RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today, we learned that President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. Questions remain, though, about why this summit is happening and why now. President Trump is also preparing to meet NATO allies next month, allies who are already worried that this Trump-Putin summit will hamstring their efforts to isolate Moscow for its destabilizing moves in Europe and the Middle East. And, of course, there's continued scrutiny over Russia's election interference and potential ties to the Trump campaign. Yesterday, White House national security adviser John Bolton said direct communication between the two adversaries is a good thing.
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JOHN BOLTON: Direct communication between him and President Putin was in the interest of the United States, in the interest of Russia, in the interest of peace and security around the world.
MARTIN: So what does each side want out of this meeting? Let's ask Alexander Vershbow. He is a former deputy secretary general of NATO and former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Ambassador, thanks so much for being here.
ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: It's a pleasure, Rachel.
MARTIN: Is this the right time for this kind of summit?
VERSHBOW: Well, the timing isn't ideal coming so close to the NATO summit, which unfortunately looks like it's going to be a divisive affair. But, you know, talking to the Russians is important. I agree with John Bolton on that. We have so many problems in the relationship. You really have to go back to the Cold War to find such a difficult time. So engaging directly with the Russian leadership is a way to try to at least manage those differences more effectively. The question is, though, whether President Trump really has a strategy for actually solving any of the problems in the relationship, or whether he's more interested in the photo ops and the visuals as - was at least part of the motivation for the meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
MARTIN: Although, you can make the argument that that was part of the motivation when the Obama administration tried to do this. I mean, the secretary of state at the time - Hillary Clinton - got up with a big prop - a big red reset button - and said this is the beginning of a new moment in U.S.-Russian relations. And it very infamously was not. The relationship just deteriorated from there. So what guidance would you give the president if you were sitting down with him about how to navigate this?
VERSHBOW: Yeah. Well, I would say, first of all, don't pretend that we don't have serious differences with Russia. And the president unfortunately doesn't take seriously the clear evidence of Russian interference in our elections. He doesn't seem to be overly concerned about the continued Russian aggression against Ukraine. He doesn't recognize the fact that in Syria, the Russians have really been working at cross-purposes with us much more than fighting common enemies. So I think we need to be very realistic going to a meeting like this and recognize that Putin is mainly looking at getting out of the international doghouse that he's been since the invasion of Crimea.
MARTIN: And you think he - you think Putin sees Trump as an ally in that?
VERSHBOW: That's right. You know, just having the meeting - for Putin - shows his people that Western efforts to isolate and punish Russia for its various transgressions has failed - that, you know, Russia is a great power and, you know, being brought back into the, you know, the inner circle of international diplomacy.
MARTIN: We heard President Trump at the G-7 recently say Russia should be allowed back into the G-7, which would change the name of that group.
MARTIN: Would that be a wise choice, do you believe?
VERSHBOW: I certainly don't think so, and I think the other members of the G-7 don't think so either. You know, the reason Russia was excluded was its aggression against Ukraine. It's shown no interest in easing the situation there or pulling out of eastern Ukraine. And of course it's very defiant about Crimea. So it's really not the right time to be bringing them into the G-7. We need Western unity vis-a-vis Russia rather than sweeping differences under the rug.
MARTIN: Alexander Vershbow - he is a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Thanks for your time.
VERSHBOW: You're very welcome.
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