Putin vs. Trump: The SmackDown summit

For the brash American president, the height of the hype matters far more than the depth of the details.

US President Donald Trump gesticulates as he returns from a trip to trip to Annapolis, Maryland, in Washington, US, May 25, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
US President Donald Trump gesticulates as he returns from a trip to trip to Annapolis, Maryland, in Washington, US, May 25, 2018.
US President Donald Trump is getting ready for a big show.
Bigger than Yalta. Better than Reykjavik. Former US president Ronald Reagan was a warm up act compared to this – it’ll be huge. His tetea- tete with Russian President Vladimir Putin is a spectacle you won’t want to miss.
For the brash American president, the height of the hype matters far more than the depth of the details.
Just like our professional wrestling matches, the moves will be pre-scripted and each step overdramatized. Trump will claim to secure concessions on Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea. Cue Fox News commentators lauding his seemingly super human strength.
Putin will continue to deny any meddling in US elections. Just like Kim Jong Un turning over US prisoners, he may make some symbolic gesture that the American president will hold up as a major accomplishment. Russia Today will have glitzy graphics promoting the country’s return to the ranks of respectability.
While Putin is unlikely to smash a chair over Trump’s head, the summit will nonetheless feature several significant smack downs. It’s the perfect platform to showcase a dimwitted and diminished American president.
In contrast, Putin can portray himself as a smart, stable leader. Even as Trump smiles broadly, America will be smacked down in a big way.
Trump is waltzing straight into this smack down because he treats encounters with the leaders of adversarial nations as if they were Sunday night television specials. With this mindset, there are two popular draws if you want a big audience. Either beat up on the good guy or make up with the bad guy.
It makes for good ratings, but poor foreign relations.
So, what could the White House actually attempt to accomplish at the summit? First, they ought to send a clear warning to Putin. Knock off the mass meddling and mischief in our country or we will up the consequences.
Sanctions on some Kremlin cronies aren’t working. It’s time to threaten sanctions on key industries and the launching of our own information operations. Withdraw. Russia must pull troops from Syria. After the last major chemical attack, Trump issued what has thus far proven to be a pretty hollow threat. His reputation is now on the line. Show your serious. If Putin wants back into the legit leader club, that’s the price.
Getting off the naughty list is just the start. If the former KGB operative wants re-entry into the real clubs like the G8 or serious sanctions relief, he’s going need to reverse course on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Ironically, Trump may be better placed than his predecessor on this score. Former president Barack Obama was too reluctant to send lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine. Led by Assistant State Secretary for Europe Wes Mitchell, this White House has started delivering anti-tank missiles. If he indicates a willingness to send more arms, Putin will pay a much higher price for his presence in Donetsk and Luhansk.
In isolation, none of these steps are likely to work. Taken together, they would send a strong signal that the gloves are coming off. The error of earlier approaches was applying pressure incrementally, in small doses, and according to outdated diplomatic rules.
Trump’s aggressive antics with North Korea potentially offers an instructive example for getting strongmen to the table. They intuitively understand and respond to strength.
My summit memo to the president would go something like: “Your strategy on North Korea was such a success...
Now apply it to their northern neighbor. Don’t fall for Putin’s trap: offering cooperation on counter-terrorism.
Put an ambitious, achievable, and only available one time offer on the table. Russian planes need to be out of Syria. They leave, you might even get to come to Washington. They stay, we resume operations against Assad’s airfields. Your choice.”
Now is the moment to strike. Moscow’s riding high after the World Cup. They desperately want to translate positive energy into a restoration of international prestige. Refocusing the world’s attention on their backing of the brutal Bashar puts them back on the black list. After squandering Sochi, the government would have a lot to answer for if it again throws away a massive investment on a major sporting event. Yet, if Putin accepts, he finds himself in an unfamiliar position: acquiescence. In and of itself that would a major accomplishment for the West.
Such a scenario is unlikely to unfold.
Instead, we will undoubtedly witness Donald grinning and Vladimir gaining the strategic ground. He will let Russia off the hook for Syria, Ukraine, assaults on our democracy and attempted assassination of their defectors. Trump will largely parrot Putin’s propaganda. For the first time since the cessation of Cold War hostilities, Washington will be unilaterally smacked down by Moscow.
But, it’s bound to be a show you won’t want to miss.
The author is president of the Global Situation Room, Inc., an international consulting firm. He serves as adjunct faculty member in crisis management at Georgetown University and on boards at Harvard University, University College Dublin, and UNICEF. Under President Barack Obama, he was director of global engagement at the White House and spent 12 years as a US diplomat.