The fantasy that the destiny of nations can be settled by a meeting at the top gives reign to the darkest fears and the wildest hopes. The reality of summits is less dramatic. Summits are tools of policy, not shapers of it.
Leaders hold summits to effect existing policies. So while the outcome of the summit between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin matters, it matters less than the policies that brought them to the summit in the first place.
There’s no shortage of comment on Trump’s policies, but we hear a lot less about Putin’s. That’s a pity, because we can’t judge our policies without reference to what he’s doing.
So what’s Putin’s play?
A report by the Warsaw Institute draws together into a coherent strategy the threads of Putin’s actions since his so-called re-election earlier this year. The institute argues that Putin’s approach is shaped by the fact that Russia is fundamentally weak and in decline.
At times, that leads Putin to be aggressive, to seize opportunities for quick gains — as he did in Ukraine with Crimea in 2014. At other times, it leads him to talk up the need for better relations with the West, both to give him time to digest his conquests and to break down sanctions the West has imposed on him.
We are now in one of Putin’s peaceful periods. As in 2009, when the Obama administration took the bait, his dearest wish is a reset with the United States.
Indeed, presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama were gullible enough to fall for him. Putin hopes Trump will be as easy to fool as his predecessors. Trump’s lamentable performance in Helsinki, where he missed multiple chances to hold Putin accountable, will only embolden Moscow.