World News

Trump Seeks Meeting With Putin Even as Allies Seek to Isolate Russia

Posted June 21, 2018 8:39 p.m. EDT
Updated June 21, 2018 8:42 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump hopes to meet with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the next few weeks even as the American leader increasingly clashes with European allies over how to counter Moscow’s assertive actions in Europe and the Middle East.

Trump is sending his national security adviser, John Bolton, to Moscow next week to discuss a possible meeting. Trump is already scheduled to attend a NATO summit in Brussels next month, followed by a long-delayed visit to Britain. He could presumably add a stop in another country like Austria to see Putin.

Trump has been eager to get together with Putin for months despite increasing tension in the relationship between Russia and the West. Just two weeks ago, Trump urged the rest of the Group of 7 major industrial powers to readmit Russia, which was expelled in 2014 after its armed seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. But the other members rejected the idea, deeming it inappropriate.

By meeting with Putin on his own anyway, Trump would send a signal to European leaders that he does not intend to be held hostage to their approach to Moscow, adding another rupture to his fights with the United States’ traditional allies over tariffs, security and migration. In recent public comments, he has emphasized the importance of building a friendly relationship with Putin and minimized the continuing dispute over Ukraine, blaming Russia’s actions on former President Barack Obama.

“The problem is that Trump is unilaterally dismantling much of the trans-Atlantic effort that was set up to constrain Russian adventurism following the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2014,” said Andrew S. Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as President Bill Clinton’s Russia adviser. “With the U.S.-German relationship in tatters, Putin is essentially being given a free hand.”

Trump has been seeking a meeting with Putin since March, when he called the Russian president to congratulate him on winning another term in an election widely viewed in the West as a sham. During their conversation, Trump broached the idea of a White House visit by Putin, who has not been there since 2005.

Some administration officials have resisted such a meeting, viewing it as counterproductive at a time when Russia’s meddling during the 2016 American election and possible links to the Trump campaign are under scrutiny. The two countries also recently expelled diplomats after the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain.

“This is absolutely the wrong time for a meeting with Putin because he deserves no such reward and because of the current weak state of our Atlantic relationship, which such a meeting would only further strain,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, a former Pentagon official who worked on Russia policy. Given the disputes over Ukraine and other issues, “I cannot see what this meeting would accomplish apart from upsetting our closest allies in Europe.”

But Trump has insisted, pushing his national security team to reach out to Moscow and set up the meeting. Russian officials have eagerly sought such a session, too, because they view Trump as a constructive partner. In their opinion, a meeting between the two leaders could circumvent the resistance of lower-ranking officials.

For his part, Putin has said he is ready to meet Trump “as soon as the American side is ready.” And this month, a senior White House official said preparations for a meeting had begun, with the U.S. ambassador in Moscow laying the groundwork.

Through his presidential campaign and his presidency, Trump has been consistently reluctant to criticize Putin, saying he wants to work with the Russian leader to find common interests and resolve a host of world issues, including the wars in Syria and Ukraine, even as his administration has taken a tougher stance.

The Treasury Department has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russian government officials and businessmen in recent months in retaliation for Moscow’s election interference and other cyberattacks. The Trump administration joined allies in denouncing the Russian government for a nerve agent attack in Britain on the former Russian spy and his daughter, expelling 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle.

But Trump rebuffed advisers who wanted to impose additional sanctions in response to Russia’s support for the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its own people.

Bolton will travel to the Russian capital next week to discuss the possible talks after first stopping in London and Rome to consult with allies, White House officials said Thursday.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, took pains on Thursday to emphasize that so far the sides had reached no agreement on a meeting that Russian news media outlets reported might occur in Vienna in July. “When and if we are ready, we will make the announcement,” Peskov said in a conference call with journalists.