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How will the Trump-Putin summit affect U.S.-Russian relations?

Beyond the uproar over President Trump's comments about Russian election meddling, what are the global policy implications of his Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin? Nick Schifrin examines what's at stake, from Eastern Ukraine to NATO to Syria, and Judy Woodruff talks with Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump has made waves on the world stage and here at home over the last 10 days.

    As foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin reports, from NATO to Helsinki, many are asking, what happens now?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Moscow today, Russia's coordinated and consistent message machine crafted its version of the Helsinki summit, from Russia's state TV, to a phalanx of Russian generals, to Russia's top diplomat in the U.S. The message, Presidents Putin and Trump are on the same page.

  • Anatoly Antonov (through translator):

    They went over the whole cycle of bilateral connections, as well as the problems in regional and global security.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov called the summit pivotal, and called U.S. criticism of President Trump a sign of American hysteria.

  • Anatoly Antonov (through translator):

    As President Trump said, a witch-hunt is what it is.

  • Dan Coats:

    I don't know what happened in that meeting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the U.S., senior officials were initially in the dark on the details of the Trump-Putin meeting, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cautioned against accepting Russia's narrative.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Well, I'm not sure I would take the Russian ambassador's word for a whole lot. From time to time, they are wont to tell stories. Here's what I know: I have had a chance to talk with President Trump about his discussions with President Putin. There was progress made on a handful of fronts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That progress comes despite a flurry of questions about what President Trump did or didn't agree to at the summit. But beyond the Washington political ping-pong the summit produced, there's serious policy consequences in the two presidents' dialogue.

    The two presidents discussed more than half-a-dozen issues, including Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have battled U.S.-backed Ukrainian soldiers to a stalemate.

    Putin proposed holding a new referendum to determine the area's fate, similar to the widely questioned ballot that led to Crimea's annexation. Today, the White House rejected Putin's proposal, saying, "To organize a so-called referendum in a part of Ukraine which is not under government control would have no legitimacy."

    The two leaders also discussed NATO, the historic foundation of the transatlantic alliance, a thorn in Russia's side, as President Putin said yesterday to Russian diplomats.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    The key for safety and sustainable development in Europe is broadening cooperation and rebuilding trust, not expanding new bases and military infrastructure of NATO near Russia's borders.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump's aides insist he supports NATO strongly. This administration has maintained support for NATO troops based near Russia's borders and secured increased defense spending from NATO allies.

    But President Trump has berated those allies. And, today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that has taken a toll.

  • Angela Merkel (through translator):

    I think it is fair to say that the values, our usual framework, are under strong pressure at the moment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Trump and Putin also discussed the future of Syria and its border with Israel, where today Syrian rebels evacuated, consolidating Syrian government control.

    U.S. officials say Trump and Putin want to limit the influence of Iranian-backed troops that support Syria and repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees. But the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria have not received any new marching orders, says top Middle East Commander General Joseph Votel, and still consider Russia an adversary.

  • Gen. Joseph Votel:

    Russia's support and protection has allowed the Syrian regime to escape full accountability for their use of chemical weapons and the horrendous violence against their own people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the world's two largest nuclear powers also discussed the future of their arsenals. Russia wants to renew a 2011 treaty that caps large nuclear weapons, but expires next year, as Putin said this week.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    I reassured President Trump that Russia stands ready to extend this treaty, to prolong it, but we have to agree on the specifics at first.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. accuses Russia of violating a 1987 treaty that restricts medium-range nuclear weapons. And the Russian military is testing new weapons. It released video today of what it called a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

    In the U.S., the president is dogged by questions. In Russia, in Putin is applauded, and Russian officials say they're controlling the narrative, after what they consider a successful summit.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, where do the U.S. and Russia go from here? Has the Helsinki summit paved the way for better relations?

    We get two views. Dimitri Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by President Nixon. He is a native of the Soviet Union, and since 1980 has been an American citizen. During the George H.W. Bush administration, he was a consultant to the National Intelligence Council. Andrew Weiss worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations as a staffer on the National Security Council and in the State Department. He's now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Andrew Weiss, to you first.

    We heard Secretary Pompeo say that progress was made on several fronts at this — at the Helsinki summit. Others say they're not so sure. What's your reading? Is it your sense that they made headway on some of these important issues?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    I would be very surprised if they made headway. The real progress that's been made, I think, is that the administration has basically set a new standard for not sharing information about what happened.

    We're four days since the summit. They have done a very, I think, self-defeating job of keeping that information so closely held, that people in Congress, our allies around the world, are all effectively in the dark, including big parts of our own government.

    So, basically, there's a message going out, which is, there's going to be this great new relationship between the United States and Russia, but no real acknowledgment that the differences and the problems in what is an adversarial relationship run very deep.

    They are going to evade — they will evade easy, quick solutions, unless, of course, Donald Trump basically sells out on key aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dimitri Simes what do you see, tangible progress or something less than that?

  • Dimitri Simes:

    Well, I don't know what tangible progress is.

    I don't think the summit was about specific agreements. I don't think either side was prepared to sign or even necessarily to negotiate specific agreements. That was about dynamics of the relationship. That was about chemistry between the two presidents.

    And if both of them feel a little better about each other, without surrendering anything of importance, I don't think it's necessarily so bad.

    It would be bad if, on the basis of this general, but somewhat hopeful conversation, anyone would conclude, as Andrew has just said, that our relationships are fundamentally changed.

    Russia and the United States remain adversaries. And like in the case of U.S. relationship with North Korea, we should try for the best, but be aware of difficulties, and certainly not to yield an inch before there is a real agreement.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, if there were no agreements at all, then we may be asking for — asking about more than exists.

    But, Andrew Weiss, let's talk about some of this. I mean, tensions between President Trump and NATO, in the face of that, we heard President Putin speak. And people who have talked to President Putin say he's talking about a proposal that he made to President Trump about a referendum in Ukraine.

    What do you make of that? Does that sound like something that's realistic?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    It's completely realistic.

    I think it's a byproduct of the folly of basically only meeting with Vladimir Putin one-on-one. President Trump basically insisted that this had to be a one-on-one meeting. It went more than two hours. And he was dealing with a foreign counterpart who has been at this for 20 years, who basically knows where all the bodies are buried, literally and figuratively, and can really make ideas sound convincing to foreign ears.

    So Donald Trump seems to have stepped into a variety of self-made problems for himself. It would have been a lot easier if he had a couple senior advisers along with him for the ride. A of this could have been easily avoided.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dimitri Simes, whether there was progress made on any specifics, do you — is it your sense that the U.S. comes out of this, that NATO come out these meetings stronger or not, given, for example, what the conversation may have been about Ukraine?

  • Dimitri Simes:

    Let me briefly say something about the referendum.

    The referendum itself is not a problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Ukraine.

  • Dimitri Simes:

    In Ukraine.

    It would be a problem if it would be a referendum about independence for Donetsk and Luhansk. The Russians today have very specifically denied that the referendums they're talking about would be about independence, like several years ago in the case of Crimea.

    So, apparently, they are talking about autonomy inside Ukraine. My point is that devil is in details. Both the Russians and the Ukrainians are talking about peacekeepers. But they have very different idea about where these peacekeepers would be located and what they would be doing.

    What we have accomplished, I hope, in Helsinki, that we have started a negotiating process. But President Trump, by his very nature, is not equipped to negotiate detailed agreements. And that's why Secretary Pompeo and his colleagues and obviously the National Security Council now hopefully will be in the driver's seat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's turn — we're not going to understand, have full answers here, clearly, because we don't — as you said Andrew at the outset, there's a lot we don't know.

    But just quickly, let me touch on two other things. The START, the so-called NEW START nuclear weapons agreement, is it possible there was some progress made in discussing extending that?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Well, Judy, I think, before we turn to that, on the Ukraine piece, just so everyone knows, there's no provision in the Minsk agreement, which is the guiding, direct document that will hopefully provide some hope for lasting peace in Ukraine, about a referendum.

    And it's simply ludicrous to imagine holding a referendum in an area held by force of arms by a neighboring country which is engaged in such an awful campaign of subversion and aggression against its neighbor.

    On the New START question, we have, I think, a real requirement, as the two leading nuclear powers, which is something Trump alluded to, to deal with our relationship in a constructive fashion, and to try to address the fact that this important arms control treaty is expiring in 2021.

    The two sides could move forward rather easily on an executive agreement to extend it for five years. But there's this bigger issue at the moment that looms over that, which is Russian cheating on the INF Treaty.

    So, the administration's either going to have to basically suck it up and take the political heat of extending New START without resolving our concerns about the INF Treaty, or look for a deal on a trade.

    As Dimitri alluded to a minute ago, Donald Trump is not the person to be negotiating complex arms control deals. So, we will see what comes of this, but I think the Russians are going to see if the U.S. wants this more than they do. And they are already, I think, playing hard to get.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, where do you see any hope for progress on the New START nuclear agreement?

  • Dimitri Simes:

    Well, on New START, I actually think — I had reservations about the agreement when it was signed and passed by the Obama administration. I have reservations about the agreement today. I don't think this is an ideal agreement.

    Having said that, this is the only agreement we have. I think it would be a good idea to extend it, but only, as Andrew said, if the Russians would agree to credibly address the questions of the other arms control violations, particularly on middle-range missiles.

    That should be, in my view, a very firm precondition presented by the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Less than a minute left, but I do want to get a comment from both of you on this apparent plan by the administration, by the White House to invite Vladimir Putin to Washington for a second summit sometime this fall.

    Andrew Weiss?

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Donald Trump seems completely tone-deaf.

    There is an uproar in Washington, which is entirely of his making. It's a product of his disastrous performance at the press conference on Monday. And that press conferences has now energized Republicans and Democrats to look at a new round of sanctions against Russia.

    In many ways, this is the worst-case outcome. I don't see how either the Russians or the Trump administration can feel too good about what they have created here. It's a huge mess.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just a quick comment.

  • Dimitri Simes:

    If Mr. Trump wants to make his relations with Russia centerpiece of his electoral campaign, which would be a very strange idea, then, of course, he can proceed with the summit in Washington.

    And if he also wants to create new difficulties in the U.S.-Russia relations, again, as Andrew said, if he wants to have another setback in the relations and a new round of sanctions, then the summit is a way to go. Absolutely a bad idea.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hmm. It sounds like there's agreement on this.

    Dimitri Simes, Andrew Weiss, we thank you both.

  • Andrew Weiss:

    Thank you.

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