What's At Stake In Helsinki President Trump and Vladimir Putin are meeting in Helsinki Monday. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with journalist Luke Harding of The Guardian about what's at stake.
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What's At Stake In Helsinki

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What's At Stake In Helsinki

What's At Stake In Helsinki

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And for more context on the summit, we called journalist Luke Harding. He's the author of the book "Collusion" and a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, who was based in Russia for many years. He told us Russia's agenda is pretty clear.

LUKE HARDING: If you ask me what Russia's foreign policy priorities are, I can tell you specifically to get the United States and European Union to drop sanctions against Russia, to normalize relations, by which I mean to get some step from America towards - and from Trump towards recognizing Putin's theft of Ukraine - well, theft of Crimea, which belonged to Ukraine in 2014 - and, more broadly, I would say to make Russia great again. That's been Putin's ambition over the last two decades, whereas for Trump, I'm less clear. I mean, he sort of says, wouldn't it be great to get along? Well, it would be. But the point is that Russia is a hostile foreign adversary. It does not wish America well. But what Trump gets from this nobody really seems to know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We really won't know what was said because, obviously, the - only the two men will be in the room. But what is the worst thing that could happen?

HARDING: Well, there are various scenarios for the U.S. ranging from bad to apocalyptic. I think the bad scenario is that Trump gives away something for nothing. In other words, he rewards Russia's bad behavior by suggesting that sanctions, American sanctions, against Moscow can be ameliorated or sets a timetable for them and also breaks with Europe, breaks with the Germans, breaks with the Brits and says, well, Crimea - that was Obama's fault. And the reality is it's not going to go back to Ukraine anytime soon. And we...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which he said, actually, publicly.

HARDING: Well, yeah. But then to go one step further and say we recognize Russia's sovereignty over Crimea - now, that will be an astonishing step. I think the more sinister and conspiratorial version is that Trump basically says to Putin that he no longer believes in NATO, that America has got no intention of honoring its Article 5 commitment to intervene if a NATO ally is attacked and effectively says, look. Vladimir, Europe is U.S.-free of influence. If you want to do some kind of adventure in the Baltics or revisit Ukraine or do something else, we are not going to intervene.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there a concern within Europe at this point about the relationship between President Putin and President Trump?

HARDING: I think concern doesn't really capture it. I think it's worse than that. I think it's dismay because you have to bear in mind that what happened in the United States in 2016 has also happened on the European continent and continues to happen. And it's working. I mean, that's not to say that it's just Russia that is creating these forces. But what Putin is doing very cynically and very cleverly is to instrumentalize fault lines in European society over Brexit, over the economy, over austerity and to encourage populism. So we now have a far-right government in Italy, in Hungary, in Poland. And, essentially, Russia likes all this very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. But at the end of the day, whatever President Trump may or may not want to do, he is president. And there is, of course, a Congress. And, you know, he cannot lift sanctions unilaterally. He cannot decide to make massive foreign policy decisions unilaterally, so he actually is limited in what he can offer, potentially, to President Putin.

HARDING: Well, I mean, he is limited, of course. And I think, actually, this is something that Putin didn't initially understand. But speaking as a non-American, speaking as an observer, I have been stunned and staggered by the hyperpartisanship on Capitol Hill and, actually, by the failure of the Republican leadership, of senior Republicans to grasp that this attack on America by Moscow is bipartisan matter. Actually, Putin doesn't - it's not that he's a fan per se of Donald Trump. He wants to back a candidate who thinks he's going to weaken the United States, divide it from its allies and cause chaos, allowing Russia to do what it wants in Syria, in Ukraine and elsewhere. So this is a national problem. This is a problem that touches everybody in every party. And yet they seem unwilling to recognize this simple fact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Journalist Luke Harding. He joined us via Skype. Thank you very much.

HARDING: Thank you.

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