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Mr. Putin Goes to Washington?

Trump will meet with the Russian president and hopefully address our biggest geopolitical challenge: China.
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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, 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 in The Washington Post. “By withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Trump can now put similar pressure on Pyongyang,” adds 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” 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,” 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 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 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, 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 earlier this week. (Macgregor has been considered for national security advisor under Trump before, 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.