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Putin's winning the Trump summit and it's still two weeks away

“Our allies panic easily, but this time they’ve got a good reason.”

In June, President Donald Trump held a quarrelsome gathering with European allies in Canada. The following day he flew to Singapore, where he chummed it up with one of America’s most hostile adversaries, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

European leaders worry he’s about to execute that same one-two punch again — this time with a strongman much closer to home: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump and Putin will meet for their first bilateral summit in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, just days after Trump gathers with the heads of the NATO military alliance in Brussels.


He’s hasn’t given Europe much to feel confident about.

Trump has attacked its members for not spending enough on their militaries, started a trade war with the bloc by announcing a series of punitive tariffs, abandoned international deals on climate change and Iran’s nuclear program, and backed away from signing the typically-uncontroversial G-7 statement last month. He’s also publicly lambasted Angela Merkel’s immigration policies and reportedly asked French President Emmanuel Macron “Why don’t you leave the European Union?”

“Trump is doing more to divide the West and weaken NATO than the Kremlin itself.”

Now, Europe is seriously worried Trump may undermine one of America’s strongest Transatlantic alliances before warmly embracing a man seen by some European countries, especially NATO newcomers near the Russian border, as their single biggest threat to their existence.

“Putting these two events together creates a moment of truth,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst and Russian exile now at the Hudson Institute. “All NATO countries are worried about it. For the Eastern members, this is a matter of life and death.”

Read more: Trump's Iran decision is another huge blow to America's relationship with Europe

Trump and Putin haven’t laid out much in the way of specifics, or even a particularly clear explanation for why they’re holding the summit now. But it’s that lack of clarity that has Europe on edge.


Putin’s top priority at the summit will likely be securing Russia’s sphere of influence inside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union — while simultaneously undermining NATO, analysts said.

To those ends, Trump appears to already be delivering much of what Putin could have hoped for, Piontkovsky said.

“Trump is doing more to divide the West and weaken NATO than the Kremlin itself,” he said. “Trump is the ideal U.S. president for Putin.”

Trump vs NATO

Created shortly after World War 2 as a collective alliance aimed at countering the Soviet Union, NATO formed the backbone of Western military power for decades during the Cold War.

But Trump hasn’t shown much interest in upholding post-war traditions. Instead, he’s cantankerously argued that the U.S. is spending more than its fair share, and questioned whether the organization is even worth keeping.

Such public doubts about NATO have been music to Putin’s ears, analysts said. Senior leaders in Moscow have long insisted that NATO represents a threat to Russia, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, Trump has struck a fairly conciliatory tone with Putin, regularly praising the Russian leader, while casting doubt on his own intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

“Our allies panic easily, but this time they’ve got a good reason,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who served as ambassador-at-large to Russia and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union under former President Bill Clinton.


“The president of the United States is beating up on them to make politically difficult spending decisions that only make sense if NATO is going to treat Russia as a serious problem. If he’s going to go off after the summit and say Russia isn’t a serious problem, where will that leave them?”

“It’s no even playing field: Putin is far more skilled”

James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he’d recently traveled to both Poland and Britain, where he heard concerns about the impact of Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin.

“It’s certainly the case that our allies are expressing concerns about what this summit is meant to produce,” Collins told VICE News. “And they are worried about the American readiness to prioritize keeping NATO strong, whole and together.”

Anna Maria Anders, a Polish senator and Trump supporter, said the leaders of her country are highly concerned about what might go down between Trump and Putin behind closed doors.

“We are worried. Definitely worried,” about the Trump-Putin summit, she told Axios. “Because you can't predict what is going to be said. Putin can be extremely charming.”

On Friday, Trump refused to rule out accepting Russia’s claim to Crimea, the region of Ukraine that Russian forces seized in 2014. Russia’s actions in Crimea prompted a series of punitive economic sanctions from both the U.S. and Europe.

Don vs Vlad

Trump’s warm relationship with Putin has defied explanation by many observes and stood in stark contrast to the position of many in his own cabinet, and even to the actions of his own administration.

But that’s not the only reason, Europe’s worried about the upcoming summit.

Several observers who’ve watched both Trump and Putin closely told VICE News that between them, one stands out as the cunning, savvy geopolitical negotiator. And it’s not President Trump.

“Trump is not as skilled at deal-making as Putin is,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. “Trump will face a really serious opponent, and I’m not sure he realizes that. It’s no even playing field: Putin is far more skilled.”

Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend talks with U.S. National security adviser John Bolton at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)