rely on the United States, which, as Berlinski explained, has kept the continent stable since World War II. Putin wants to destabilize it, and it might not take much more than a handshake Trump thinks he can trust.

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