Trump And Russia, It's Even More Complicated Now

As President Trump prepares for his first face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his plans for a reset with Russia are undermined by his own actions.

Trump at July 4th ceremonies
Trump at July 4th ceremonies
Abby Phillip and Carol Morello

WARSAW — President Donald Trump promised voters that he would strike "a great deal" with Russia and its autocratic president, Vladimir Putin. He has repeatedly labeled an investigation of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections as "a hoax," and he even bragged to Russian officials about firing the FBI director leading the probe.

Now nearly six months into his presidency, Trump is set to finally meet Putin at a summit this week in Hamburg after a stop here in Warsaw - severely constrained and facing few good options that would leave him politically unscathed.

If Trump attempts to loosen sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine or its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Congress could defy him by pursuing even stronger penalties. And if he offers platitudes for Putin without addressing Russia's election meddling, it will renew questions about whether Trump accepts the findings of his own intelligence officials that Russia intended to disrupt the democratic process on his behalf.

"The president is boxed in," said Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. "Why would you give Putin any kind of concession at the first meeting? What has he done to deserve that?"

He added, "If you try to curry favor offer concessions, pull back on the pressure, he'll take advantage. He'll see weakness in a vacuum."

Already, Moscow is clamoring for the Trump administration to return two Russian compounds in the United States that were seized by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian meddling. And the Trump administration signaled in May that it would be open to returning the properties.

Yet in the Senate, there is rare near-unanimity in favor of tough sanctions against Russia. Last month, the Senate voted 97 to 2 for a bill that would put new sanctions in place for Russia's election meddling and would constrain Trump's ability to lift existing penalties. The White House was forced to step up its lobbying of Republicans in the House to slow the progress of a similar measure.

Treating them as enemies is absurd

Among the foreign policy experts who support Trump's push for improved relations with Russia, there is growing frustration that the current political climate and Trump's actions have made it all but impossible.

"It has been extraordinarily difficult for Trump, even if he had the means to do so, to do what is in the vital national interest, that is, improve relations with Russia," said Jack Matlock, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union under president Ronald Reagan who favors improving relations with Russia. "Treating them as if they are enemies is absolutely absurd, and yet it permeates much of the attitude in Congress."

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has been moving on multiple fronts to soften the U.S. stance on Russia.

Trump wants Russia's cooperation in a number of simmering conflicts, including the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Russia's use of North Korean laborers whose pay goes directly to the regime in Pyongyang, despite its nuclear weapons program.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to ward off Congress from imposing more sanctions on Russia for its involvement in Ukraine, saying that getting tough now could hamper cooperation on other issues like fighting the Islamic State. Tillerson also said last month that the administration is not necessarily wedded to the Minsk agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine. That's a shift in position since March, when he told a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that the United States would not ease sanctions until Russia meets its Minsk commitments.

"The president asked me to begin a re-engagement process with Russia to see if we can first stabilize that relationship so it does not deteriorate further, and then can we identify areas of mutual interest where perhaps we can begin to rebuild some level of trust and some level of confidence that there are areas where we can work together," Tillerson said during a visit to New Zealand in June. "The president has been clear to me: "Do not let what's happening over here in the political realm prevent you from the work you need to do in this relationship.""

Despite Trump's consistent overtures to Putin, however, U.S.-Russia relations have not improved since he took office.

Putin has strongly denied any interference in the 2016 election and has accused U.S. politicians of Cold War-era hysteria. Meanwhile, Russia's continued support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's massacre of his own citizens in the country's civil war has further engendered distrust among U.S. political leaders.

Paul Saunders, who directs the U.S.-Russia program at the Center for the National Interest, said the level of mutual distrust and hostility is as bad as it was during the height of the Cold War.

"Without progress on Ukraine, I don't see how one would ease sanctions," he said. "And it's not like Russia is going to send special forces to Damascus to arrest Assad and deliver him to The Hague or to President Trump."

Trump, who has been criticized for his overly warm posture toward Putin, has not indicated how he will approach the meeting this week.

In recent months, Trump has done little to hide his frustration that his effort to pivot toward Russia has been hampered by congressional and FBI investigations, which he views as a "witch hunt" being carried out by his political enemies.

At an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in May, Trump complained to the Russians about the ongoing probes into his campaign, suggesting that firing FBI Director James Comey would ease the political pressure on his administration.

It's only gotten worse

"I faced great pressure because of Russia," Trump told the men, according to the New York Times. "That's taken off."

Since that meeting, Trump's Russia-related troubles have only gotten worse. Shortly after Trump met with the Russian officials, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed to take over the Russia investigation and is now investigating whether Trump sought to obstruct the case by firing Comey, officials have told The Washington Post.

In light of the continued pressure from both parties, White House aides have sought to play down expectations for this first engagement between the two world leaders. But they have offered few clues about what will be on Trump's agenda, including whether he plans to raise the issue of Russia's election interference.

"There's no specific agenda," national security adviser H.R. McMaster said last week when asked whether Trump planned to confront Putin. "It's really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.

"As the president has made it clear, he'd like the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia," McMaster added. "But he's also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia's destabilizing behavior."

There is also a risk that Trump could choose to freelance in the meeting, diverting from the more balanced objectives that his advisers have laid out for the bilateral relationship. If Trump prioritizes his desire to build camaraderie with Putin as he has with other world leaders, it may put him at a stark disadvantage with a former KGB operative known for his unflagging focus on Russia's primacy.

"He has a tendency to ad-lib in these kinds of things," said former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. "He's overly focused on "having a good meeting." He wants to be liked, and he wants to say things are successful.

"He should know and we should understand: Putin is coming with an agenda," added McFaul, who served under President Barack Obama. "Putin is going to be prepared. If you are going to freelance it, doesn't mean he's going to. He is a very effective interlocutor."

Morello reported from Washington.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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