With the sounds of victory trumpets still hanging in the air over the thrilling summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump is preparing for yet another extra-sensational melodrama in the coming days – his pre-election wish to have a one-on-one big meeting with Vladimir Putin. Both the White House and Kremlin have simultaneously announced on the same day about the summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. This will be the first official summit between the two mavericks who have always openly expressed their mutual fondness for each other.
The last two weeks saw a lot of rumours emanating from both the capitals about the possible summit between the two big men in mid-July and speculations were high that both will be meeting in Vienna. In fact, there are also reports that during his visit to Austria earlier this month Putin allegedly discussed with Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz about the possibility of hosting a Trump-Putin summit in Vienna this summer. The initial discussion about this proposed summit took place in Trump’s March 20 phone call to Vladimir Putin. On June 10, Putin further confirmed his readiness to meet Trump in person - not at the White House as proposed by Trump in his phone call, but at a third party location. Nonetheless, they have finally selected Helsinki to be the meeting point. It seems that the successful Singapore episode has further emboldened Trump to take additional risk of meeting with Putin at a time when controversy over Russia’s election meddling is still very much alive and whirling in the corridors of the White House. Yes, his summit with Kim Jong-un was anathema of traditional American foreign policy and it generated a lot of hot air and disparagement, but his meeting with Putin will be potentially more explosive and cataclysmic for him politically. Even his –now tamed- detractors - and supporters among the Republicans will not be able to remain silent.
Interestingly, unlike his meeting with Kim Jong-un which had a clear cut pre-defined agenda, President Trump has apparently no agenda at all for his meeting with Putin. Will Putin offer to roll back the Russian interventions in Crimea or Syria? Will Putin offer to abstain from playing with oil prices through his OPEC clout? Will Putin offer to reduce the Russian nukes and intercontinental ballistic missile system at a reasonable and acceptable level? None of this is likely to be the part of agenda at the Trump-Putin summit. Now the pricking question is what is going to be the Trump theme for this get-together? Perhaps this is what the Trump aides should be working to carve out. Without any tangible positives for the United States, this meeting will in fact eclipse his recent diplomatic triumph at the Singapore summit and it will also make Putin hero, who has nothing to lose in this episode.
Looking at his track record of erratic and nerve-shattering moves in the arena of global politics, President Trump is again expected to trust his impulsive and gut-driven methodology. His affinity for Putin is an established fact and he does not leave a single chance to express his fondness for Putin – still a mystery, why. This month’s G7 summit in Quebec was a lucid example of his eagerness to do “something” for Putin. Among other contentious issues, one key point where Donald Trump locked his horns with long-time allies was his one-man campaigning for the re-admission of Russia into the club. Even Trump’s inner team was totally unaware of his sudden lobbying for the re-inclusion of Moscow into the folds of the G7. There are validated reports that in the pre-Summit preparatory meetings, Russia was never the point of serious discussion between Trump and his foreign policy team. It was as surprising for his own team in Quebec as for his counterparts when he started campaigning for Russia, totally forgetting the fact that the move for Russia’s expulsion from the group was spearheaded by Washington in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Trump totally misread the mood of his counterparts and unnecessarily pushed for a puerile point that eventually created more acrimony at the gathering. He was wrongly expecting that his pro-Russia campaign would muster enough support at the G7 summit. His impetuous and ill-planned drive for a reconstituted G8 backfired badly and he ended up pushing Washington towards more isolation in the global power structure. By advocating for Russia at the G7 summit, he has definitely won the sympathies of Putin but he has bought more isolation, which does not augur well for the United States to uphold its leadership and sway over the global politics.
Right now, after his triumphant return from Singapore, Trump is very much over-confident about his signature personalized diplomacy; he thinks that he will again score some thrilling points in his encounter with Putin, and he will be able to further taunt his predecessors for their religious adhesion to the traditional norms and discipline of American diplomacy. But he is on the wrong track this time, it seems. Without any concrete agenda, he will not be able to fetch a success story to sell at home this time. On the contrary, Putin has nothing to lose in such a meeting where he has to do nothing more than just sharing a lunch table with Trump and a joint photo shoot while shaking hands. But the question is what should be the agenda that will give the opportunity to Trump to beat the drums of victory.
n The writer is a freelance columnist.