Trump meeting Putin is yet another headache for Europe

US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the APEC leaders' summit on November 11, 2017.
Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the APEC leaders' summit on November 11, 2017.

Any world leaders meeting face-to-face should be seen as a good thing, but when it’s President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, then European officials are right to feel a little anxious.

Political commentators expect a purely symbolic spectacle when the two meet in Finland on July 16. But the backdrop to the event — just days after a NATO summit in Brussels — is leaving some wary on what the U.S. president could concede to his Russian counterpart.

Trump, openly critical of the North Atlantic alliance, could strain relationships even further with smaller eastern European nations bordering Russia that are heavily reliant on NATO for protection and reassurance.

Experts at political analysis firm Eurasia Group believe the EU would “squirm” over any Trump language that undermines the transatlantic comity on Ukraine or European security.

Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, even claims that Trump offers the prospect of being Putin’s “Trojan horse within NATO.”

“Remarkably, Trump seems to be happy to work to an agenda which Putin could only have fantasized about — the end of NATO and the North Atlantic alliance,” Ash said in a research note last week. “For Putin, this is his equivalent of Soviet Union’s 1991 moment — his total victory over NATO. Unbelievable stuff, for any observer of geopolitics and post WWII European history.”

Trump is already at odds with most European leaders after withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement and implementing metal sanctions on the European Union. Any further friction would drive an even greater wedge between the EU-U.S. alliance and put a further dampener on the global investment environment.

What they may fear most at the summit is the American president's unpredictably.

Trump’s meeting with Putin will also come shortly after a visit to the U.K., where he’s likely to receive a frosty reception from the public. Coupled with a difficult NATO meeting in Belgium, Trump might then be eager for some positives to take home to Washington after an awkward trip to Europe.

An opinion piece in The Atlantic news publication last week suggested that Trump could pledge to halt U.S.-led NATO military exercises in Poland and the Baltic states that Russia opposes. This would surely leave European officials open mouthed in incredulity.

NATO has formed the basis of U.S.-Europe cooperation since World War II. But Trump, who won the U.S. election with his anti-global message, has openly bashed the alliance. In May last year, he declined to explicitly endorse NATO’s Article 5 — which ensures that allies will come to each other's defense in the event of an attack — creating unease among European leaders. However, he then made amends during a speech in Warsaw, Poland, just two months later.

With tensions already fraught, Trump coming to Europe could raise the summer mercury levels up another notch.