Putin meeting set to be biggest threat to Nato
Donald Trump’s Jekyll and Hyde performance on the opening leg of his European tour – one minute angrily wielding a wrecking ball and the next playing the oleaginous Anglophile – will hardly leave European diplomats, especially those in Britain, reassured as they brace themselves for his summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday.
It is this meeting – the two men have met only two-and-a-half times before, according to Trump’s arithmetic – that contains the most serious risk to the western alliance.
After yesterday’s press conference with Theresa May in which he rowed back on some of the more incendiary remarks he had made about Brexit in his interview with the Sun, British officials were reassured Trump could be chastened, if not cowed, when confronted by the damage he had wreaked.
But they cannot know whether Trump, restored by two days on the Scottish links, will regain his bullish self-confidence as the master deal-maker by the time he reaches Helsinki. It is clear from the past two days that his inclination is to side with those who want to break up the European Union, while he regards Nato’s survival at the very least as a matter for discussion. But if Trump is to go the next stage in weakening the EU as an institution, the meeting with Putin will be critical.
UK officials said some of the most searching exchanges between Britain and the US over the past two days had been to try to set red lines on the concessions Trump might make. A two-page communique is apparently being prepared for Helsinki and may contain statements not to interfere in each other’s elections. The value of such commitments will be questionable, given Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility for its interference in 2016.
The difficulty for the EU is that the US policy towards Russia is contradictory. Trump himself claimed he was tougher on Russia than anybody, and has some supporting evidence, including ejecting Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
But is also clear that Trump craves a different relationship with Moscow, predicting that the Putin meeting could be easier than any with his allies in Britain or Brussels.
Over the past two days, he has repeatedly said Putin is not a friend but a competitor, but it is clear it is his aspiration to strike up such a friendship, and he is prepared to make concessions to achieve this.
The big prize is a revised nuclear arms treaty. Trump spoke of substantially reducing or even getting rid of nuclear weapons, adding it was a subject he would certainly bring up with Putin.
He also hinted he might acknowledge Russia’s claim to Crimea, pointing to the investment Putin has made. Never has Britain’s pragmatic approach to diplomacy been so sorely tested.
Theresa May and President Trump walk to a news conference at Chequers