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Trump clashes with Europe ahead of Putin summit

Trump clashes with Europe ahead of Putin summit


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MOSCOW — President Trump could hardly have set a more dramatic stage for his Monday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On the second day of the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday, Trump continued his public attacks on the European members of the alliance, handing them what seemed to be an ultimatum regarding defense spending.

“In the closed-door session, Trump told his counterparts that if they did not meet their defense spending targets of 2 percent of gross domestic product by January,” my colleagues reported, “the United States would go it alone, according to two officials briefed on the meeting.”

What that means isn’t clear. “The comments appeared open to interpretation, and some officials said they never felt Trump was threatening a full pullout from NATO,” my colleagues wrote. But what is clear is that Trump’s rhetoric is having real effects. A new opinion poll in Germany — the butt of much of Trump’s opprobrium — found growing support for the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed there. A pillar of Western security is starting to wobble.

Trump’s remarks “left many people in the room confused about what the actual position of the United States is or what the consequences would be,” Amanda Sloat, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who was briefed by an official in the room, said to my colleagues. “His remarks were essentially a bombshell that went off and caused NATO officials to scramble to interpret what he meant.”

Trump then departed for a two-day visit to Britain. There he’ll meet British Prime Minister Theresa May before he departs for Helsinki and his summit with Putin — where European officials fear that Trump could further undermine the alliance.

It’s just the latest episode in the disruptive geopolitical career of the former reality-television star. Trump “likes the ideas of their leaders being destabilized and therefore easier to manipulate for him,” Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer, told my colleagues. “He is trying to make everyone look weak and doesn’t understand how all the moving parts work. He sees it as a zero-sum game where the United States can call the shots.”

This rankles Trump’s critics, who are appalled at his overt hostility to traditional allies and ingratiating behavior with various autocrats.

“With our friends, Trump is more than happy to tug whatever levers he has within reach, even ones that U.S. presidents are generally loathe to pull, like the veiled threat of undercutting the alliance,” wrote The Post’s Philip Bump. “With Putin, Trump is more likely to suggest that there really are no good levers. Even the strict sanctions imposed against Russia with his signature last year came only grudgingly, with Congress doing most of the pulling on that particular lever.”

In Moscow, the view is somewhat different. Sergei Mironov, a politician in the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party, said on state television that Putin will offer “a real master class to the inexperienced” Trump. But other Russian analysts are less sure. “People here are much more Machiavellian in their perception of politics,” suggested Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of the influential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy. “They see much more rationale in what Trump is doing.”

Speaking to Today’s WorldView, Lukyanov argued that any notion “that Putin is just sitting there, expecting the fruit of the tree to fall into his lap, is incorrect. We’re not that naive.”

Though the Kremlin was ecstatic over Trump’s election, the ensuing months saw relations with the United States plummet to new lows amid allegations of Russian interference and expanding American sanctions. The current chill has led Moscow to take a cautious approach. “Putin still doesn’t understand clearly what to expect from Trump,” said Lukyanov. “This is why Putin has so consistently wanted to meet him.”

The expectations are low for what can be achieved in Helsinki. The two men may come away with a rough framework for future discussions on European security, nuclear weapons and their shared interest in ending the war in Syria. But some in Moscow believe that the meeting taking place at all is enough of a win for the Kremlin.

“The fact that a Putin-Trump meeting will happen says only one thing: that for all its hysteria, the United States is not able to isolate or ignore Russia,” Alexei Pushkov, a prominent Russian senator from the ruling United Russia party, told Reuters. “It took a long time for Washington to get that idea, but it got there in the end.”

As Anton Traionovski, The Post’s Moscow bureau chief, detailed Thursday, it’s increasingly important for the Kremlin to project an image of Putin as a leader capable of meeting the United States on a level playing field. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Post that Putin has become a figure of global gravity, inspiring other strongman leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

“There’s a demand in the world for special, sovereign leaders, for decisive ones who do not fit into general frameworks and so on,” he said. “Putin’s Russia was the starting point.”

At home, though, Putin’s aura may not be as bright as he hopes. New polling from the independent Levada Center found that a clear majority of Russians are keen to see Putin shift focus from burnishing his prestige abroad to boosting a stagnating economy at home.

“Practically speaking,” notes a report from the Carnegie Moscow Center, surveying the data, “that means that some Russians believe if there was a gesture from Trump in Helsinki along the lines of inviting Russia back into the G8, it would be possible to start contemplating peaceful coexistence with the United States, instead of confrontation.”

Lukyanov also doesn’t place too much stock in Trump’s displays of personal bonhomie toward Putin. His administration’s policies have hardly been friendly to Moscow, including a tough regime of sanctions, sweeping expulsions of diplomats and new arms sales to Ukraine.

Once you look beyond Trump’s “unconventional style,” argued Lyukyanov, you can “identify many issues consistent with the traditional Republican line. He’s not some Martian who suddenly came to the White House. He’s a very natural product of American political culture.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.


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