Situation Report

Security Brief: Trump and Putin Meet in Helsinki; High-Flying News From a Big British Air Show; U.S. Army Steps into the Future

Catch up on everything you need to know about the Trump-Putin meeting, big air shows in Europe, and other top news.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. (Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/Getty Images)

All eyes are on the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, France is reveling in its World Cup win, the F-35 wins crowd favorite at one of the world’s largest air shows, and more.

I’m filling in on Security Brief while Elias Groll is on vacation. Send any tips, questions, thoughts, along at Robbie.Gramer@foreignpolicy.com.

The road to Hel: In the five days leading up to his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Donald Trump has steamrolled through Europe like a bull in a china shop, where he:

  • rattled NATO allies at a fiery summit in Brussels;
  • trashed British Prime Minister Theresa May in a tabloid interview before his visit to London;
  • walked in front of the Queen, apparently a big protocol no-no, which set off a social media firestorm;
  • called the European Union a “foe.”

But now, all eyes on his tete-a-tete with Putin in Helsinki, where the two are scheduled for a closed-door 90-minute meeting without any other aides.

Trump started the day tweeting that U.S.-Russia relations have “NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!”  (The U.S. president made no mention of Russia illegally invading a country, interfering in U.S. elections, shooting down a civilian airliner over Ukraine, poisoning people in London, or murdering journalists and political dissidents.)

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded on Twitter, saying “we agree.”

The meeting started off with a typical power play: Putin, as he’s done before with world leaders, arrived in Helsinki nearly an hour late. Trump then returned the favor, arriving late to the meeting site.

What’s on the agenda? Tough to say. The two presidents have a 90-minute one-on-one on their schedules. Speaking briefly before they went behind closed doors, Trump told reporters they would “have discussions on everything from trade to military to nuclear,” but was light on details beyond that.

“Getting along with Russia is a good thing,” Trump added. “I really think the world wants to see us get along. We are the two great nuclear powers.”

On Saturday, a Kremlin spokesman said there was “no set agenda” for the two leaders’ meeting.

But the Middle East could be a big part of the conversation.

Axios reports a final deal on the future of Syria will be one of the top agenda items for Trump and Putin. And CBS News reports that the Trump administration is also eyeing plans to evacuate aid and emergency workers from Syria, which could require help from Russia, which backs the Syrian government in the country’s seven year-long civil war.

And what should we call this meeting? Also tough to say. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman told NBC News the Trump-Putin facetime “isn’t a summit,” it’s a meeting, or maybe just a “detailed conversation.”

But then Trump undercut his ambassador a short time later by tweeting out it was a “summit” — oh and also reminding his followers that “much of our news media is indeed the enemy of the people.” (Putin, whose government is accused of having a penchant for murdering journalists, cheerily agrees.)

Whatever you call it, the Trump-Putin meeting certainly has Washington and its top allies in Europe on edge. For a taste, read Voice of America’s report on how the tiny Baltic country and fellow NATO ally Estonia is feeling especially vulnerable in the runup to talks.

The Crimea Question: One of the biggest worries is over whether Trump could potentially recognize Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula Putin’s government illegally annexed in 2014 — as part of Russia.

The Kremlin said Crimea wasn’t on the agenda.

But fans of territorial integrity should hold their applause, they might not like the reasoning. Putin “repeatedly stated and explained that Crimea cannot be and will never be on the agenda because it is an inseparable part of Russia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

As Foreign Policy’s Amy MacKinnon reports, Trump remains evasive on his views of Crimea, but legal experts say the president has the authority to recognize Crimea as part of Russia if he wants.

Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, said in his NBC interview that the decision isn’t likely, but hedged his comments a little too much for comfort. “The agenda is the president’s,” he said. “Everything will be his call but I think it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see any change in Crimea.”

Don’t Forget Backdrop: The week before the summit was full of news that cast a shadow over the Trump-Putin meeting.

The FBI on Friday dropped bombshell new indictments of 12 Russian intelligence officers charged with hacking Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee to favor Trump’s bid. As the New York Times put it: “The 29-page indictment is the most detailed accusation by the American government to date of the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election, and it includes a litany of brazen Russian subterfuge operations meant to foment chaos in the months before Election Day.”

Then Trump’s top intelligence chief, Dan Coats, warned on Friday the “warning lights are blinking red” and Russia was the “worst offender.”

Amid all this, Axios reporter Jonathan Swan writes: “senior administration sources past and present have told me Trump seems incapable of taking Russia’s election meddling seriously….No matter what evidence he’s confronted with, he sees the entire investigation as about him and his election victory.”

Throwback to July 26, 2016, when Trump tweeted: “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me.”

Don’t Forget about Novichok: Meanwhile, in Britain, Dawn Sturgess, died last Sunday after she was exposed to a Soviet-era nerve agent following an attack on a former Russian spy. British authorities believe the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, was behind the attack, the New York Times reports. Sturgess’s grieving son called on Trump to bring up his mother’s death in his meeting with Putin.

A Helsinki History Lesson: Helsinki has long been a city of choice for U.S. and Soviet leaders to meet for talks. But for the Trump-Putin summit, the similarities start and end there.

Reid Standish has a must-read piece in The Atlantic on the storied history of Helsinki, sandwiched between Washington’s and Moscow’s geopolitical plays, and its role as a host for high-stakes diplomatic talks. “‘This is not a meeting about substance, it is a meeting about being disruptive and trying to captivate the world…Trump is trying to show his critics that even with the constraints on him, he still can force a new phase in U.S.-Russia relations,’” Andrew Weiss, a former senior National Security Council official told Standish.

 

Want more reading? In a recent piece for FP, Suzanne Nossel looks back at the 1975 Helsinki Accords, a groundbreaking international compact that helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union. She argues if Trump doesn’t raise important human rights issues with Putin during his meeting, he risks tarnishing a decades-long legacy of Republican moral leadership.

Meanwhile, Mattis traveling in the shadows: Trump, unsurprisingly, hogged all the headlines on his Europe trip. But at the same time, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was also touring Europe, joining his boss in Brussels for the NATO summit, then traveling to Croatia and Norway, where he seemed to talk about everything but Trump — and taking an approach completely opposite of Trump.

As Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan report: “Even as senior Pentagon officials insist they have never been more united, Mattis often seems to be having a different conversation with allies than Trump.”

Let’s Fly to Britain Now…: While the diplomatic drama unfolds, aviation nerds are focused on another big show over in Britain. Top brass and aerospace executives flocked to the Royal International Air Tattoo, the world’s largest military air show, in England this week. FP’s defense reporter Lara Seligman was there to follow all of the wheeling, dealing, and flying.

Spotted at the show, an all-star cast of big names in industry and military: U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfien and his wife Dawn, Royal Air Force Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, Boeing Defense CEO Leanne Caret, U.S. Air Force commander for Europe and Africa Gen. Tod Wolters, and the head of U.S. Central Command, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian.

Birthday Bash: The air show organizers went all out this year for the British Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary. Attendees walking the flight line could see aircraft from all over the world, from the U.S. Air Force’s supersonic B-1B bomber, to Brazilian company Embraer’s KC-390 military transport jet, to one of the RAF’s few Raytheon Sentinel airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft. The Air Force’s B-2 bomber made a surprise appearance, flying directly from its home at Whiteman AFB, Missouri to do a flyover for the second year running, and an RAF F-35B from the “Dambusters” No. 617 Squadron, famous for its actions against the Germans in World War II, unexpectedly performed its signature hover above the runway. But the highlight of the show for FP was the Ukrainian air force’s Sukhoi Su-27 demo, where the Russian-made blue-and-white “Flanker” performed gravity-defying moves.

Meanwhile in London: Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg weighed in on the impact of U.S. trade policies on the aerospace and defense market, the company’s secretive new midsize airplane, the 797, the company’s push to develop supersonic and even hypersonic (five times the speed of sound) aircraft, and his buddy-buddy relationship with President Trump. Surprisingly, he got no questions about the paint job on the new Air Force One.

Best in Show: But the F-35 once again stole the show. The biggest news over the weekend was the announcement that the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have reached a long-awaited handshake agreement on the latest batch of F-35s, a massive deal for 141 jets for the U.S. military, international partners and foreign military sales customers. Lockheed declined to release exact numbers for the deal and unit price until the contract is finalized, but Reuters reported that the cost of one U.S. Air Force F-35A in the agreement was $89 million. That’s a drop of 6 percent since a deal was struck for the last batch in February 2017. Whatever the final figure, it will reflect a record low for the costly jet. But hold that thought — even as the unit price comes down, the cost to operate and maintain the jet over the course of its projected 60-year lifespan is pegged at more than $1 trillion, and growing.

And the winner is… News from back on the homefront: Austin, Texas, has been selected as the home of Army Futures Command, a new branch of the U.S. Army dedicated to modernization efforts, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper announced last Friday during a press conference with senior Army officials and generals. Factors such as proximity to top-tier academic institutions and a vibrant private sector, quality of life, and cost of living were taken into consideration.

This is the most significant reorganization of the Army since 1973, when U.S. Army Forces Command and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command were created to neutralize Soviet aggression in Europe. The AFC is the result of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which called for a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating force.

Army Futures Command “would directly incorporate requirements from the war fighters and provide soldiers with the weapons and equipment they need, when they need them,” Esper said.  

Off the hook: The U.S. Department of Commerce announced last Friday that the supplier ban on Chinese telecommunication giant ZTE is lifted after the company had complied with all the conditions set by the American government. ZTE, which has been considered a national security threat by both parties in Congress, had to put $400 million in escrow, pay a $1-billion fine, reshuffle its top leadership, and fund a team of U.S. compliance officers to monitor the company for a decade.

Hot take: Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer of Microsoft, waded into the controversial topic of government regulation on facial-recognition technologies, a field that has attracted investment from tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft itself. Smith wrote in a blog post last Friday that facial recognition has potentially “sobering” applications such as large-scale state surveillance.

“We live in a nation of laws, and the government needs to play an important role in regulating facial recognition technology. As a general principle, it seems more sensible to ask an elected government to regulate companies than to ask unelected companies to regulate such a government,” Smith’s post read.

Slashing fake accounts: Twitter started to shut down tens of millions of potentially fraudulent accounts last Thursday in an effort to restore credibility to the social media platform, a decision that may result in a six-percent drop in its users. According to a New York Times investigation in January, Twitter users could artificially inflate their popularity by paying for followers, likes, and retweets. Oftentimes, these purchased accounts are digitally generated by stealing the identities of real Twitter users.

A rich man’s journey: Starting next year, people may travel to space with Jeff Bezos’s rocket company — if they can pay $200,000 to $300,000, Reuters reports. Executives from Blue Origin revealed last month that manned testings for the spacecraft would begin soon, with tickets going on sale in 2019. The space vehicle, called the New Shepard, is comprised of a launch rocket and a detachable capsule, which would allow six passengers to travel around 62 miles into space and experience weightlessness for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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