Leery of Trump No Longer: Official Russia on the Trump-Putin Telephone Call of January 28th
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Notwithstanding his disposition to establish constructive working relations with Russia repeated many times before and after the November 8 elections, in the past couple of weeks the incoming President got off to a bad start.
In his interview with The Times of London just days before the Inauguration, Donald Trump proposed changing the metrics used for possible lifting of sanctions on Russia from full implementation of the Minsk Accords which does not directly depend on Moscow and has been stymied by Kiev for its own reasons, to progress on curbing the nuclear arms race and disarmament, which is a matter for Washington and Moscow acting alone. However, that splendid proposal failed to take into account the Kremlin’s aversion to any possible moves on nuclear weapons, which it sees as its great leveler, so long as there is no new security architecture in Europe and the world bringing Russia in from the cold. The answer from Moscow was a firm Nyet.
This false start was compounded by remarks from Trump’s spokesman after his boss was installed in the Oval Office suggesting that America still favored creation of safe havens, of a no-flight zone in Syria. This American initiative had already been dismissed when advanced by Barack Obama as just another ruse to protect the anti-Assad terrorists who were being supported by Washington and its Gulf State allies.
But now the early reverses have more than been repaired. In his 45-minute telephone call with President Putin on Saturday, January 28, Donald Trump appears to have kindled a very respectful and enthusiastic response from Official Russia. By that term, I mean the Kremlin elites in parliament, in the universities and think tanks, in the media upon whom Vladimir Putin depends for nationwide support of his policies. Their collective views may be a better indication of where Russia is headed than remarks of Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson.
All that one needs to know to come to the above conclusion is available from Open Sources. There is no need for a bug under Vladimir Putin’s pillow or that of his Kremlin entourage. And the best Open Sources in my estimation are the premier television news and political talk shows that run every Sunday night.
The first half-hour or so of Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) on the 29th might have been mistaken for a US-origin program dubbed into Russian by anyone unfamiliar with their programming, because it was almost entirely devoted to the phone call with the American President and to the demonstrations against Donald Trump’s various Executive Orders that broke out across the country in the week gone by. The presenter, Dmitri Kiselyov, is also the head of all news reporting on Russian state radio and television, so his giving his seal of approval to the talks between the two presidents as harbinger of good things to come carried a lot of weight.
However, the more telling ‘thumbs up’ evaluation of the telecom came on the next featured program of the Rossiya-1/Vesti-24 channel, Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev, which has a deserved reputation as the most serious political talk show in the country. It was posted on youtube.com immediately after airing on nationwide television and within 12 hours had received more than 280,000 views, which is a fair indication of its popularity with Russia’s chattering classes (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ0wQ8qDk_Y ).
The Vladimir Soloviev show is important precisely because of the array of panelists having their own power bases and contributing what was complementary but clearly defined and individualistic appreciations of why the conversation between the presidents was so promising. Among the panelists and the first to speak was Vyacheslav Nikonov, who as the grandson of Molotov may be called hereditary Soviet aristocracy; he is also chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Education; member of the top governing body of United Russia, chairman of the Board of Russky Mir, the NGO supporting Russian culture and the Russian diaspora abroad. Second in the pecking order was Aleksei Pushkov, Chairman of the Commission on Information Policy in the Federation Council and from 2011 to 2016 Chairman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs. Other notables included Oleg Morozov, Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council; Andrei Sidorov, Head of the World Politics Department, Moscow State University; and Sergei Stankevich, head of the International Contacts section in the center-right Party of Growth (Boris Titov).
The boys did their homework both in historical comparisons and in parsing texts of the press releases. They came to the show well prepared. Their comments are worth reading at length, and at the end of this brief essay, I attach a verbatim record of their principal remarks in English translation.
Another noteworthy aspect of the program and of the positive view presented on prospects for collaboration with Donald Trump’s America is that it unfolded under the direction of the great Trump-skeptic, Vladimir Soloviev himself.
As I know from talking to him on the sidelines of one of his broadcasts in September, 2016 in which I took part, Soloviev was no fan of Trump before the US elections and preferred to see Hillary win on the logic that it’s better to deal with the devil you know. In Trump he saw only unpredictability, volatility. He assured me that Trump’s pro-Russian statements were purely pre-election rhetoric which he would betray the day after taking office. In later broadcasts, after Trump’s election on November 8th, Soloviev was one of those who remained guarded, arguing that this businessman would hardly succeed in implementing his promises over the opposition of the Deep State. Now it would appear that Soloviev himself is less leery and more hopeful. In a word, with one phone call Donald Trump has set the stage for serious negotiations and, possibly, substantive “deals” with the Russian leadership at their eventual summit.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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G.Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.
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Select comments of panelists
“All things considered this [telephone chat] gave the maximum results one could hope for from the first conversation between Trump and Putin. To be sure, the American President is under very heavy pressure from opposition within his own party and the Senate of the USA, from the mass media with their anti-Russian tone. The fact that the conversation was constructive will, I think, disappoint many of the critics of Trump and Putin in America, though it did not really make the news there, being overtaken by the huge scandal over emigrants…. What were the main aspects? At the center of attention was Syria. This is precisely the aspect that was emphasized in the short press release from the White House. It means it is possible to create an anti-ISIS coalition with participation of both the USA and Russia. There are the first signs this is happening. The second important aspect I’d note is in the Russian press release, namely the agreement to the establish partnership on an equal basis The United States has not had partnership relations of equals not only with Russia but with no one else as well in the years following the end of the Cold War. They dealt with Russia as the side that had lost the Cold War and towards whom you can carry out any policy line without regard to our concerns. Then another very important word we noted was “restoration” – used to characterize our future trade and economic relations. Restoration of trade and economic relations is a rather transparent reference to the idea that one way or another the sanctions will be reexamined. This is so although the word “sanctions” itself was not mentioned. I’d also note that they reviewed a wide range of issues. Syria, Ukraine, Iran, the Korean peninsula, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. This presupposes, at a minimum, that in this rather short conversation there were no serious disagreements or differences of opinion. They discussed what they wanted to discuss. The questions were prepared and the participants in the discussion afterwards were satisfied. Therefore, I consider this a very good, encouraging start in Russian-American relations. Let us not tempt fate and let us knock wood..Let us hope this continues in the same way in the future. We could not hope for better than this.”
“What bothers me is that I don’t remember that it was ever otherwise the first time in conversation with an American president. The first contacts with an American president always were very good, in their first terms in office. Is there anything special this time? You know, this Trump is a strange fellow. So far he is not at all like a traditional American president. He is fulfilling he pre-election promises like a bulldozer.”
“Trump is truly not like a traditional American president, because he does not come from the political milieu. He was never a Governor or a Senator or Congressman. He signifies a new style. Incidentally I think this is symbolic, because we are in new times. The times are changing. The world is changing. The US is changing. It think it makes sense that in new times Americans elected a new type of president. As for the suggestion that we always began this way with new American presidents, it’s not quite right. With Obama, yes. But then relations were not on such a negative basis. It appears that Trump set as his goal to improve relations with Russia considering that they are deeply negative. We are not starting out at 0 but at minus 10. A very negative zone. He said he wanted to pull us out of this during the pre-election campaign and now has repeated it during the conversation. That is the first distinction. Next, consider how it was with Bush. He came to office on a very anti-Russian wave. He accused Clinton of having lost Russia, and he would apply a much tougher policy. Under Bush we established contact only 6 months after his [inauguration], that is in June 2001 when they met in Ljubljana and he said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. But that is not how it started. At the very beginning, he criticized Clinton for his close relations with Yeltsin. I won’t go into the details but it was a different scenario. So what’s important here? It’s that Trump, unlike what his critics say, is very predictable. He said what he did in the campaign, and now he is taking steps in this direction. He said, by the way, ‘I don’t know if I will succeed with Putin, but I hope it will work out. That is, he puts the question quite openly and honestly. He doesn’t promise what he cannot be sure to achieve. ‘I’ll try…’ He will try to find common language. And this explains the general shock of the whole American elite who got used to candidates lying during the electoral campaigns and then backing off from it all. ….Let’s remember Obama. How much he promised. He tried to fulfill some of it, the medical insurance. “
“So we should nominate Trump for the next Nobel Peace Prize?”
“I think the Nobel Prize Committee is also in shock over Trump. They are liberal and Obama was rather close to them. Trump is on another branch entirely. The second thing I’d note, and this is in the American release, that the conversation between Trump and Putin took place in a warm atmosphere. It was a ‘warm conversation.’ By contrast the conversation with Merkel was ‘business-like’ and rather dry. And the conversation with Hollande was tense. These are the terms they used. Hollande is the outgoing president; he has practically no importance and can say what he likes. Trump called him out of respect for France and the French people, not respect for Hollande who has ratings of 10% if not less. The value of the conversation between Trump and Hollande was, for us, that Hollande, unlike Merkel, who is trying to stay in power and is very cautious and careful in my view, Hollande presented Trump with the whole list of liberal claims against him. You can see in his list the pressure points liberal Europe will try to use against Trump: that you cannot remove the sanctions until the full implementation of Minsk Agreements, that half-dead formula; then on Syria…..Hollande presented this fully aware of what he was doing. …. Trump has to find common language with Europe, with NATO allies. You have to remember that around Trump there are people who are accept the concerns of Europe. So not everything is decided. “
Sergey Mikheyev – political scientist
“This is not Reagan and Gorbachev…Gorbachev was trying so hard to please the West he forgot about the Soviet Union and everything else. ..If only they would like him in the West, he could change the whole world. Putin cannot do the same because over these years we learned a lot. If Trump tries to behave with Putin the way Reagan did with Gorbachev then that is an absolute dead end and will lead to conflict. If we try to behave like Gorbachev and please the President, then that is also a dead end. The challenge before them and us is to find a wholly new formula. ….We need to find a qualitatively new form of dealing with one another. In my view that will not be very easy. “
“You posed the question – what has changed with the coming of Trump. I understand perfectly that the times of Gorbachev are long gone and thank God they will not return. ….What did we have before? There was always an agenda from one side and an anti-agenda from the other side. Each side set out an agenda that was not necessarily at all topical or important for the other side. What did they set out 4 years ago: how to build democracy in Russia in dialogue with the USA , or human rights defenders, or whether it is good or bad that rockets appear right on the border with Russia because there is some sort of threat from Iran, so let’s put rockets in the Baltic States, in Romania, in Poland. What is now radically new is that the agenda proposed in this dialogue, which was clearly discussed in advance, this is an agenda that is absolutely interesting in equal measure to both sides. My second observation: all of the issues discussed are really of prime importance. They only had 45 minutes and Putin and Trump managed to cover it all. …Thirdly, I want to continue the idea of Alexei Pushkov. Here in this studio, but more especially outside this studio, there was a very strange reading of Trump – that he is a populist, that he doesn’t understand what foreign policy is all about, he doesn’t understand where Russia is located and what to do about Russia, that he will look to his more experienced partners who understand the world much better than he and so what will happen is he will succumb. But look at what is happening: instead he is constantly seeking to strengthen his own positions. Intuitively he entirely correctly guides the policy line he set out in his electoral campaign. He does not weaken his position but instead strengthens it. So when Trump says ‘let’s try to find a dialogue with Russia,’ in my view this Is not just tactics, it is really a long-term strategy of Trump today. And this gives us a good chance for this format…”
“We have no illusions. We don’t expect anything good from Trump. Our task is to formulate our own agenda…..Soviet and Russian diplomacy had a tendency to get disappointed. When they say we have to reexamine our commercial and economic relations, remember that they will never be what they were before. We don’t need it. We were used to setting the table for guests. The vodka and snacks were gone and we were left asking, where is their technology, where is…? That won’t happen again. We seek equal relations. “
“We have just heard the phrase that ‘Europe has been sleeping.’ The discussion today is between Trump and Putin. ….Merkel and Hollande are stuck in the old formulas…..They have an old agenda. They don’t have anything in particular to offer…..Europe is off the highway and sidelined. This is another point that comes out of the [Trump-Putin] conversation.”
Yakov Kedmi [Israel, ex-Soviet, ex-Israeli intelligence]
“The conversation showed Trump’s rejection of bloc mentality. – EU and NATO are blocs. The USA prefers to deal with nations one to one. There is sense in this. When the US is so confident in its might, it is easier to deal with one than with many. They expect to achieve better results, and most likely it is correct….Two other observations. The conversation with President Putin was in a constructive tone, to agree and resolve conflicts. This is not due to Russia having changed its policy. Russia has not moved a millimeter from the position it held. The US administration was obliged to change its position. That is the US was obliged to change its positions and Russia stayed in the positions it held. The same happened with Turkey, which has radically changed its position.”
“It is good that the Presidents of the United States and Russia had a conversation. As a citizen of Russia, I don’t like to think half the world is holding its breath over how they prepare for this conversation and then hangs on every word, that we expect the course of the world to change or of Russia to change as a result of the two presidents conversing. I’d like a predictable international order. And I hope after this conversation it will begin. An order that is safe, comfortable and pleasant to live in. I’d like to see in this diplomacy the start of it which responsible statesmen….”
“And I think of battalions marching when I hear the term ‘new world order.’ This is a dangerous combination of words.”
“We had a new world order at Yalta, Potsdam, then the creation of the UN, then in Helsinki where a new order was set down that included many elements including humanitarian issues and defense of human rights that were necessary for the world. I’d like to see this now, in the sense of building on predictability…”
“Before this telephone conversation the world order existed in a state that did not suit anyone. Even the Americans were not satisfied with it. Not one of the tasks called out could be resolved. Dialogue between Russia and the USA is precisely the foundation on which you can build the new world order.”
“I’d like to start with agreeing terms. World order is precisely the agreements between victorious powers after a global war. That is what was done at Yalta, Teheran, Potsdam. Helsinki was not on that level. When the Yalta arrangements collapsed the West, and the USA in particular took this to mean its victory. And it was not accidental that we had all those discussions about the unipolar world. And it was the dissatisfaction of Russia and others with this unipolar world led to the fact that now Trump will set up a new world order by reaching agreement with those powers who did not accept globalization from the 1990s which was supposed to set up a new world order. ….Russia can now be a participant in the creation of the new world order. Putting aside the list of issues, the main item on the conversation was when do we meet and in what format…..ISIS is the number one evil of our times. And if it is possible to joining forces to combat ISIS why not do so. That would be the implementation of precisely what Trump spoke about all during his electoral campaign.”
“What we are talking about is not a new world order but a new set of rules of conduct. It is not just a stop to military interventions but also to interference in other countries in general. That is what Trump was talking about. ….Order is too rigid…. That is what Trump was saying, what Putin was saying. Let’s set up proper relations: everyone will live at home as he wishes. No one will give instructions to others. Not in the name of democracy, not in the name of God…All the wars and cruelty took place in the name of ideals. Therefore let’s not speak about a new world order but about a new, civilized way of communicating and dealing with one another.”
“In fact that world order which is now being reconstructed, it was born not in Yalta or Potsdam but in the end of the Cold War. This was a unipolar world order in which strictly speaking the ‘world government’ was the United States itself , which was more powerful than the Roman Empire in its day, or the United States and its allies acting through the NATO bloc and the international financial institutions. This was the global, liberal world order in which Russia had its place as a conquered power on which others wiped their feet or in the best of circumstances was ignored. Precisely this world order is passing into history. Firstly because the United States was unable to maintain world domination nor did it have the desire to do so as we now see. As Trump said in his Inauguration speech, you have to allow that other states have their own interests. That had a revolutionary sound to it coming from an American President, since they never recognized national interests other than their own and their allies. Nobody now wants to dissolve the NATO bloc, but I’d call attention to the following. During all the years of NATO’s existence, the press of the member states has not been allowed to ask any serious questions about the American leadership, except for the period of the war in Iraq. Now 90% of what you read in the newspapers about the USA is so very negative like we never saw before. A real trans-Atlantic split that never existed before. So, what is coming? We see application of the term “new normalcy,” which is very debatable. The “new normalcy” of a world with Trump, Putin, Brexit. What does that mean? There are various opinions, but it is clear it will be a multi-polar construction in which the poles are the great powers: ….China, India, Russia, United States. Maybe it will be 4-sided. Brzezinski recently spoke about the need for a triangular system: the USA, Russia and China. We also have a place in the Eurasian project, in the Chinese Silk Road, which might include the European Union. Ahead will be very serious re-formatting over the coming years, not months….But one thing is clear, in the new world order one of the decisive places will be held by our country.”