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President should remain tough on Russia at summit

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U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg in 2017.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Unlike his Singapore one-on-one with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, slated for July 16 in Helsinki, doesn’t suggest history in the making. Trump and Putin have already met — twice. Russian and American leaders have been meeting for decades. By contrast, no U.S. president ever had met a North Korean leader.

Yet a sense of suspense hangs over the Trump-Putin summit. Or is it dread?

There’s always merit to meeting with world leaders, even leaders of nations with hostile agendas. Common ground can be reached. Foundations for better relations can be forged. But as both countries’ governments have anticipated a meeting, Trump has been hinting at concessions that ignore the Kremlin’s track record for undermining American interests — abroad and on U.S. soil.

The Trump administration has floated the idea of creating a way for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven, the club of industrialized democracies that kicked the Kremlin out after Russia pilfered Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The G-7 — G-8 when Russia belonged — tackles world problems ranging from terrorism to global warming. Trump has said trade-offs could be negotiated with the Kremlin that would permit Russia’s return to the group. There’s only one trade-off that should be on the table: President Putin, give back Crimea to Ukraine.

Also atop Trump’s summit agenda should be attempted Russian interference — past and quite possibly future — in the U.S. election process. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied meddling in the 2016 election cycle. Instead of denouncing that denial, Trump appears to sympathize with it. “Russia continues to say they had nothing do with Meddling in our Election!” Trump tweeted on Thursday. Trump should instead heed the view of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who has referred to Russia’s meddling in the presidential campaign as “a true act of war.”

There’s a long list of other Russian transgressions over which Trump should confront Putin. They include the case of the former Russian spy who, along with his daughter, was poisoned in Britain with nerve gas — a poisoning British authorities say Russia orchestrated. Also, Russia’s sponsorship of Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad, a lethal leader who has used chemical weapons on fellow Syrian citizens. And the Kremlin’s proxy war in eastern Ukraine, which keeps that country mired in a brutal separatist conflict.

If Trump challenges his Russian counterpart on these issues, the summit could be worthwhile. If he doesn’t, he risks seeming, once again, like putty in the hands of Putin, a former KGB agent who knows all too well the levers of manipulation and how to deftly use them on his enemies.

The Kremlin would like nothing more than to wangle a path toward the easing — or even lifting — of U.S. and Western sanctions still in place because of Crimea, other Russian influence in Ukraine and the meddling in America’s election process. We hope Trump’s conciliatory vibe toward Russia in recent days doesn’t foreshadow damaging giveaways. That would strengthen Putin in Russia and beyond — at the expense of the U.S., its western allies and the put-upon peoples of Ukraine and Syria.

The Chicago Tribune

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