European governments, already nervous for what next month’s NATO summit could hold, have been thrown for yet another loop: President Donald Trump is reportedly set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on his trip to Europe. With trade tensions already rising and Trump continuing to insist that Europeans owe the United States for defense spending, some European diplomats worry whether Trump will present a message of transatlantic unity and strength to Putin, with whom he seems to want badly to get along.
It isn’t that Europeans, some of whom, prior to this administration, were seen as softer on Russia than their US counterparts, are inherently against a US president meeting his Russian counterpart. “We are always in favor of dialogue. … There are lots of issues where we must find common ground with Russia, including Syria, Ukraine etc.,” one European diplomat wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “We have disagreements, they should be addressed as well.”
“It is not bad news per se that they meet,” agreed another.
A UK official, far from confirming reports that Whitehall is aghast, wrote, “We agree with Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg. There is nothing contradictory in Trump seeing NATO allies and Putin in quick succession. The Prime Minister has always been clear that our approach with Russia is to engage but beware.”
The “but beware” bit is the proverbial rub. While Europeans don’t oppose an American president meeting with Putin, they are concerned that this American president, who already thinks the United States spends too much on European defense, might make moves without consulting them in an effort to build a rapport or demonstrate he is the dealmaker he claims to be. Trump’s decision after meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong Un to postpone military games with South Korea — which he called provocative — is a reason for concern.
“There you had — by all reports — a unilateral, spur-of-the-moment decision by the United States without discussing it with South Korea and taking their views into account and having a common line on how to speak about it publicly,” said Jeff Rathke, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Russia loves to accuse NATO of carrying out provocative military exercises. … Will Trump adopt the Russian way of describing military exercises and make a unilateral decision to scale back without consulting allies?”
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