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Mr. Putin Goes to Washington?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to visit Washington in early 2019, according to John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor. That meeting would come as the administration confronts fresh challenges on Russia, China, and North Korea.

“We have invited President Putin to Washington after the first of the year for, basically, a full day of consultations,” Bolton, recently in Russia [1], said on Friday in Georgia. The announcement was light on specifics: “What the scheduling of that is we don’t quite know yet.”

The trip had been floated as early as this past summer, but if confirmed, it would set up a high-stakes summit to kick off next year’s calendar.

Putin’s visit would come after the midterm elections, and if it takes place in early January, it would coincide with the swearing in of a new Congress. The Kremlin strongman could face an Democratic-controlled legislature, or an emboldened, fully Trumpified GOP that managed to survive a worst-case election scenario.


The trip could also come after the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Neither the Kremlin nor the White House had confirmed Bolton’s remarks as of this afternoon. Putin, in Russia this week with Bolton, held out hope of eventually repairing his relationship with America, but appeared frustrated at the current pace of progress.

“As far as I can remember, the U.S. seal depicts an eagle on one side holding 13 arrows,” Putin told Bolton. “And on the other side, an olive branch with 13 olives. Here’s the question, ‘Did your eagle already eat all the olives and only the arrows are left?’”

“Hopefully I’ll have some answers for you,” replied Bolton. “But I didn’t bring any more olives.” Putin said in turn: “That’s what I thought.”

By the time of the potential visit, the current Washington-Moscow dispute over whether the U.S. should withdraw from the INF nuclear treaty could be resolved. Like so much in the Trump era, this has created strange alliances. Certainly the move has roiled a Moscow that expected a more amenable Washington led by Trump. The Bolton proposal has also won plaudits from neoconservative Never Trumpers.

“On the INF Treaty, Trump finally gets something right,” says Max Boot [2] in The Washington Post. “By withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Trump can now put similar pressure on Pyongyang,” adds [3] Marc Thiessen, a George W. Bush speechwriter who is far more supportive of Trump.

Trump has so far pursued a considerably less hardline approach to Kim Jong-un in the second year of his presidency than he did in his first, to the quiet relief of those who favor a restrained American foreign policy. The U.S. and North Korea came closer to a military exchange in 2017 than is commonly understood.

Former national security advisor H.R. McMaster had been preoccupied by the idea of a “bloody nose” [4] attack. The prospective plan was considered seriously enough by the administration that Victor Cha, an establishment Republican, withdrew his name from consideration to be Trump’s ambassador to Seoul.

But since McMaster’s ouster and the installation of Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the White House has pursued a different line. Cha told a Washington crowd this year that Pompeo was given the North Korea “portfolio,” [5] while Bolton was tasked with Russia and Syria. Bolton’s repeated trips to Russia and Pompeo’s periodic jaunts to Pyongyang speak to that.

If that is indeed the arrangement—and if Thiessen is correct—the INF matter could represent a bleeding of Bolton’s territory into Pompeo’s. “The treaty barred both conventional and nuclear land-based missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. Freed from the treaty’s constraints, the United States can now deploy hundreds of conventional short- and medium-range missiles to bases in Asia, including in Guam (2,100 miles from North Korea) and Japan (650 miles),” Bush alum Thiessen writes. “The deployment of intermediate-range missiles in the region would put North Korea permanently in our crosshairs.”

Pompeo and Bolton, quite often treated in the media as kindreds, don’t always share the same goals. For Bolton, getting out of the INF would be a career capstone—as well as a handy platform to settle old scores. The annulments of relatively obscure treaties such as the INF and the Treaty of Amity [6] with Iran represent long-sought victories for the bureaucratic-academic knife fighter.

But Pompeo, in all likelihood, will seek the presidency after Trump’s time in office is over (as I first reported in TAC [7] earlier this year). Although a hawk, Pompeo is meaningfully more averse to a military engagement than Bolton. A source on the South Korean side tells me they’ve recently heard conflicting, contradictory information from Bolton and Pompeo’s people. Some on the Japanese side, meanwhile, complain of a worrisome silence from Pyongyang. Pompeo hasn’t publicly sparred with Bolton John Kelly-style [8], but behind the scenes, the two haven’t always been in lockstep. Relaxation of the U.S.-North Korean relationship from a war footing would be a crowning achievement for Pompeo.

Others see the INF matter differently. Even some who favor a restrained foreign policy argue that the INF architecture is outdated.

“Avoiding nuclear war remains a prime objective, but 30-year-old bilateral agreements don’t necessarily work for today’s world. No other nuclear power is a party to the INF treaty. New strategic realities demand updates to international commitments,” said Kurt Couchman, vice president of public policy at Defense Priorities, this week.

But as I reported  in The National Interest, some in the Department of Defense believe that President Trump will swoop in on the matter and change the game.

Come November when Trump meets Putin in Paris, there could be an attempt to reform and keep the INF—and rope in China, America’s true, long-term strategic concern.

“Trump has little latitude,” retired U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor told me [1] earlier this week. (Macgregor has been considered for national security advisor under Trump before [9], and is cut from a decidedly different cloth than Bolton.) “Russian weapons, though likely designed for potential use against the Chinese or Japanese, do violate the agreement. However, nothing substantive on our side will change for at least six months unless the Trump-Putin summit [in Paris] produces a new arrangement. It might!””

Working with the Russians on the Chinese challenge would be a welcome change to the status quo, and should be the core policy goal of Trump’s upcoming meeting or meetings with Putin.

Says Couchman, who sees a rising Beijing as “a primarily economic and diplomatic contest for influence,” “Right now, Washington is pushing Beijing and Moscow closer together, which is a strategic blunder. How much time is left before the die is cast?”

Curt Mills is the foreign affairs reporter at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, National Security Council, and the Trump presidency.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Mr. Putin Goes to Washington?"

#1 Comment By SDS On October 26, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

..And perhaps Mr. Putin can schmooze Mr. Trump enough for Trump to learn something….
Like Bolton is NOT worth listening to….

I never thought I’d see Moe, Larry and Curly in such high places of responsibility in the American Government…

#2 Comment By Will Woodwose On October 26, 2018 @ 1:57 pm

Too late!

#3 Comment By hoolykrek On October 26, 2018 @ 2:30 pm

Is this a rerun of early 20th century geopolitics, when it was big bad rising Kaiserreich Germany that pushed despotic Russia into the arms of a fearful Republican France and and English speaking Britain?

Now it’s the Big Bad Dragon of China that is pushing despotic Russia into the arms of an English speaking republican USA. History does indeed rhyme. We’ll see if China suffers from idiotic leadership like Germany under the Kaiser Wilhelm II, but somehow I doubt it. Instead of a foolish Kaiser, China seems to be under the leadership of a Zhang Yi of the Horizontal Alliance School.

#4 Comment By Sid Finster On October 26, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

Neither Russia nor China are our biggest geopolitical problem.

*We* are our biggest geopolitical problem – a glorified pirate state that has few friends that are not bribed or coerced, a hypocrite that only preaches “democracy and human rights” to countries it doesn’t like, but ignores its own far worse sins and those of its friends.

#5 Comment By Lyttenburgh On October 26, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

Re: hoolykrek

“Now it’s the Big Bad Dragon of China that is pushing despotic Russia into the arms of an English speaking republican USA.”

You got it backwards. As of right now, the US has nothing to offer Russia for it to reconsider its cooperation with China. No-Thing.

#6 Comment By Mark B. On October 26, 2018 @ 8:42 pm

Putin’s main concern is NATO at Russia’s borders. Is the US not adopting Macedonia,pardon, North-Macedonia. into it’s military umbrella soon? And how about Ukraine?

Besides this, the US has nothing to offer.

#7 Comment By Jim Jatras On October 27, 2018 @ 12:12 am

“Working with the Russians on the Chinese challenge would be a welcome change to the status quo, and should be the core policy goal of Trump’s upcoming meeting or meetings with Putin.”

Fat chance. Bolton can’t woo Russia on the basis of unremitting hostility in the Arctic, Ukraine, the Balkans, and Syria, not to mention abandoning arms control and imposing ever-tightening sanctions. Even if Bolton did hint at a positive shift the Russians aren’t stupid enough to fall for it.

#8 Comment By S On October 27, 2018 @ 2:15 am

The biggest enemies of the US are in Washington and New York. Elect politicians who will actually work for Americans and not just for the rich and these enemies will not have power anymore. Perhaps the US polity should stop looking for new enemies to justify their loot of the US. This preoccupation with treating the world like a chessboard is disgusting. I really expected better of TAC than to continuously publish articles like this.

#9 Comment By cJ On October 27, 2018 @ 8:19 am

It’s obvious, except to perhaps the most obtuse, that Putin owns trump. This body language analysis nails it: [10]

#10 Comment By Michael Kenny On October 27, 2018 @ 8:47 am

I don’t see how any real progress can be made unless Putin returns to the Helsinki Accords and that means getting out of Ukraine and committing himself to respecting the sovereignty of all existing European states.

#11 Comment By TheSnark On October 27, 2018 @ 11:57 am

Historically, the Russians have had a paranoid love-hate relationship with the West. They were (and are) convinced that West is out to get them, but loved all it had to offer in terms of material wealth and freedoms. They measured themselves not by their own yardsticks, but against the West and how the West reacted to them.

Putin seems to follow that tradition. Whether he can adjust his thinking to see that the long-term threat from China is far more serious than anything NATO can or wants to do to Russia, is an open question. He has to decide if the possibility of reclaiming a very hostile Ukraine (or similarly hostile Baltic states) is worth losing Siberia.

#12 Comment By Dee On October 27, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

Well said Mr. Mills. I voted for Mr. Trump hoping we could have better relations with Russia. With advisors like Bolton, it is sad indeed. Mr. Bolton has never seen a war he didn’t like, and we truly need Russia on our side. China is not to be trusted!

#13 Comment By Brendan Trainor On October 28, 2018 @ 11:51 am

Can someone write something, anything about Russia without a disparaging comment gratuitously inserted? Why “Kremlin strongman”? Why not just President Putin? Does the author really know Putin is some kind of a “strongman”? In what sense is he any more of a Strongman than Trump? Or perhaps we should call our President a “weakman” as he is besieged by enemies. Russia is united by their President. Is that so very bad?

#14 Comment By Anthony Clifton On October 28, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

Putin is on thin ice economically and the ice is getting thinner by the day. Putin is running out of money as shown by the recent raising of the Russian retirement age due to the increasingly constrictive Western economic sanctions and political isolation due to his brutal aggression in Ukraine, illegal annexation of the Sovereign Ukrainian territory of Crimea and blatant interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Putin’s has been seeking a deal with the U.S. for some time with the caveat that the U.S. lift it’s economic sanctions against Russia and use its influence with the European Union to do the same.

Putin literally forced a meeting with President Obama in September 2015 when he came to the U.S. to address the opening of the UN General Assembly to get a deal with Obama on Syria and other issues such as joining forces against China in return for lifting Western economic sanctions but apparently Obama turned him down which in my opinion precipitated Putin’s order to mount the ‘Active Measures’ Plot to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections to ruin the presidential bid of Hillary Clinton. An act of pure Spite and revenge against Obama by Putin for turning down his ‘Deal’ in my opinion.

But that act has backfired against him and instead of getting political concessions and the lowering of economic sanctions from the U.S. the indignation and anger in the U..S. and Europe against him has grown exponentially. Putin’s is now reviled almost universally throughout the West and has limited Trumps ability to carry through with any agreement or deal they may have made and an angry Congress is not about to sign off on any deals Trump may propose with Russia and in fact is now considering even more economic sanctions against Russia because of Trumps pathetic handling of the Helsinki summit.

Putin still wants that deal with the U.S., in fact he absolutely needs it so he can get the economic sanctions lifted and divert dwindling Russian financial resources to shore up his rule in Russia. He can only do this with a deal with the U.S. He cannot afford an Arms Race inspite of all his taunts and threats. If the Republicans lose the House of Representatives and have their Senate majority degraded I doubt he’ll get it. Don’t expect Putin to come to Washington DC if that happens as it will be a pointless trip.

#15 Comment By jo6pac On October 28, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

Amerikas biggest enemy is the Amerikan govt. Russian & China will continue to work together because they both know the enemy is Amerika

Sid Finster says:

October 26, 2018 at 2:34 pm
Nailed it

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 29, 2018 @ 7:59 pm

” Does the author really know Putin is some kind of a “strongman”?”

I have just granted that most people think that the issues of eastern Europe are the fault of Pres Putin and the Russians as opposed to the consequence of US and EU manipulations, including promises that they cannot keep.

I am quite content that Pres Putin is a shrewed diplomat who has outsmarted our leaders in more than one scenario, including Syria, without resorting to name calling. I am also content to consider Russia a competitor to taken seriously without scare mongering.

And that fact, really just fuels the ire of many. Our polity these days, even if merely to fuel defense investments, it’s as simplistic as it gets, without the benefit of proof. But people of supposed high education and intellect believe it.

I agree, it’s strange. Just sigh and comment.