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What Trump and Putin want from their historic summit

- July 14, 2018
President Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017. (Reuters)

As his 1972 summit with Mao Zedong approached, President Nixon prepped by considering three simple questions: What did China want? What did the United States want? What did they both want?

With a Trump-Putin summit now scheduled for Monday, we invited experts on U.S.-Russian relations to engage in Nixon’s exercise, hoping to identify some common interests between two geopolitical heavyweights. What follows are their lightly edited answers:

Strobe Talbott, distinguished fellow in residence at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. deputy secretary of state, 1994-2001

Before the U.S. and Russian presidents meet in Helsinki, it is essential that Mr. Trump convene with his top foreign policy, military and intelligence team. The purpose would be to conform his goals with those of his top advisers and, crucially, the hopes and concerns of America’s North Atlantic allies and virtual allies like Finland itself.

We know what Mr. Putin hopes to get out of the summit: an outcome that further weakens Western democracies while deepening the fissures in NATO, the disintegration of the “political West,” and the ongoing abnegation of America’s historic role as the leader of the Atlantic community and the liberal world order.

We can surmise how Mr. Putin will pursue that overarching goal: with flattery and the siren song of a partnership between the two superpowers now led by strong champions of making their countries “great again,” while continuing his expansionist policies and cyberwar against democracy. If he succeeds, the encounter could be the low point of Western diplomacy since Munich.

If, however, Trump’s handpicked advisers can persuade him to push back on Russia’s grand strategy of splitting the United States from its kindred democracies, he might still be able to get Putin to cooperate against terrorism and resurrect discussions on nuclear and other security issues.

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Mikhail Troitskiy, dean and associate professor, the MGIMO School of Government and International Affairs, Moscow

Russia (the Kremlin) wants to:

  1. Demonstrate that despite the pressure and accusations directed at Russia, the world’s leading power has no better option but to engage with Moscow;
  2. Explore opportunities to water down the U.S. sanctions against Russia — if not the sanctions against companies and whole sectors of the Russian economy, then at least the highly symbolic travel bans and asset freezes imposed on specific Russian nationals;
  3. Impress the U.S. side with Russia’s achievements in military technology and the dangers of arms control regimes unraveling globally to change President Trump’s negative attitude toward arms reductions and limitations.

The United States (Trump administration) wants to:

  1. Vindicate the notion that President Trump’s summit diplomacy can solve long-standing problems that the previous administration could not;
  2. Persuade Russia to support the U.S. pressure on Iran and — if Trump and Kim Jong Un fall out again — stringent sanctions against North Korea;
  3. Probe for resolution of a major international dispute, such as the fate of Ukraine’s Donbas region or of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Both Russia and the United States want to:

  1. Show that under Trump and Putin, any disputes involving the United States, Russia and other nations are resolved more effectively than under any past administrations in the United States and Russia;
  2. Retain freedom to spin the results of the summit domestically;
  3. Demonstrate that there is no evidence of collusion between Russia and President Trump or that Trump is any way being manipulated by Russia.

Mariya Y. Omelicheva, professor of political science, University of Kansas

Putin’s government wants three “R’s”: respect toward Russia; recognition of its rights to pursue independent foreign and domestic policy without Western criticism or meddling; and reintegration into the European space on terms acceptable to Russia.

The Trump administration is pursuing three “A’s:” abdication of U.S. global responsibilities and moral standing; alteration of international agreements; and an “America First” foreign and domestic policy.

The only goal that the two countries have in common is the destruction of global liberal order as we know it, albeit for different reasons. ​

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Ivan Kurilla, professor of history and international relations, European University at St. Petersburg

One thing Trump wants from Russia is help winning the domestic “culture wars.” He probably imagines himself as Ronald Reagan, changing the USSR’s image from that of an “evil empire” to a friend – and winning support at home. Any concession from Russia or anything he could present as a victory to the U.S. public will work for him; the specifics are not important, he just needs something.

Putin wants one thing: the easing of sanctions.

Susanne Wengle, assistant professor of political science, University of Notre Dame

Russia wants:

  1. Recognition as a legitimate great power and reintegration into the G-8;
  2. An end to sanctions;
  3. U.S. guarantees that the E.U. and NATO will not expand further into the Russian sphere of influences, especially Ukraine.

The United States wants:

  1. Russia to end support for separatists in Ukraine; withdraw from Crimea; and stop military exercises in Eastern Europe;
  2. Russian cooperation in eliminating the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs;
  3. Commitment that Russia will stop any interference in U.S. domestic politics.

Both want:

  1. Improved relations between Moscow and Washington;
  2. Cooperation in the fight against Islamic extremism;
  3. Boycott of global agreements on climate change mitigation.

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Jordan Gans-Morse, assistant professor of political science, Northwestern University

Putin – and Russia’s foreign policy elite in general – want:

  1. Security, which from the Russian vantage point can best be achieved by weakening the United States and Europe while ensuring that countries along its border remain friendly (or at least neutral);
  2. International respect, interpreted somewhat cynically as the ability to cause havoc to an extent that more powerful countries cannot afford to ignore Russia;
  3. The removal of sanctions, but not at the expense of the first two goals.

What the United States wants is harder to discern, not least because Trump’s personal aims diverge from those advocated by foreign policy experts and key members of his own national security team. Trump wants a made-for-TV spectacle with himself in the leading role and a high-profile proclamation of vaguely defined improvements in U.S.-Russian relations.

At least some of Trump’s foreign policy advisers want:

  1. Russia to stop meddling in the domestic affairs of the United States and its European allies;
  2. An end to Russia’s support for separatists in the breakaway regions of Ukraine;
  3. A resolution to the war in Syria that reduces the threat from Islamic terrorists, limits Iran’s influence in the region, and leads to the Assad regime’s ouster;
  4. Russian assistance in managing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.

Both want:

  1. To avoid conflict that could spiral into a hot war;
  2. Collaboration against Islamic terrorism.