President Trump is willing to hold a rare face-to-face meeting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin despite growing evidence that Moscow poisoned an ex-spy and his daughter near their homes in the UK, an attack that has plunged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point in years.
The two leaders discussed a potential meeting during a March 20 phone call, a conversation that the Kremlin and White House disclosed for the first time today. Neither the time nor the location of the potential meeting has been finalized, and it’s possible the summit won’t happen. That doesn’t make the prospect of the two men sitting down together any less jarring.
Here’s why: Meetings with a US president are a major honor for any world leader, even one as powerful in his home country as Putin. Trump was offering the Russian strongman a reward at the same time the US was working with other countries to punish Russia for the nerve agent attack on a former Soviet spy. And while it’s not odd for US presidents and Russian leaders to meet, dangling a potential face-to-face meeting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could make Putin conclude that he has little to fear from the US and its allies for the attack.
The potential meeting comes against the backdrop of an attack that was audacious, even for Putin. On March 4, Sergei Skripal, a former Soviet and Russian spy, was found unconscious on a bench next to his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. Ten days later, the UK announced that it was kicking 23 Russian diplomats out of the country because London blamed Moscow for the attack. (Moscow denies any involvement in the strike, unsurprisingly and unpersuasively.)
And on March 26, the US expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers and closed a Russian consulate in Seattle. More than 20 other countries followed suit, saying they would kick out over 100 Russian spies. Even New Zealand tried to kick out Russian spies but couldn’t find any. Russia announced its own retaliation, removing 150 Western diplomats from the country on March 29 — effectively a like-for-like response.
That’s what makes the Trump-Putin call on March 20 so striking. Trump knew America’s top ally, the United Kingdom, already responded forcefully to the Skripal attack, and he knew his administration was in the middle of a coordinated global response. It also doesn’t help that Trump called Putin to congratulate him on winning a sham election — even though his staff expressly advised him not to.
So to dangle a White House meeting in the midst of all that seems, at this point, dangerously naive.
“It was bad enough that Trump didn’t raise the Skripal issue with Putin during their March 20 phone call,” Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Vox. “Now we see that he was proposing something that looks, at face value, like going back to business as usual at a moment when most of our friends and allies were trying to send the exact opposite signal.”
Putin is not America’s friend
Trump consistently says he wants a better relationship with Putin and hopes the US and Russia could work more closely together to solve global problems. Putin clearly doesn’t want that.
Consider the following:
According to the US intelligence community, Putin personally ordered an influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win.
Russia works against the United States in Syria by propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Russia reportedly provides weapons and other assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, even though the US military currently helps Afghan forces fight the insurgent group.
Moscow helps North Korea avoid sanctions on its economy, but the Trump administration uses sanctions as a central component of its “maximum pressure” strategy on Pyongyang.
That, of course, is not all. But these examples alone show that Trump likely shouldn’t cavort with Putin at the White House. The fact that Trump won’t call out Putin by name for any of them is as mysterious today as it was during the 2016 campaign.