The rethinking in the headline is a reversal of my course, not that of the two presidents named. As recently as a week ago, I was criticizing colleagues for advocating a US-Russia summit, saying that Trump was not ready for it, that his pursuing it could end badly for him and for our common cause of easing global tensions, which is détente spelled out in simple English.
However, there are unmistakable signs that preparations for such a summit are well under way and may occur as early as the second week in July at a meeting in Europe that may precede by several days Trump’s participation in the next NATO gathering of heads of state in Brussels on 11-12 July. I will explain below the tea leaves I have been reading before making this prediction.
Now that the die is cast, the task of people of good will is to attempt to understand what is driving this process forward and to help to make the most of the opportunities presented, to help prevent the chances of a shipwreck, which are real.
What concretely can we do? Certainly not try to give advice to President Trump. All signs are that he takes policy advice from very, very few people and decidedly not from commentators in the media and/or intellectuals. To believe otherwise is to indulge in exaggerated self-esteem. Moreover, it is his very imperviousness to the opinions of others that explains what we are about to witness.
There remains the important task of preparing the general public and more particularly Congress for what is likely to result from a Trump-Putin meeting. If Donald Trump is ready to walk the tight-rope, the least we can do is hold out a net.
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I say that a summit in the near future look likely, in part because that is suggested in several articles appearing recently in the Washington Post, in The Wall Street Journal, in The New Yorker making reference to unidentified contacts in the administration. In part, I base it on less obvious clues that speak to the vestigial Kremlinologist in me. One is the repeat broadcast this morning on Vesti/Rossiya-1 of an interview with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that took place just before Vladimir Putin’s state visit on 6 June. Vienna has been mentioned as a possible venue for any such summit, and the interview makes plain why the country would be so very suitable as the site of a summit – namely Kurz’s populist and Euro-skeptic policies that are so highly appreciated by both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. One additional clue is that Henry Kissinger is said to be in Moscow right now, and Henry has been an adviser to Trump on policy to Russia ever since the 2016 campaign. He has been the voice urging an accommodation with Russia for a variety of geopolitical strategic reasons.
The timing for the coming summit is said to be during Donald Trump’s July visit to Europe for the annual NATO gathering of heads of state in Brussels. Considering what happened at the G-7 meeting in Canada a week ago, it would be very much in line with Trump’s behavior to meet with Putin just before the NATO summit so as to deflate the self-importance of the allies in advance and defeat any thought of resistance to the changes in global politics that he is undertaking with a wrecking ball.
The possibility of Vienna serving as host to such a meeting surely was on the agenda of Vladimir Putin’s state visit. Vienna has the advantage of being a neutral country, and it served as the meeting place of a US President and Russian (Soviet) leader before – at the remarkable encounter of John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev back in 1961.
The likelihood that Henry Kissinger has urged this summit on Trump and is now fulfilling the mission of a go-between during his visit to Moscow ostensibly to watch the World Cup games raises questions about Trump’s objectives. I have noted before that Kissinger’s advice to Trump during the electoral campaign to reach an accommodation with Moscow was aimed at decoupling the budding Russia-China strategic partnership that has undone all that Nixon and Kissinger achieved in the 1970s. I have also noted that Putin rejected this conceptualization of the path to normalized relations with the US when Trump’s emissaries put it to him early in the spring of 2017. Putin is very loyal to his friends and would never turn on Chinese President Xi for the sake of an invitation to the White House. After that setback, Kissinger appeared to have disappeared from the Trump’s entourage.
Evidence of Kissinger’s return to favor came as recently as a week ago when Trump reportedly said behind closed doors at the G-7 meeting that Crimea is rightfully Russia’s. That is half of the new equation for normalization of relations now being attributed to Kissinger by hearsay: the other side of the equation being that in return Russia would withdraw its support to the rebellion in Donbass against the Ukrainian authorities. This exchange also will never be accepted by Russia if it is formally presented. To abandon Donbass to the not so tender mercy of Ukrainian nationalists and revanchists would be political suicide for Putin given the strength of feeling on the subject among his supporters. But if a meeting is agreed, there are also several other key issues which might fill the agenda to the mutual satisfaction of both sides, in particular on Syria and on re-starting arms control negotiations.
There have been rumors that the United States is seeking a de facto if not de jure partition of Syria whereby its control over the Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates River is recognized by the Russians. The logic for this U.S. interest may well be related more to containing Iran than to depriving the Assad government of territory, population and hydrocarbon resources. Figuratively the American zone would be a bulwark against Iranian infiltration of Syria and Iran’s enjoying unchallenged military access to the Israeli border. Considering the obvious understandings between Netanyahu and Putin over Iranian operations on Syrian soil, it is quite possible that Russia would agree to the US proposal as part of a bigger negotiation over improving bilateral relations.
As for resuming arms control talks, that already figured in Donald Trump’s congratulatory phone call to Vladimir Putin two days after his election victory on 18 March in which he said they should meet in the near future because the arms race looked as if it were getting out of hand.
All accounts of the President’s decision to seek a meeting with Putin in July indicate that he is doing this over the objections of every one of his advisers. Put another way, he would not appear to have many resources at hand at the moment for a solid preparation of the planned summit.
Normally, the Russians would not accept a meeting at the top without such preparation. However, in light of what just happened in the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, which also had close to no preparation and ended in a one-page, 4-point statement of intentions which was swallowed by the American establishment and media upon Trump’s return home, the Kremlin may well have decided that this is the only way forward with an American President under siege from his own administration not to mention the federal bureaucracy.
I can envision a Letter of Intent signed by Trump and Putin in Vienna that has three points. Two are the points sketched above. The third could be a quite unexceptional statement on Ukraine that would conceal a significant change in US policy given in verbal assurances that would change the dynamics in US-Russian relations. Namely the sides could agree to take measures to ensure that both Kiev and the breakaway republics begin at once to honor the Minsk Accords. Behind this anodyne formula would be a US commitment to force the hand of Poroshenko or to have him removed and replaced by someone who will do what is necessary to achieve a political settlement with Donbass. In return, the Russians would ensure quick deployment of a UN or other reputable peace keeping force in the Donbass at the lines of separation of forces and at the Russian Ukrainian border.
The Letter of Intent would be a start, would give a new direction to the bilateral relations and would open the way to creation of working groups and restoration of lines of communication that Barack Obama foolishly severed following the tainted advice of his Neocon staff at the State Department.
Restarting arms control negotiations should take in more than propping up existing agreements that are either coming to term or are being systematically violated (agreement on short to intermediate range missiles). From Trump’s remarks on the new arms race, it would be entirely logical for him now to accept Vladimir Putin’s invitation to discuss the new technology strategic weapons systems such as Russia is now rolling out, as well as cyber warfare. They would also reopen talks on the US missile defense installations on land in Poland and Romania and at sea off the Russian coasts which gave rise to Russia’s development of what are called invincible offensive systems in response.
Such a one-page Letter of Intent could be sold to a skeptical or even hostile Congress if arms control heads the list. The Open Letter to Rex Tillerson by four US Senators, 3 Democrats and 1 Independent (Bernie Sanders) in early March urging immediate arms control talks showed that Vladimir Putin’s speech of 1 March on how Russia has restored full nuclear parity with the United States could break through the otherwise blind partisanship on Capitol Hill when questions of national survival are on the table. (See http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2018/03/10/gang-of-four-senators-call-for-tillerson-to-enter-into-arms-1164058.html )
One topic which will surely not be on the agenda of any Trump-Putin summit is the ending of sanctions. Trump's hands are bound by US law passed by Congress in August 2017. And Putin has said repeatedly that the US imposed the sanctions and it is up to the US to remove them without any negotiation on the subject. For possible relief on sanctions, it is better to watch Brussels, where internal dissension has been growing and where disillusionment with American leadership on this and many other matters may finally break the habits of servitude to US directives.
If one thing is clear during the Trump presidency, it is that the rule books on many aspects of international relations are being rewritten. Impromptu summits ending in sketchy letters of intent may be the new norm in this period of transition.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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