Seeing the Substance in Trump-Putin Meeting

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Seeing the Substance in Trump-Putin Meeting
Published 12-07-2017, 08:32

Gilbert Doctorow

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.

The first meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin achieved  potentially life-saving progress on the Syrian crisis, but the U.S. media/political world can’t get past its obsession with Russia-gate, reports Gilbert Doctorow.

The U.S. mainstream media’s obsessive focus on President Trump’s tone when he asked President Putin about alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election – and whether Trump accepted Putin’s denial – left under-reported what was actually achieved during the possibly historic meeting.

President Trump discusses his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Screenshot from

To be sure, there was not all that much substance because substance normally requires detailed advance preparation by teams from both sides, something which could not and did not occur due to the intense pressure from Trump’s political opponents and even from several of his own advisers, who wanted no meeting at all or a confrontational meeting as opposed to constructive meeting if any.

That being said, there was one concrete piece of business which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mentioned in his July 7 press briefing immediately afterwards: a cease-fire in southwest Syria along with the creation of a joint U.S.-Russian center for de-confliction in Jordan, where the U.S. military coordination of the Syrian theater is located, to oversee a return to civilian life in the southwest area.

That move appears to be a positive development, with the cease-fire holding better than some earlier ones have — and adding one more zone to the six de-confliction areas established during meetings in Astana between the warring parties and under the guaranty of Turkey, Iran and Russia.

It would be still better if there had been some progress on the more dangerous zone of eastern and southeastern Syria along the Euphrates, where U.S.-backed forces of the Free Syrian Army have clashed with Syrian government forces and where the U.S. shot down a Syrian bomber a couple of weeks ago, causing the Russians to cut military hot lines and to threaten to target all U.S. and allied planes flying west of the Euphrates.

We also were told that the United States will now be taking an active role in pressing for the implementation of the Minsk Accords for the sake of a political solution in Ukraine, along with the appointment of a U.S. point man for the conflict.

Although the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Russia is at fault for the lack of progress, the reality is that Kiev has been dragging its heels on implementing a realistic approach to fulfilling its Minsk commitments that call for allowing eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas, to achieve greater autonomy and to vote for its own leadership.

Trump and Putin also agreed to set up a joint body to deal with cyber security to ensure there will be no possible attacks on electoral processes in either country. The Russians, in particular, sought such cooperation in the knowledge that cyber-attacks are considered acausus belli by the Americans. But the idea was mocked by the political establishment in Washington, which instead wants to impose more sanctions on Russia for alleged interference in last fall’s election.

More generally, what seems to have been achieved at the Putin-Trump meeting was agreement on procedures to begin a normalization of bilateral relations, including the early appointment of new ambassadors in both capitals. No agreements on anything specific as yet, but the identification of outstanding issues and the start of assignment of responsibility on both sides to enter into detailed discussion to find solutions. If followed up – or not sabotaged by anti-Trump political/media forces in the U.S. – that could turn out to be a turning point in relations.

Historical Parallels

Before the meeting took place, journalists and pundits were looking for scenarios from the past, which might characterize the emerging relationship of the two presidents. Optimists, in particular, spoke of the important example set by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, which led to very significant agreements on arms limitation and laid the groundwork for the ending of the Cold War. Donald Trump’s repeated indications on the campaign trail that he believed Putin was someone with whom he could do business was redolent of Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s views of Gorbachev.

President Richard Nixon with his then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1972.

But I think that this conceptualization of what may lie ahead is off the mark. Today there is no Soviet Union, no Russian empire in Europe, and nothing of the kind to resolve. Moreover, with all of the negative associations in Russia regarding Gorbachev’s naïve trust in the Americans (including the economic distress that followed in the 1990s and the aggressive expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders), the Reagan-Gorbachev parallel is a nonstarter for the Russian side.

Instead, I see the Nixon-Brezhnev détente of the early 1970s as a better frame of reference.  One of the great implementers of that détente was Henry Kissinger, whose Realpolitik underlies Trump’s America First thinking. And Kissinger himself has been very visible in the Trump foreign policy circle. He was with Trump when he received Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office a couple of months ago. Kissinger also was Trump’s messenger to Putin a week ago in Moscow when the former Secretary of State had a tête-à-tête with the Russian President that Russian state television considered newsworthy.

Nixon-era détente was all about peaceful coexistence between two world superpowers pursuing their own national interests, not about cozy friendship.

There are, of course, some key differences. Today, we do not have an ideological divide driving the competition of these two countries, but we do have heightened and even malicious competitiveness in which U.S. power centers still see the United States as the "indispensable” and "unipolar” superpower that can operate wherever it wants without interference.

So, the obstacle that must be cleared is to find a polite way of saying the unspeakable in American politics, that Russia and other powerful nations are permitted "spheres of influence,” rather than the entire globe being America’s "sphere of influence.” At the highest level of abstraction, we are talking about an agreement on world governance.

In the heyday of détente in the 1970s, Brezhnev offered Nixon a condominium: if we and you agree, said Brezhnev, no one else in the world will dare raise a finger. The Americans did not buy it. Nixon could not have accepted that even if he wished because Congress would never agree. Putin is not offering such a condominium, but instead is offering mutual responsibility for governance through the United Nations and other international agencies, like the G-20, a proposition that Trump might be willing to go for since it would shift the financial burden for the world’s security away from the U.S. and thus fit with his core slogan, America First.

Russian Viewpoint

In trying to understand how the Russians have assessed the Putin-Trump meeting, as usual I have found the country’s highest-level political talk show, Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, to be an invaluable aid. Opinion was divided between politicians and think tank intellectuals who are openly optimistic and those who are guardedly optimistic.

Couple walking along the Kremlin, Dec. 7, 2016. (Photo by Robert Parry)

The openly optimistic commentators believe that Trump and Putin got off to a good start, with good "personal chemistry” which promises an improvement of bilateral relations. And in general they believe that Russia did well from the encounter, with the eyes of the world directed respectfully at their President. The world had returned to the good old days when everyone looked to Washington and Moscow as the arbiters of global stresses.

The guardedly optimistic commentators believe that the meeting does not hold the promise of good relations, but may mark the end of deterioration and so potentially averts war, which otherwise was quite possibly on the horizon. The meeting and its longer-than-expected duration highlight the understanding in the United States that maintaining working relations and open dialogue with Russia is essential for world peace.

But the anti-Russian sanctions will remain and the major power blocs of the United States and Europe on one side and Russia and China on the other will vie for influence and keep their distance from one another for many years to come.

It also bears mention that the Russians were bemused by the criticism of Trump from American journalists and other attendees of the G-20 Summit for being incompetent, something of a deranged fool. No one in living memory had witnessed such contempt for an American Commander in Chief from his fellow citizens. This fact curbed Russian expectations that anything promised by Trump could actually be realized.

Another prominent feature of the G-20 was the obvious isolation of the U.S. delegation at the conclusion of the summit when the other 19 members joined in a common statement reaffirming their countries’ commitment to the Paris Climate Change treaty from which Trump has withdrawn the United States.

The other main aspect of the G-20 in Hamburg that captured the headlines of the U.S. and European press was the violence of the demonstrators who, as is now customary at such events, came to curse globalization and the free trade pacts that G-20 members have traditionally subscribed to.

An irony about the large-scale protests, which primarily targeted globalization, was that Donald Trump is the first American President in the modern era to oppose the free-trade principles typically espoused at the G-20. For once the protesters had someone who shared their outlook inside the halls of the summit.

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