U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Helsinki next week to try to find some basis for easing tensions between the two countries. They have disagreed over a host of issues, including Ukraine, Syria and alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election. The Russians have already proposed some compromises: In May, they offered to have Iranian forces move back from the Israel-Syria border, according to Israeli media. They made the same offer before but with few details. What the Russians really want is an end to U.S. sanctions, and they are not going to get that in exchange for a vague and reversible agreement on Iranian withdrawal from southern Syria. The United States needs concessions on the issue that began the decline in relations in the first place: Ukraine. This would involve clear and open withdrawal of all Russian support for forces there, and the creation of some sort of arrangement in Crimea that allows Crimea to exist formally outside of Russia.
The problem for Putin is that, even though the sanctions are hurting, he can’t concede anything significant, much less complete withdrawal from eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The problem for Trump is that his hands are tied by the ongoing Mueller investigation. He needs a win in these negotiations. He has long touted his skills as a negotiator, and Russia and North Korea are his chance to demonstrate them. But negotiating means making concessions, and any concessions will be attacked immediately as evidence that the Russians have some hold over him. Therefore, to get what he wants, Trump needs to come up with a radical strategy.
Imagine the following scenario. Trump concedes to Putin that they are both are in a tough spot. He argues that, for all of Russia’s maneuvers on the international front, all Putin really managed to do is demonstrate Russian weakness in Ukraine, launch a pointless intervention in Syria and unite the Republicans and Democrats in their hostility toward Moscow. Now even the Germans have to pretend to be hostile to Russia. In addition, Moscow’s plans to raise the retirement age in Russia have caused a dip in Putin’s popularity ratings. Putin is, Trump could argue, in an exceedingly difficult predicament he can’t get out of on his own.
Trump then says that he doesn’t really care about Russian incursions in eastern Ukraine and that Israel can hold its own against Russia and Iran anyway. And he also points out what Putin already knows: The U.S. can increase sanctions if it wants to, and Russian fantasies about an alliance with China probably won’t materialize into anything. The Chinese have more than enough problems at home to be willing to align themselves with Russia and face the wrath of the West that will come along with it.
But Trump also admits that he too is in a bind. He’s been portrayed as a Russian puppet by the Democrats, making it difficult for him to come to any agreement with Moscow. He’s also facing midterm Congressional elections in November, and he needs all the Republican support he can get. He therefore suggests a compromise. Putin, he proposes, makes solid and significant concessions on Ukraine or Syria or some other matter likely to grab the media’s attention. This would give Trump a boost in credibility, which he sorely needs at home. In exchange, he agrees to lift sanctions and enhance economic relations, which Putin desperately needs given the state of oil prices.
Putin caused this mess, he’ll argue, so Putin will have to be the one who appears to be making the biggest concession. It may hurt him in the polls, but he’s not facing an election in the near term and Trump is. And if this plan succeeds in pulling the Russian economy back from the brink, no one will remember that Putin gave in to the Americans anyway.
It would be a gutsy move, but it’s hard to see how either side gets what it wants without some alignment of interests. And this is the only alignment I can think of – Putin buying Trump more room for maneuver, and Trump offering economic benefits in return. It probably won’t go this way, and it certainly wouldn’t work with any other president, but it is possible that Trump, a graduate of many negotiations, might try it.