by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D,
The much-anticipated first face-to-face meeting of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin finally took place on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg on July 7. The attention of the world and even of the other participants of Summit was so riveted to the Trump-Putin meeting, and the Summit schedule was so interrupted by that meeting, that clever tongues are speaking of the G-20 having taken place at the sidelines of the Trump-Putin talks.
The two big news items to emerge in U.S. media concerned a) the length of the meeting and b) Trump’s having raised the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, thus addressing the demands for confronting the Kremlin on the issue that came out of the hysterical “Russiagate” campaign of Trump’s detractors and political enemies.
Indeed, the meeting went on for two hours and fifteen minutes, as opposed to the 25 minutes advised in advance by the White House. There were a total of six participants: the two presidents, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the interpreters.This is important, because Trump dispensed with the large delegation of “advisers” and Russophobes, like Fiona Hill, whom he was urged to take along to the meeting to keep him on the straight and narrow.
As for Russian hacking and other alleged interference in the U.S. elections, we are told that the subject took up 40 minutes, nearly a third of the meeting time. The New York Times confides that the discussion was tense and heated. In answer to journalists’ questions following the meeting, Sergei Lavrov and then later Vladimir Putin himself expressed confidence that the Russian’s vehement denials of any involvement were persuasive and were accepted. So far, the Trump camp has been quiet on the persuasiveness.
Regrettably, this very tightly focused attention of U.S. media has left unreported what was actually achieved during the meeting. To be sure, that was not much of substance, because substance requires detailed advance preparation by teams from both sides, something which could not and did not occur due to the intense pressure of Trump’s political opponents and even of 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 Lavrov mentioned in his press briefing immediately afterwards: the creation of a joint U.S.-Russian center for deconfliction in Jordan, where the U.S. military coordination of the Syrian theater is located, to look after the implementation of a local pacification and return to civilian life in the southwest region of Syria. Moreover, the supervision on the ground of this deconfliction will be performed by Russian military police. That all appears to be a very positive development, adding to the 6 deconfliction areas in Syria that were agreed in Astana at meetings of all warring parties and are 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 Assad’s 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 are informed 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 properly observed cease-fire and a political solution. A point man for relations with Ukraine has been named. In practice, this will likely mean applying pressure on Kiev to live up to its commitments – on voting in the Donbass, on decentralization….
There was also an agreement to set up a joint body to deal with cyber security so as to ensure there will be no possible attacks on electoral processes in either country. The Russians, in particular, seek such cooperation in the knowledge that cyber attacks are considered a causus belli by the Americans.
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, that could turn out to be a turning point in relations.
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 enormously important example set by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, which led to very significant agreements on arms limitation and to the resolution of the underlying cause of the Cold War: Europe’s division into Russian and Allied spheres of control. 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.
But I think that this conceptualization of what may lie ahead is deceptive and a cul de sac. 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 for today’s Kremlin coming from the naïve and unjustified trust of Gorbachev in the good intentions and fair play of his interlocutors, references to that political duo is a nonstarter for the Russian side.
Instead, I see the frame of reference for what lies ahead in the Nixon-Brezhnev detente. 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 Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office a couple of months ago. He was Trump’s messenger to Putin a week ago when he arrived in Moscow and was taken to 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 super-powers pursuing their own national interest, not about cozy friendship.
We do not have today an ideological divide driving the competition of these two powers, but we do have heightened and currently malicious or malignant competitiveness that can run amok. The objective is to agree on national interests of the sides, a polite way of saying the unspeakable in American politics, “spheres of influence.” At the highest level of abstraction, we are talking about an agreement on world governance.
In the heyday of detente, and even as late as 1978 or so, Brezhnev offered Nixon a condominium: if we and you agree, said Leonid Il’ich, 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 to because Congress would never agree. Putin is not offering such a condominium, but instead is offering mutual responsibility for governance through the UN and other fora like the G20. Maybe, just maybe Trump will go for it.
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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 is divided between politicians and think tank intellectuals who are openly optimistic and those who are guardedly optimistic.
The openly optimistic 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 believe that the meeting does not hold the promise of good relations, but marks the end of deterioration and so averts war, which otherwise was quite possibly on the horizon. The meeting and its duration highlight the understanding in the United States that maintaining working relations and open dialogue with Russia is essential for world peace. But the sanctions will remain, and the major power blocs of the United States and Europe, Russia and China 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 insistent implicit and sometimes explicit criticism of Trump from American journalists and other attendees of the Summit for being incompetent, something of a deranged fool. No one in living memory had witnessed such contempt for the Commander in Chief from his own fellow citizens. This fact curbed Russian expectations that anything promised by Trump could be realized.
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Apart from the meeting of the Russian and American presidents and from the obvious isolation of the US 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 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. More than 100 German police fell victim to the demonstrators actions.
The very curious thing is that no one from the opponents of globalization took notice of an extraordinary fact: that Donald Trump is the first American President ever to have taken a policy stand AGAINST globalization. If logic had any place in these political struggles, the demonstrators should have been lined up to shake Trump’s hand, wish him well in deconstructing the trade pacts, and asked for autographs.
But logic and politics often part company, and the demonstrators ‘did their thing’ without a nod of any kind to their American ally in the White House.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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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.