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Former Ambassador To Russia Bill Burns On What's At Stake In Helsinki


President Trump is in Helsinki this morning. He's there for a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Trump told CBS News that he's going into this meeting with, quote, "low expectations." Putin, we assume, has watched President Trump on his overseas tour leading up to this meeting. Trump has railed against NATO and called the EU a foe when it comes to trade. Now, those positions of course are similar to the very positions that Vladimir Putin holds. So what do each of these leaders want?

Bill Burns is with us now. He was the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008. Good morning, Ambassador.

BILL BURNS: Hi, Noel. Very nice to be with you.

KING: Nice to have you. Let's start with the latest. This morning, President Trump tweeted that our relationship with Russia - the U.S. relationship with Russia - has never been worse. He went on to say that it was thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now the rigged witch hunt, the Russia investigation. I mean, you were an ambassador to Russia. You also worked in the State Department. What do you make of these tweets?

BURNS: I think they're really counterproductive going into an important meeting with the Russian president. It's true that relations between the United States and Russia are at probably their worst point since the end of the Cold War over a quarter a century ago. But the reason for that is largely because of Putin's aggression in recent years, particularly in Ukraine in 2014. And so it's - it's very important to be quite clear-eyed about that.

KING: We don't know very much about what is on the agenda for this meeting today. Is that a problem?

BURNS: It is a problem. I mean, typically in my experience over the last 25 or 30 years, these meetings are, you know, very carefully prepared. It's not a problem in the sense of trying to build some personal rapport with another important world leader, but it's extremely important to do it in a methodical way. And, you know, the preparations for this meeting seem to be extremely loose, to put it diplomatically.

KING: Oh, I think the president even used the word loose himself.

BURNS: Yeah.

KING: What do you think Trump and Putin should discuss?

BURNS: Well, I think - you know, from the American point of view, it's extremely important, I think, first to do no more practical harm in terms of indulging aggressive Russian behavior. And I think that what that means first is to be very direct, starting in the one-on-one meeting the president's going to have, about Russia's meddling in our election to make clear this is a direct assault on our democratic system and serious business.

That if it continues, we'll see it as a further act of political aggression, and that the president himself will see this as an act of personal betrayal. That he intends to vigorously enforce the sanctions that are already in place. And if that behavior, that interference continues, the easiest thing in the world will be to work with Congress to increase them.

So he's going to have a long one-on-one meeting. It's extremely important, I think, to make clear that this is an issue in terms of American national interests, but it's also a personal issue for the president.

KING: There are also many foreign policy issues on the table. There's Russia's incursion into Ukraine. There's Syria. There's Iran. There's arms control. There's cybersecurity. Should Trump take one single approach on all of these issues?

BURNS: Well, I'd say a couple of things. I mean, first, I think it's important for the president not to fall prey to a couple of different illusions. One illusion is that you can use personal rapport to transform a relationship. And the second illusion is that there are grand bargains out there to be done. For example, there's been speculation about trading - an American recognition of Crimea's annexation by Russia in return for Russia squeezing the Iranians out of Syria.

I think it's a foolish proposition to think in those terms in part because I think Russia has neither the interest nor the influence to squeeze Iran out of Syria. Having said that, I do think it's important, since what we're talking about here with Russia essentially is managing an adversarial relationship but an important relationship, to try to recreate some guardrails in that relationship, especially in terms of our two militaries talking to one another, diplomats talking to one another, trying to recreate some of the arms control architecture that existed even in the worst of the Cold War.

So for example, the new START agreement between the U.S. and Russia which expires in 2021 - that ought to be a subject of conversation. We should start talking again to the Russians about whether to extend that very valuable agreement from the point of view of American interests.

KING: So that something real could come out of this summit. Does it bother you at all that part of these meetings will just be President Trump and President Putin, no one else except interpreters?

BURNS: There's precedent for presidents dealing in those ways. Gorbachev and Reagan did. But the difference here is that those were relatively small parts of very well-planned summits. In this case, the one-on-one is the central part of a very I think loosely and in fact poorly planned summit.

KING: In the couple seconds we have left, what does Vladimir Putin want from this meeting?

BURNS: I think he wants to be able to show that Russia is no longer isolated, that it's back at the table of great powers and that the past is past, and now we can get on with the business of running the world, one big power to another. That's what he comes into the meeting seeking.

KING: Bill Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you, Ambassador Burns.

BURNS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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