President Trump’s first bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin was already cast under a cloud of controversy — thanks in no small part to Trump’s rocky week in Europe where he repeatedly attacked NATO allies and undermined UK Prime Minister Theresa May.But Don and Vlad’s budding bond became even more fraught on Friday, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted a dozen Russian military intelligence officers for allegedly hacking Democratic email accounts and distributing the contents online in a broad attempt to undermine the 2016 presidential election.
With no particular top item on the agenda for the summit, but so much to discuss, Trump and Putin will hold a private closed-door meeting followed by a very public dual press conference.When Don and Vlad get together, anything can happen.Here’s what to watch for:
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein staged a surprise press conference on Friday morning to announce fresh charges against Russian military intelligence operatives for messing with the last election, in a move that prompted Democrats to call on Trump to ditch the summit with Putin altogether.Read more: The Russians hacked Hillary Clinton and the DNC on the very day Trump asked them toTrump, who was apparently briefed on the upcoming indictment days in advance, was asked earlier Friday whether he planned to confront Putin about the election meddling allegations.“I will firmly ask the question,” Trump said. But, he predicted, Putin would probably just deny it.“I don't think you'll have any ‘Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me,’” Trump said. “There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think.”The summit may just be a replay of Trump and Putin’s earlier exchange on the subject. After a rendezvous on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany last year, Trump claimed he asked Putin about election meddling, then earnestly repeated Putin’s claims that Russia did nothing of the sort.
Election meddling and cyberwarfare
“President Trump will publicly scold Russia for election interference,” wrote Chris Weafer, a longtime business analyst based in Moscow and keen Russia-watcher, in an email to VICE News. “Putin may again deny any involvement or simply look disinterested. Either way it is well-rehearsed theater.”
Despite the theatrics, national security officials in the nation’s capital are hoping Trump holds a firm line. On Friday, Trump’s top intel officer, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, warned that Russia’s increasingly aggressive cyber attacks had put America’s digital infrastructure “literally under attack.”“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Coats said.
America’s military allies in NATO, a group that’s served as the backbone of U.S.-European collective security since the dawn of the Cold War, have expressed anxiety that Trump might grant Putin concessions that leave them exposed.Trump said Friday at a press conference in the UK that the two leaders would discuss Ukraine, which is still battling pro-Russian rebels in its eastern regions.Read more: Trump's attacks on NATO are a matter of life and death for Baltic countriesRussia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in early 2014, prompting a series of punitive economic sanctions from Europe and the U.S.On Friday, Trump blamed his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for letting Russia get away with Crimea — but he declined to give any specifics about how he might counter Russia’s aggression in the region.
“If I knew, I wouldn't tell you because that would put us at a disadvantage,” Trump said. “We'll see how it all mills out.”
Trump also said the two leaders will address Syria and The Middle East.Russia and Iran have emerged as the two strongest backers of embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who because of them has clung to power through his country’s bloody civil war.U.S. troops fighting ISIS in the country came into conflict with Russian mercenaries back in February in a clash that reportedly resulted in some 300 Russian casualties (though none for the Americans). Two months later, Russia threatened to shoot down missiles that Trump ordered launched at Assad’s forces as punishment for the dictator's alleged chemical weapons use.Read more: Putin still has the upper hand in Syria, and Trump's team probably probably knows itStill, both leaders will have more to talk about then just their own tensions in Syria. Despite making the war on ISIS a foreign policy priority in his first term, Trump's team has yet to offer a larger vision in Syria. Putin has — and it's largely based on keeping Assad in power, a position not too long ago held to be untenable by the U.S.Now, the question is whether the two leaders might search for a way to end the Syrian conflict altogether — or strike some kind of grand bargain regarding the country's future.
Trump recently lashed out at Germany for its reliance on Russian energy imports, and took specific aim at a natural gas pipeline project called Nord Stream 2.“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” he asserted.
That pipeline to Germany
Trump’s apparent stand against Russian energy exports will hardly sit well with Putin. Russia’s economy relies heavily on sales of oil and gas abroad, especially to European markets.Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately hit back at Trump over the matter.“This is nothing more than an attempt to force European buyers to purchase more expensive liquefied gas that can be supplied from alternative places,” Peskov said.
Both men haven’t been shy about their love for nuclear weaponry or the fact that they control the world’s two biggest arsenals. Trump pledged to expand and “modernize” America's nuclear arsenal. Putin, meanwhile, recently rolled out new “invincible” nuclear weapons alongside an animation of Russian warheads raining down on what looked a lot like Florida.Read more: Trump and Putin are both very insecure about the size of their nuclear arsenalsBut when both men meet in Helsinki, they’ll likely have to discuss what to do with 2011’s New Start Treaty — an arms control pact between both countries, which Trump has frequently derided.The current agreement expires in 2021, but both leaders could opt to extend the pact until 2026.Either way, both leaders are expected to pursue fresh discussions over how to reduce their nuclear weapons.“The proliferation is a tremendous, I mean to me, it’s the biggest problem in the world, nuclear weapons, biggest problem in the world,” Trump said Friday, during his stop-off in the U.K., before adding he'd raise the issue with Putin. “If we can do something to substantially reduce them, I mean, ideally get rid of them, maybe that’s a dream, but certainly it’s a subject that I’ll be bringing up with him.”Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam, November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo