LONDON – In the span of 24 hours, President Donald Trump upended a NATO gathering and expectations for his planned summit Monday in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising questions about what Trump hoped to get out of the talks – and what he would be willing to give up.
At a news conference Thursday right before he left Brussels for London, Trump refused to rule out ending NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea. On the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said, “All I can do is say, ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ But (Putin) may deny it.”
In Brussels, he berated NATO allies over their defense spending, even privately threatening to walk out of the alliance – only to sign on to a unanimous declaration acknowledging the alliance has made progress. By the end, he declared NATO "much stronger than it was two days ago."
If the unpredictability Trump showed during the two-day NATO summit in Brussels re-emerges at the Putin summit, experts said, the United States could end up making dangerous concessions.
"We still have no agenda for the Trump-Putin meeting. It’s unclear what the U.S. thinks it can get from Russia, or what it even hopes it can get," said Alina Polyakova, a Russia analyst at the Brookings Institution. "For Putin, that ambiguity is an asset. For Trump, it's a liability."
Nowhere is that ambiguity more pronounced than on the question of Crimea, the Ukrainian territory Russia annexed in 2014.
"Oh, that's an interesting question," Trump said at the news conference in Brussels before blaming President Barack Obama for allowing Russia to take Crimea.
The Russian incursion prompted several rounds of economic sanctions from the United States and Europe. Relations hit a post-Cold War low when U.S. intelligence agencies accused Putin of directing a campaign of cybercrime and propaganda to influence the 2016 presidential election. Putin denies meddling in the election.
In Brussels, Trump signaled that U.S. recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory was not out of the question.
He suggested that Russian investments on the peninsula might weigh in Russia's favor.
"You know, people like to say, 'Oh, Crimea.' But the fact is, they built bridges to Crimea. They just opened a big bridge that was started years ago. They built, I think, a submarine port; substantially added billions of dollars," Trump said.
The president would not rule out suspending NATO military exercises in the Baltic Sea, long a point of friction as Russian jets have buzzed U.S. warships. "Well, perhaps we'll talk about that," Trump said.
"That is not a casual comment," said Heather Conley, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state in George W. Bush's administration. "That's a really significant issue if he chooses to go down that road."
The Helsinki summit will be Trump's third face-to-face meeting with Putin over the past year. Those encounters were on the sidelines of other summits, and this will be the first preplanned, standalone meeting between the two leaders.
Both times, Trump asked about election meddling. And both times, Trump said he accepted Putin's denials of Russian involvement.
“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said after a meeting in Vietnam last November. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
This time, Trump said he plans to bring up the issue again – but he suggested it would be perfunctory.
"We will, of course, ask your favorite question about meddling," he told reporters. "I will be asking that question again. But we'll also be talking about other things."
International summits are usually planned for months and are the culmination of bureaucratic staff work to narrow the issues.
The Helsinki summit was firmed up less than three weeks ago.
Asked last week what "deliverables" the Trump administration hoped to get from the Putin summit, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said the summit "is a deliverable in itself."
Trump is spending the days before the Putin summit in the United Kingdom, meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May and visiting with Queen Elizabeth.
Like many European leaders, May welcomed the idea of a meeting between Trump and Putin, saying, "Open channels of communication between the U.S. and Russia are key to managing the risks of confrontation."
Trump worked to strengthen his hand in the Putin talks by demanding that NATO allies spend more on defense before declaring the alliance "very unified" Thursday.
That final statement was important, said Conley, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but the chaotic two days of meetings and tweets so disoriented the alliance "that it's hard not to think that the stakes for Helsinki haven't been raised a little bit."