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Ex-Ambassador To Russia Thomas Pickering On Trump-Putin Meeting


President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have begun their summit at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. Now, before going into their one-on-one session, the leaders spoke briefly with the press. President Trump laid out a range of topics he expected to address.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a lot of good things to talk about and things to talk about. We have discussions on everything from trade to military to missiles to nuclear to China. We'll be talking a little bit about China, our mutual friend, President Xi.

GREENE: Now, just a few hours before this, President Trump had tweeted that the U.S.-Russian relationship, quote, "has never been worse." He did not blame himself or Putin. He blamed, quote, "U.S. foolishness and stupidity in the past." He also blamed the investigation into Russian election meddling for souring relations, which is interesting because President Trump's own Justice Department on Friday issued indictments against 12 Russian military agents for interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.

Thomas Pickering was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush. He was ambassador to Russia under President Bill Clinton among other diplomatic roles. And he joins us this morning. Ambassador, welcome.

THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you, David, good morning.

GREENE: Good morning to you. So do you agree with President Trump that this relationship is tense because of, quote, "U.S. foolishness"?

PICKERING: I think that Trump has a point, that we have done some things that in one way or another either antagonized or alienated Russia. But Russia bears equal if not more responsibility for the negative aspect of the relationships that we see now and that Trump described as being solely the responsibility of his predecessors.

GREENE: One of the things that a lot of people talk about is the annexation of Crimea. Is that one of the things you're pointing to? And if...

PICKERING: Absolutely. But I think even before that some of the pressures on the United States inside Russia in part coming out of the almost failed elections for Mr. Putin in 2012 in the Russian Duma, when he knew that he had to gather his strength to build a new set of relationships for himself with his own people. And that meant, in a sense, new waves of Russian nationalism, zones of control along the borders and ankle-kicking the United States as ways to strengthen his domestic position.

GREENE: Well, if ankle-kicking the United States helps him at home domestically, what does he want to do today?

PICKERING: I think today he would like to have the United States endorse his role in Crimea and Ukraine. He'd like to have the United States cut out exercises in the Baltics, which clearly are designed to make sure that NATO stands firm against him. He comes into this with Mr. Trump heralding his success by in fact doing what he can to discourage if not decimate the relationship with the alliance. And when he met with them last week, insults to Mrs. Merkel, real problems created for Mrs. May, a set of activities that astonished most of us when we knew that in fact going into the summit with a firm allied position would strengthen his hand. Instead, he's sitting in the chair of weakness.

GREENE: Well, I just want to point out that some of the things you're talking about Putin wanting, those are - these are no small things. I mean, if the United States, if President Trump were to endorse that Crimea is part of Russia, that would be speaking with a voice that is so different from the rest of the Western world. And if the United States were to stop military exercises with NATO countries along Russia's border - also incredibly significant. Do you think those things or one of the two could actually happen? Could Putin extract those things from Donald Trump?

PICKERING: If there were a normal administration, David, I would say absolutely not. If this were a carefully prepared meeting as they regularly are, absolutely not. With Mr. Trump, it's hard to know because as you know, he's prefigured both of these kinds of things in his press meetings leading up to the summit.

Now, whether in fact that's come-on, whether that's kind of honey for Mr. Putin in hopes that he can get something himself from Mr. Putin we won't know. Mr. Trump has a negotiating style that uses bluster, bludgeoning and indeed honey at various times to see what he can get in a transactional sense. The real difficulty here is this is transactional, and it seems to put U.S. interests secondary to interests of Mr. Trump in his own self-promotion.

GREENE: And it is worth saying that President Trump did sign onto a NATO statement condemning Russia's behavior, so I do want to point that - let me - but just in the short time...

PICKERING: He did, David. But I think with basically almost over - some reluctance if not basically said, well, we'll let that pass, but I've said what I have to say.

GREENE: Let me just ask you in the short time we have left. These indictments of Russian agents - could President Trump extract something from Vladimir Putin, some sort of admission of something when it comes to election meddling?

PICKERING: It would be a real shock. Russians don't extradite. We have no treaty. They don't let their own people go and stand trial, and they wouldn't let military intelligence officers do that.

GREENE: Ambassador Thomas Pickering, so much to talk about leading up to this meeting.

PICKERING: (Laughter).

GREENE: And we could have gone on forever. We really appreciate your time...

PICKERING: Thank you, David.

GREENE: ...This morning.

PICKERING: Glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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