No Time to Go Soft on Putin

With attention focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and the national unrest following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, several recent statements by President Trump concerning the G-7 meeting have gone largely unnoticed. First, Trump decided he would host the gathering in person at the end of June in Washington, despite concerns over coronavirus, until German Chancellor Angela Merkel balked at attending and forced Trump to postpone the meeting to September. More disturbingly, Trump indicated his intention to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend. This is an outrageous idea, and Putin’s invitation should be rescinded immediately.

The idea of inviting Putin to the United States follows a number of recent conversations between Trump and the Russian leader as well as shipments of medical assistance to and from Russia. It comes on the heels of recent comments by Trump in which he said, “Russia and us have developed a very good relationship. As you know, we worked on the oil problem together.”

It is one thing to help Russians during a time of crisis, even one exacerbated by inept leadership from the Kremlin. Along with the United States and Brazil, Russia ranks among the top three countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases; many observers and experts believe Russian authorities are grossly undercounting the number of deaths due to the virus. In a way, sending American assistance can help highlight how Russians’ own leaders have badly bungled their response to the pandemic, just as Putin sought to show up the United States for needing outside aid in April with a Russian shipment of equipment—equipment, by the way, which largely turned out to be defective.

It is another thing entirely to make nice with Putin by inviting him to Washington. Putin has done nothing to deserve kid-gloves treatment. On the contrary, Russia’s leader has continued to engage in reckless behavior that poses a direct threat to American national interests. The explosion of COVID-19 cases in Russia has not slowed Putin’s hostile actions; he may even assume Western leaders are too distracted by the pandemic to respond to his provocations. Putin must be contained and confronted, not offered an open hand and an invitation to the States.

Putin continues his aggression against Ukraine and refuses to comply with any obligations under the 2015 Minsk Agreement calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s Donbas territory. Putin has been clear that Russia will not return the Crimean peninsula to Ukrainian control, after Moscow illegally annexed it in 2014. More than 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed in this war— it’s not a frozen conflict—and some 2 million have been displaced.

In Georgia, Russian forces have moved the demarcation line from the 2008 ceasefire agreement following Russia’s invasion of that country deeper into Georgian-controlled territory. For a dozen years, Russia has occupied 20 percent of Georgian land and paid no price for doing so. Russian intimidation continues toward other neighboring states, too, especially Belarus. Energy cutoffs and pressure to host military bases are common tactics used by the Kremlin to get its way in the region.

Russia has been trying to lure Turkey, which maintains the second largest military in the NATO alliance, into its orbit and is stirring up anti-Western sentiment in the Western Balkans—and even tried to launch a coup in Montenegro in 2016. Putin’s military intervention in Syria, which has included war crimes, kept the murderous Bashar al-Assad in power.

Most recently, Putin has sent mercenary forces to Libya in support of rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s efforts to overthrow the recognized government in Tripoli, and the Pentagon has accused Russia of sending warplanes to tip the balance in favor of Haftar. Russia has been an important lifeline to Venezuela’s discredited leader Nicolas Maduro. Russian military aircraft frequently and recklessly buzz NATO, including American, planes and ships.

Russian security services have been active and brutal in targeting critics and opponents at home and abroad. Three Russian doctors critical of their government’s handling of the pandemic recently have “fallen” out of windows, two fatally. In the Czech Republic, reports recently surfaced that a Russian agent was seeking to poison the mayor of Prague and several other local leaders. German authorities accused Russian agents of assassinating a Russian-Georgian citizen in broad daylight last August in Berlin; the year before, Russian agents tried to poison former spy Sergei Skrypal in the UK.

Russia interferes in other countries’ elections, including our own in 2016. Every indication is that the Kremlin is preparing to do so again this year while stirring the pot through trolls and incendiary social media postings. Russian disinformation seeks to sow divisions within Europe and between the United States and Europe, while trying to discredit the democratic system of government. Russian disinformation has sought to blame the United States for starting the COVID-19 pandemic, a tactic reminiscent of Soviet efforts in the 1980s accusing Washington of spawning the AIDS virus. It would be no surprise to find Russian trolls stirring the pot amid the volatile protest situation currently facing the United States.

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin conspired with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman to lower the price of oil, hoping that doing so would hurt American companies involved in shale production. Two Americans, Paul Whelanand Michael Calvey, are being held in Russia on spurious charges. Putin’s greatest export to the West is corruption; the West needs to stop importing it.

Trump’s defenders point out that his administration has maintained sanctions on Russia, beefed up America’s military presence in the region, provided lethal military assistance to Ukraine and exported energy to Europe—all steps that run counter to Putin’s interests. Those measures should be continued, and sanctions should be increased, not removed. And yet one cannot help thinking how these actions are divorced from Trump’s rhetoric about Putin and his longstanding interest in inviting the Russian leader to Washington.

If there is one issue the two sides should focus on, it should be renewing the New START arms control agreement, which expires next February, and initial talks have begun on the issue. But Trump’s insistence that future talks include China, despite Beijing’s refusal to participate, could kill any hopes of extending the agreement. Putin will not side with Trump in the latter’s clash with Beijing. He will only use negotiations as an excuse to get sanctions lifted, which he has been seeking for years (though thankfully, under legislation passed by Congress in 2017, Trump does not have the authority to remove them on his own).

An invitation to Putin to Washington should spark outrage on Capitol Hill. A trip to the United States could be a boost to Putin and lend him international legitimacy at a time when his own ratings inside Russia are reaching record lows. It would demoralize Ukrainians who would conclude that Trump is writing them off. It would signal that the leader responsible for interference in the 2016 election and likely again this year is welcome on U.S. soil. Fellow G-7 leaders should boycott such a meeting if their Russian counterpart is there. Thankfully, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have alreadypledged to do so.

In a widely-criticized joint statement April 25 marking the 75th anniversary meeting of American and Soviet soldiers at the Elbe River crossing in 1945, Trump and Putin declared: “The ‘Spirit of the Elbe’ is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause.”

That statement sparked concern at the time that Trump and Putin were cooking up some sort of rapprochement. Trump’s invitation for Putin to attend the G-7 meeting should raise that concern to a whole new level. With so much else going on, Trump cannot be allowed to get away with this latest outrage.

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