Helsinki sum­mit

Putin meet­ing set to be big­gest threat to Nato

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Pa­trick Win­tour Diplo­matic Ed­i­tor

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

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