The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is working toward a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump. In the meeting, expect Trump to share whatever national secrets he hasn’t already divulged to Putin while eating copious amounts borscht. Maybe Jared Kushner and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov could perform a barynya dance routine as Trump decides which part of Eastern Europe to hand over to the Russians in exchange for help in Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.
Or at least that’s how the folks at MSNBC are envisioning the pending Russo-American summit.
In the real word, the meeting between the two leaders is very good news. That the United States and the Russian Federation—two of the most powerful nuclear-armed states on earth—have been at loggerheads over what amounts to petty squabbles is an absurdity for the ages. One of the biggest problems is the United States and the Russians, over the years, stopped talking to each other in any meaningful or respectful way.
Donald Trump’s ongoing diplomatic dance with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un provides a telling snapshot of how the United States could reinvigorate its relationship with Russia: treat the other side with a modicum of respect and dignity; be firm but willing. Those traits were lacking in U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama when it came to dealing with Moscow. In many respects, we have turned Russia into an enemy. Had Hillary Clinton (or Jeb! Bush) been elected president in 2016, we’d have turned Putin into a fanatical anti-American actor.
All Putin wants is to talk and to be seen on a relatively equal diplomatic footing with the United States. It’s not a significant loss for the United States if we give him that. Truth is, Russia’s nuclear arsenal and dominant position in global energy trade gives Moscow that position—even if Washington refuses to acknowledge it (as if thinking Russia is not important makes it so).
Going forward, the United States must continue to empower the Baltic states to strengthen their own defenses and show resolve against any further Russian irredentism there. At the same time, though, we need to recognize the limitations of our European allies in terms of their military capability (and willingness) to resist Russian revanchism. The United States also should be willing to relax sanctions against Moscow in exchange for an amenable agreement over Ukraine and Syria. If we can countenance a deal with nutty North Korea, we surely can sip borscht with Putin.
We should also make room for Russia in a new Mideast balance-of-power (since we do not have the capability to roll back Russian influence there). Don’t worry: after the Russians get mixed up in a few more tribal wars in the region, they’ll learn the painful lessons we’ve learned over the past 18 years, and never again want to re-engage there.
Naturally, the Left will charge Trump with further kowtowing to Moscow (thereby “proving” the unfounded charges of “collusion” against him in their eyes). Yet this is the same Left that continues to venerate Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (rather than Ronald Reagan) for having ended the Cold War peacefully, and applauds the Obama Administration’s “reset” with Russia in 2010 (which saw a drastic reduction in American nuclear weapons capabilities and an expansion of Russian nuclear arms).
What America needs now is an equal, fair, firm, and reciprocal deal with Putin that would stabilize and eventually improve relations between Moscow and Washington, D.C.
The one thing, however, that Trump should not do is make any deal with Putin that prevents the United States from developing and funding vital defensive systems while allowing Russia to develop its own systems unimpeded. This would only weaken the United States and continue allowing for Russia (and China) to strengthen their position relative to ours (as we reduce our nuclear weapons arsenals, the Russians and Chinese expand theirs at breakneck pace, in order to “catch-up” with us).
Instead, the president should issue a freeze on new strategic nuclear weapons development between the two sides while arguing that the United States must generate an equal number of non-strategic nuclear arms, in order to gain parity with Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons arsenal (which was allowed to balloon to historically high levels under the previous Obama agreement with Russia).
From there, Trump should announce that the United States is going to focus exclusively on building space-based missile defense. And, if possible, try to bring the Russians along in that endeavor, as a sign of goodwill.
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s greatest hope was for the United States and Russia to be partners in peace, not rivals in war in the 21st century. We can fully realize that dream today—and we should give peace a chance. If nothing comes of it, we are right back to where we started. In other words, it’s no real loss for the United States. But if Trump can manage to make progress with Putin, he might further reduce the threat of great power conflict, which would help to keep America great.
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