The next billing in the Trump jamboree happens tonight in Finland - a spectacular meeting with the President of Russia.

Although this meeting is not of the same urgency as dealing with threats of nuclear war (North Korea), trade war (China, Europe, Canada and Mexico), dangerous regional players (Iran) or deep disagreements of principle (such as with China and the South China Sea), a much larger, insidious, game is on the table.

This game has the potential to set a direction for the forthcoming years when power, not principles, govern the world.


If there is a small ray of hope where the two might achieve a mutual benefit, it is in preventing another nuclear arms race. But both Putin and Trump are starting to invest over a trillion dollars to modernise and diversify their nuclear arsenals, both of which are currently pegged at about 6500 warheads each.

The best that can be hoped for would be a joint commitment to strictly adhere to their existing obligations in good faith and the foreshadowing of further nuclear arms controls agreements to ratchet down military budgets and/or existing nukes.

If Putin could have only one wish, it would be the fragmentation of the unified voice of the western grouping, and the military threat Nato has represented on Russian borders for seven decades.

Following Brexit and the European migration crisis, Putin is probably dreaming of ordering champagne if Trump backs further away from his European allies, grumbling about the unfair costs of mutual defence.

Putin will also have aims for the two wars he is heavily invested in. In the Ukraine, the eastern region remains devoid of a mutual commitment to a peace plan.

If Trump denied the Ukraine its support for a Nato membership bid, stopped giving it military assistance, and/or turned away from its political support because of its ongoing problems of corruption, then Putin could restart the process of destabilisation and digestion. Silence, to help with the cloak cast over flight MH17, would also be appreciated by Russia.

In Syria, Putin's wish would be that Trump withdraws his troops and fails to pick up the phone when news of the humanitarian disaster reaches fever pitch as Syrian, Iranian and Russian military forces destroy the de-escalation zones.

The last item on Putin's wish list will be sanctions. The economic punishments which started in 2014, over intervention in the Ukraine, have progressed due to Russia's support for the Syrian regime and its meddling in foreign elections.


Although sanctions have not crippled the Russian economy, they have retarded its growth. Trump has already shown his reluctance to impose additional sanctions on Russia. Although he has some wiggle room to void the sanctions set by Obama's executive orders, he cannot cancel those channelled through legislation and Congress.

So what does Trump want from the summit? At the strategic level, Trump is probably not that concerned about the Ukraine, Syria or sanctions on Russia.

He wants to keep his biggest enemies divided. He wants Russia to help keep the sanctions on North Korea and not to fully align with China. He also wants Russia to keep Iran under control (as much as Russia wants him to control Saudi Arabia) and away from reaching for nuclear capability, destabilising Iraq or fuelling insurgencies throughout the Middle East.

The need for Trump to distract Americans, persuade them Russia is their friend and distance himself from allegations of collusion with Putin is greater than ever. Robert Mueller's report, the one thing that could destroy his presidency and the Republican control of Congress in the mid-term elections, is just around the corner.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University.