Playing with Fire in Helsinki: How Trump’s Summit with Putin Could Split the Transatlantic Alliance


Normally, it is autocrats who eagerly seek meetings with U.S. presidents in hopes of a photo op that will boost their strongman image at home. In 2018, the roles have been reversed. First, President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore; on Monday, he will sit down with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland – the first U.S.-Russia summit since 2009 – just days after the NATO summit in Brussels. Like Trump’s summit with Kim, his meeting with Putin will likely sacrifice U.S. interests to satisfy the American president’s own vanity. The summit is an ill-timed and ill-conceived foreign policy gambit that has surprised and worried U.S. allies and Trump’s own advisors – and for good reason.

Even in more ordinary times, following a NATO summit with a U.S.-Russia summit amid worsening Kremlin aggression across the globe would send a disturbing signal to U.S. allies. But Trump, who is poised to spend most of the NATO meeting lambasting Germany and other allies for failing to meet defense spending thresholds, seems likely to do something far worse: prioritize mending fences with Putin over maintaining the trust and cooperation of America’s friends.

The ideal course would be for the Trump administration to cancel the meeting with Putin and instead focus on ensuring the NATO summit strengthens America’s most important alliance at a critical moment. But as we saw with the Kim meeting, which was canceled only to be reinstated a week later, Trump’s attraction to the pageantry of a summit tends to win out over the country’s best interests. The most Americans can reasonably hope for, then, is that Trump limits his ambition to a photo op and doesn’t do more permanent damage to U.S. national security, as he did in Singapore when he unilaterally suspended U.S.-South Korean military exercises without so much as pre-notifying, let alone consulting, Seoul. To be sure, Putin noticed Trump’s readiness to sacrifice U.S. alliance interests on the Korean peninsula, a move consistent with Trump’s long-held skepticism of overseas defense commitments. It’s possible that Putin will offer Trump some headline-grabbing commitments in exchange for a reduction in America’s military presence in Europe, and it’s reasonable to imagine Trump finding such an offer appealing.

What is to be done? American lawmakers of both parties must be ready for such an outcome – and they must prepare to rebuke the president if necessary and do everything in their power to thwart Trump’s assault on the transatlantic alliance. U.S. history has many examples of Congress stepping in to stymie a president’s foreign policy plans, from the rejection of Woodrow Wilson’s beloved League of Nations to the passage of a law last summer that constrains Trump’s ability to lift sanctions against Russia. The Putin-Trump summit is another such occasion that may call for an intervention from the legislative branch to safeguard American interests.

A Summit in Search of a Purpose

Why did the United States agree to a summit with Russia now? The driving force is Trump himself, who has consistently spoken of the need to improve U.S.-Russian ties and has likely sought a high-profile summit with Putin since inviting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to the White House in April 2017. Despite the advice of many of his senior advisors, who counselled the president that a Putin meeting could be destabilizing coming on the heels of a NATO summit, Trump brushed aside critics and dispatched his national security advisor, John Bolton, to Moscow to arrange the meeting.

Trump remains in denial about Russia’s threat to U.S. interests, continuing to harbor doubts about Russia’s malintent and maintaining hope that he personally can repair U.S.-Russian relations. Putin, on the other hand, has played Trump like a fiddle, accelerating activities that undermine U.S. interests around the world. In Syria, Russia has ramped up its offensive into declared “de-escalation zones” and worsened the humanitarian crisis. In North Korea, Russia has flagrantly violated the sanctions regime, throwing Kim a lifeline just as U.S. sanctions were really starting to bite. In Ukraine, Russian proxies continue to kill Ukrainian soldiers and civilians on a daily basis while the Kremlin pays little more than lip service to the Minsk peace process. All of this while Moscow distracts Trump with public praise. The high-profile attention accorded to the summit has also inflated perceptions of Russia’s role in resolving global problems, whereas its actual significance in many such challenges – like North Korea nuclear program – is limited to a spoiler role.

The Trump administration has taken some strong measures toward Russia that would have contributed to a more positive summit at a more appropriate time and with adequate planning. The administration provided Ukraine and Georgia with lethal defense equipment, expelled a significant number of Russian diplomats, and imposed new sanctions on Russian oligarchs and their companies, albeit grudgingly. Although Trump may have greenlit some of these to insulate himself against accusations of being “soft” on Russia, divisions within the administration and Trump’s frustration with certain decisions on Russia show that his more hawkish Russia advisors at the State Department, Treasury Department, and Defense Department pushed these measures across the finish line.

Indeed, the Trump administration’s Russia policy has demonstrated the degree to which federal agencies can shape policies in absence of consistent presidential leadership. The Helsinki summit, however, seems likely to mark the beginning of a period in which Trump puts more of a personal stamp on U.S. policy toward Russia, which carries serious risks. Trump seems intent on taking back control of the relationship with Russia, congressional obstacles and the Mueller investigation be damned.

At the strategic level, U.S. foreign policy starts and ends with the president of the United States. A recent interaction with a senior European official, highlighted by Axios, best sums this up: “When you’re talking to Mattis it’s a normal conversation and you imagine for a moment you’re dealing with a normal administration. … But then you look at Trump’s Twitter feed and you realize none of it matters.” The most consistent and distinctive element of Trump’s approach toward Russia has been a stubborn unwillingness to criticize Moscow. A Russia policy in which Trump plays a more active role would be one of the worst outcomes of the summit.

The summit is also a preview of the administration’s accelerating plans for a trade war with Europe and its intention to undermine the European Union as an institution. It is a natural extension of the message Trump lobbed at the G7 in Canada: Europe is the next target of Trump’s spiraling trade war, and the president is unconcerned with the impact of that trade war on transatlantic ties and the NATO alliance. Given Trump’s unwillingness to criticize Putin and apparent eagerness to directly attack NATO allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel, the optics of a U.S. president shaking hands and smiling with Putin will contrast greatly with the combative images that seem likely to come out of the NATO summit days prior.

A Costly Summit

The costs of the president’s risky diplomacy could be high. They could include Trump recognizing Russia’s illegal claim over Crimea (a possibility he has publicly not ruled out), a promise (however difficult to execute) to end some sanctions against Russia, the weakening of transatlantic deterrence and defense measures aimed at countering Russia’s aggression, and a commitment to end American support for NATO enlargement in Ukraine and Georgia. In the month leading up to his summit with Kim, Trump ordered the Pentagon to consider reducing U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula. The fact that Trump ended up unilaterally canceling U.S. military exercises with South Korea – and that he has similarly ordered the Pentagon to explore reducing its military commitments in Europe – should send shudders down the spine of anyone who believes in the necessity of a strong NATO alliance.

NATO countries, including the United States, have prepared a range of defense measures for the NATO Summit that will increase the alliance’s capabilities to deter and defend against an aggressive Russia. Another possible unplanned, unilateral concession to Putin might be Trump choosing to oppose or water down these measures either before or after Helsinki. Trump could easily scuttle the planned deliverables of the NATO summit at the last minute and refuse to sign the communique for fear of upsetting Putin. It’s difficult to predict Trump’s actions, but his readiness to scuttle the joint statement at the G7 Summit and willingness to unilaterally end U.S. exercises in South Korea provide a preview of what’s possible at the NATO summit – though the consequences of torpedoing alliance defense commitments would be even more dire than Trump’s antics in Quebec.

Think of it as “a tale of two summits”: Mattis agreed at the NATO Defense Ministerial to recommit the United States to various measures aimed at deterring Russian aggression. In parallel, Trump’s interactions with Putin could effectively stall these deliverables. Ultimately, Helsinki could undercut the months of preparation that have gone into making this NATO Summit a showcase of allied unity, cohesion, and a common sense of purpose.

Putin’s Opportunity

 What does Putin hope to achieve? His interest is clear: to divide NATO ahead of the summit, showcasing how a productive U.S.-Russia summit contrasts with a divisive NATO summit. For the European countries most reliant on U.S. defense commitments, such as Latvia and Poland, such a comparison will undermine their trust in the United States, encourage them to question America’s commitment to their defense, and potentially spur alternative regional defense arrangements. And for European countries most tempted to give into Putin’s cajolery, such as Italy and Hungary, the image will only propel them to follow their worst instincts.

Moscow understands these dynamics well and is sure to exploit them, using the summit to weaken resolve in the Baltics and tempt European NATO members to break ranks on sanctions (which require unanimous support to be upheld every six months). The Kremlin will also continue to play a double game of deepening engagement with European countries frustrated over the Trump administration’s position on Iran and trade, while frustrating U.S. activities in North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

Perhaps most ambitious of all, Putin could seek commitments from Trump to decrease U.S. troop presence in Europe or curtail U.S. participation in NATO military exercises. Trump staffers have reportedly been tasked with examining potential cost savings of removing U.S. military personnel from Germany. Although administration officials have discounted that U.S. troop withdrawals are being discussed at the summit, Trump has been known to ad lib in meetings and make unexpected commitments – as he did at his first meeting with Putin when he proposed a joint “cyber security unit” with Russia.

Shackled by Lilliputians 

Fundamental differences will not stop Putin and Trump from agreeing to a joint statement in Helsinki that is long on commitments to cooperate and short on concrete deliverables. Trump prefers this approach, exemplified at the Singapore summit, and will likely leave it to Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fill in the substance.

Even if an optimistic joint statement is agreed to, Trump will return from Helsinki with real obstacles to improving U.S.-Russian ties. Fundamental differences remain over Syria, Ukraine, and – most importantly – Russia’s interference in the U.S. democratic process. Congressional skepticism of Trump’s approach to Russia and continued statutorily mandated sanctions, along with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, could ultimately hinder any bold initiatives agreed to in Helsinki. But there are worrying signs that the Republican party is creeping toward Trump’s position on Russia, as evidenced by the recent congressional delegation. To mitigate the harm Trump’s summit could do, America needs lawmakers to maintain unity across the aisle in support of a clearheaded Russia policy.

Since passing the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) last summer, which legally codifies most U.S. sanctions against Russia, Congress has thwarted Trump’s efforts to shape policy toward Moscow. Partly in response to congressional pressure and to compensate for a perceived “softness” against an adversary, the Trump administration levied sanctions against Russia in April, the most damaging ones since at least 2016. As long as Mueller’s investigation marches forward, however, Trump will continue to have trouble shaping a coherent, effective approach to Russia. He will also find quickly that a Putin meeting notwithstanding, his administration will remain hamstrung in its ability to promise the Kremlin any relief from sanctions.

Trump’s own advisors may also seek to counter the president’s wishes to improve ties at all costs, as Pompeo, Mattis, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats have all expressed the threat that Russia presents and the need to counter Russian aggression with real American action. It is no coincidence that Coats himself is speaking publicly in Washington three days before the U.S.-Russia summit specifically to describe Russia’s current efforts to destabilize the 2018 mid-term elections. 

Not-So-Great Expectations

Although a summit between the U.S. and Russian presidents could be productive at the right time and with proper preparation – especially given the high tension in U.S.-Russian relations – now is not that time. Regardless of one’s perspective on the “reset,” President Barack Obama’s summit with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2009 advanced major U.S. interests, including launching the talks that led to START II and sealing an agreement to transport U.S. troops and equipment through Russia to Afghanistan. Sealing these deliverables took months of painstaking diplomacy and expert negotiations, none of which seems to have occurred in advance of Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki.

For Trump to navigate the risks of this slipshod summit, he should refrain from gunning for headlines and stick to trying to advance clear U.S. interests. In fact, he could use the summit as an opportunity to correct confusion on U.S. policy toward Russia and pivot to a more clearheaded posture. His primary goal should be to ensure that Putin understands there will be real costs associated with continued aggression in Europe and beyond. Trump should finally call Putin to account for meddling in U.S. elections and lay out a clear set of measures that the United States is prepared to put in place if Russia continues to interfere in foreign democratic processes. Trump should also make clear publicly that America’s commitment to the NATO alliance and particularly its members in the Baltics and Eastern Europe remains steadfast, and that the United States will come to the defense of any country facing Russian aggression. In parallel, Trump could lay out ways to improve ties and the two sides could agree to reinvigorate mechanisms like the NATO-Russia Council – a consultative body between NATO and Moscow – and deconfliction protocols in Syria, which could go a long way toward dampening the tension between U.S. and Russian militaries.

Ultimately, Trump should be focused on ensuring that an American president’s visit to the European continent, at a time of great insecurity and uncertainty there, is done in a way that strengthens allied unity and deterrence. A snap meeting with Russia’s president with little coordination with European allies runs at cross-purposes with that objective.  The most Americans can reasonably hope for is that the damage done by Trump’s summit is limited.


Edward Fishman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He advised Secretary of State John Kerry on Europe and Eurasia as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and served on the negotiating team that designed U.S.-EU sanctions in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mark Simakovsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as Chief of Staff in the Europe/NATO Office at the Pentagon, served as Russia Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy during the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and advised Secretary of Defense Robert Gates throughout Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Image:, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons