What Will Trump & Putin Talk About? Robert Mueller Gave Them An Agenda
As the focus on Helsinki intensifies in preparation for the summit between American President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin set to happen there on Monday, there are a lot of big questions still left open. One of these is pretty important: what will Trump and Putin actually talk about?
Trump, as the New Yorker laid out, has been very vague about what he and his Russian counterpart will actually discuss, particularly when it comes to the issue of Russian hacking in the 2016 American elections.
"I go in with low expectations," Trump said in an interview on CBS. "I'm not going with high expectations."
As the New Yorker reported, the meeting is only scheduled to last for four hours, which doesn't leave too much wiggle room for anyone involved. Normally this sort of meeting would be very highly choreographed, with the discussion topics laid out very specifically in advance. And for such a high profile meeting between the leaders of two of the world's most powerful nations, it's natural that other observers would look to the meeting with much higher expectations than Trump professes to have. As Trump has made very clear, though, he has a different governing style than previous presidents, so there are really only some general ideas about what might come up at the meeting.
1. Mueller's Latest Indictments
Three days before the big meeting, Robert Mueller issued indictments against 12 Russians, all of whom were military intelligence officers who were allegedly involved with the hack of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 elections. Trump, according to the New York Times, has been unwilling to acknowledge that any Russian efforts helped propel his campaign to victory, but these indictments go further than any previous document in laying out the details of the Russian attack on the election.
According to Vox, Trump as said that he will bring up the Russian hacking and the latest indictments. However, his statement on that element of the conversation suggests that he doesn't expect the conversation to go very far.
“What am I going to do? He may deny it,” Trump said last week at the NATO summit. “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ And, ‘Don’t do it again.’ But he may deny it.”
According to the Daily Beast, Trump has stated that he wants to discuss the U.S.' and Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war — but White House aides don't want that discussion to take place. The Daily Beast reported that American officials fear that if the topic were to come up, Trump could give in to Russia's demands that the U.S. military step out of the conflict, leaving Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his bloody regime with a clear pathway to victory.
3. Nuclear Weapons
According to Vox, there's a good chance that the two could discuss New Start nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which is currently set to stay in effect until 2021 but which Trump and Putin could eventually extend. This summit, short though it may be, could be a good time to start discussing an extension, or even expansion, of the treaty.
The Russian annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea is likely to come up, as Vanity Fair noted, but Trump has indicated that he doesn't exactly line up with the position that American officials have uniformly expressed in the past. That position goes along with the 2017 legislation that Congress passed, which stated that the U.S. could “never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russian Federation," as Vox noted.
Trump, on the other hand, has made several statements that suggest that he could eventually accept the annexation — statements which put him closer to the Russian position on the issue. At the G7 summit in Canada, for example, Buzzfeed reported that he said that Crimea was Russian because people speak Russian there, which was one of Russia's justifications for the annexation to begin with. And at the NATO meeting, he emphasized the infrastructure improvements that Russia has made in Crimea since the annexation.
5. Military Exercises In The Baltic States
Reuters reported that the two leaders could discuss the military exercises that the U.S. carries out in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. These exercises act not only as practice for the U.S. and Baltic militaries, but also symbolic American support of those countries against potential Russian incursions. While Trump has not indicated that he would stop those exercises, it's worth remembering that his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un led to his surprise suspension of American military exercises in South Korea.
Global News reported that Putin likely knows that he won't get Trump to immediately agree to a rollback of sanctions against Russian officials — and nor could Trump affect policy in that matter, as it would have to be approved by Congress. That is, however, one of the Russia president's long term goals, so it could come up in conversation. The Brookings Institute also noted that Putin will go into this meeting having seen how Trump agreed to numerous concessions to North Korea without gaining anything in return, though, so he could aim to get Trump to at least make a promising statement on those sanctions.
7. What's Not There: Human Rights
In 1975, Helsinki was the site of a landmark conference that resulted in some of the world's most important human rights pronouncements. The National Review, however, reported that despite this history, it's very unlikely that Trump will bring up Putin's problematic human rights record at 2018's Helsinki summit. Trump, on the whole, has been very complimentary of Putin overall — and he hasn't used other meetings with autocratic leaders to take a stand against human rights abuses. Even if the meetings' topics haven't entirely been decided, it would be a huge surprise if Trump were to use the opportunity to discuss human rights.
Politico mentioned another meeting between the U.S. and Russia in Helsinki, which took place in 1997 between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.
“In 1997, we knew what each country wanted ahead of time,” Alpo Rusi, a Finnish official who worked on that meeting, told Politico. “We don’t have that now. No one really knows exactly what Trump wants from this.”
The meeting is on Monday — so the world doesn't have to wait much longer to find out what, exactly, Trump wanted from this.