Rethinking What a Trump-Putin Summit May Achieve and Why

 

by Gibert Doctorow, Ph.D.

 

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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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg

The US-North Korean Summit in Singapore: does it have relevance to an eventual Trump-Putin summit?

The US-North Korean Summit in Singapore:  does it have relevance to an eventual Trump-Putin summit?

 

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

 

Now that the document concluding the US-North Korean summit in Singapore has been signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim, the world’s political commentators are busy making their assessments of what exactly its vague points on denuclearization really mean, in what ways it is historic and unlike previous agreements between US administrations and the North Korean regime of Kim’s father and grandfather.

 

In this brief essay, I will not join the pile-up on that scrimmage line but look in a slightly different direction. I will be asking how the image of Donald Trump, the courageous peace-maker, as he immodestly styled himself in his remarks about this “very historical” event at the press conference which followed the signing ceremony, how this Trump can or cannot now move on to a similarly epochal summit with Vladimir Putin to end the risky and volatile confrontation with the world’s other nuclear super power so that we all can sleep calmly.

The idea of such a summit has recently been advanced publicly by some of my friends and colleagues in the Russian expert community who are alarmed by the recent incidents we have had with Russia in places like Syria where our troops are engaged backing opposing forces within close proximity. And they also think back to the promise of normalization of relations with Russia that Trump held out repeatedly in speeches during the electoral campaign of 2016 that brought him to the presidency.  Some of these friends even hope that a Putin-Trump summit could be the starting point of a global strategic partnership between the United States and the Russian Federation. 

In our times, Russia and its president are reviled daily in US media. In our times, the House of Representatives votes 419 – 3 and the Senate votes 98 – 2 for the Russia Sanctions bill (August 2017). Under these circumstances, it takes a large measure of courage to speak out in favor of a summit with Vladimir Putin and I take my hat off to these colleagues.  However, I firmly believe they are dead wrong in their optimism over what is feasible and they are dead wrong in their pessimism over the risk of a great power war today.

 

Both parties to the US-Korean rapprochement we witnessed today had reasons to claim a win on the basis of an anodyne joint declaration which only begins a long process of negotiation and mutual concrete steps towards denuclearization. This was an artificial temporary resolution to a crisis that was artificially created by the same parties in the second half of 2017.  Both then and now, the outcomes have served domestic political agendas.

More importantly for the overriding question I have posed, the question of normalizing relations with North Korea has enjoyed far more support in the American foreign policy establishment than does normalizing relations with Russia, and this is so for easily identifiable objective reasons.  As a straw in the wind, I would mention that the November-December 2016 issue of the iconic handbook of the establishment, Foreign Affairs magazine, carried an essay urging the incoming President to work for peace in the Korean peninsula and to step back from military exercises and other provocative actions. No comparable statements were carried with respect to re-setting of relations with Russia.  On the Korean issue, US establishment opinion is divided; on Russia it is solidly united.

It bears mention that the one-on-one meeting of Trump and Kim accompanied by interpreters is said to have lasted one half hour. They emerged from this test still smiling and shaking hands and that is all that was required of them.  The document they signed was obviously prepared in advance, as well it might, since it is almost without content. It all could easily have been prepared personally by Secretary of State Pompeo together with the handful of CIA specialists he brought with him to his new position.

In the case of Russia, such preparations for dealing with Russia’s Putin and such an outcome document would be worthless. In the case of Russia, Trump’s Secretary of State would be an obstacle, not an enabler. As head of US intelligence, Pompeo correctly identified Russia to be one of the United States’ most dangerous adversaries and he helped to mobilize foreign and military policy to meet this challenge.  And where are the worker bees, where are the Sherpas who could prepare for a substantive and valuable summit with Putin?  They simply do not exist on the US side at present. It would be a great task to bring together the needed expertise in arms control just to formulate the road map and populate the working groups necessary for its execution.

To be very specific, Russia’s utility to the United States rests almost exclusively on its quality as a security threat.  Any ‘détente’ or relaxation of relations with Russia can only loosen the American choke-hold on Europe that NATO represents. There is no conceivable compensatory benefit from normal relations that would arise from across the board compromises with Russia on the many issues Moscow has raised, starting with respect of its national interests in its immediate geographic neighborhood.  The logic on the US side is for cherry-picking, identifying problems of limited scope where cooperation with Russia is mutually beneficial and otherwise staying on opposite sides of a barricade.

A Putin-Trump summit can have only negative consequences given that Trump is hemmed in on all sides at home by the defenders of a bi-partisan foreign policy that has hardened over the past 25 years.  Anything he agrees with Putin will either lead to his impeachment for high crimes or will be blocked in Congress.  Of course, if the power balance changes in Trump’s favor following the midterm elections in November, this issue can be revisited. But we are not there yet.

 

In the meantime, it would appear that Trump realizes the limits on his powers and has contented himself with using the Pentagon to ensure the bottom line:  open communications with their Russian counterparts and clear identification of the red lines of each side to avoid misunderstandings and quickly correct unforeseen complications.  In this sense, we can take great reassurance from the 6 hour face to face meeting last week in Finland of the US head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford and Russian chief of staff General Gerasimov.  For all practical purposes, that is our guaranty of peace until better times arrive in the US political establishment.

 

. © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

      * * * *

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg

Western news coverage of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum: a study in futility

 Western news coverage of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum: a study in futility

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

Given the outstanding speakers, given the large number of global business leaders participating and the accessibility of all members of the Russian government, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum 24-26 May provided global media with enormous riches to be mined as it suited the purposes of journalists and their editors/producers. 

In Russia itself, media coverage of the Forum was in total immersion mode.  The leading 24-hour news channel Rossiya-1 turned over nearly all its air time to full live broadcasts of the Plenary Session, of the business round tables of the featured guest nations this year (France and Japan), of the press conferences by Putin and the featured guest heads of state, Emmanuel Macron and Shinzo Abe.  In between these blocks of live broadcasting were interviews with foreign and Russian business leaders and with Russian parliamentarians and ministers.

In this essay, I offer a survey of media coverage in the West, starting with France, the European country that should have had the greatest interest in the Forum because of the privileged position offered to its President Emmanuel Macron both in his working visit with Vladimir Putin on Thursday, 24 May and as lead speaker in the Plenary Session of 25 May.  

Indeed, the French national newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro both sent special correspondents to St Petersburg for the event, though from what they published it appears they could have spared themselves the expense. The articles in both papers highlight comments on the objectives of Macron’s talks with Vladimir Putin coming from an unidentified “diplomat.”  Both focused their attention almost exclusively on the issues of Syria and Iran, which indeed figured prominently in the discussions of the presidents and in which certain agreements on common positions appear to have been reached during the 4 hours of private meetings on the first day of the visit. It would be safe to conclude that the Figaro and Monde journalists were working from handouts received from officers of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Otherwise, the writing is largely superficial if not frivolous. We read that “for Emmanuel Macron, the Russians are Europeans.” Or that Macron may come back to Russia for the World Cup if the French team makes it to the finals.  Or that relations have been bad due to the Skripal case, due to Russian violation of human rights and that just now the Dutch and Australians came out with their finding putting the blame for the MH-17 catastrophe at Russia’s door.  There is not a word about the Economic Forum itself, over who else is there and what is happening at its many events.

In a report that is very short on details behind headings such as the objectives being pursued by the “Small Group” on Syria initiated by France versus the Astana Group initiated by Russia, both of which groups are named here, the Monde journalist was given the space to note that Macron fulfilled his obligation as human rights defender and conferred in Russia not only with Power (“Cher Vladimir”) but also with those who speak Truth to Power: we are told he had a 5 minute meeting with the director of the iconic rights group Memorial and 13 minutes with the widow of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Russophobe readership will presumably rejoice.

However, not all is lost in this low-grade journalism.  There are indications that mainstream French reporters actually do “get it,” do see the big picture even if they are sparing in their accounts.  We read in Figaro that ever since his arrival at the Elysée Palace Macron has given France a new visibility and credibility in international affairs with an ambition to be “a driving force” within Europe, and that “this road necessarily passes through Moscow.”  We find in Monde that Macron had invoked “strong multilateralism” and “independence” as key issues in his foreign policy, and that “dialogue with Russia is one element.”  It is even possible that they took these points from what Emmanuel Macron said on stage and not from a press hand-out distributed by their minders.

German print media gave reasonable space to the Forum, but also cherry picked the events and the speeches to find what they wanted.  None said it better than Spiegel online which headlined its report as “Meeting with Putin in St Petersburg: Macron remains hard on Russia sanctions.”  In the context of mutually agreed desire to improve relations, Paris will not yield ground on the sanctions. Macron is quoted as saying “When nothing changes, we will not lift the sanctions.” The existing penalties remain so long as there is no progress on the Ukraine issue, the journal stresses. For those who may have been asleep for the past four years, Spiegel explains the origins of the tit-for-tat Russian-EU trade embargos.

Otherwise the article mentions Macron’s call upon the Russians to work together in the UN Security Council, where the US-Russian confrontation often leads to deadlock. It cites his remark that “in order to combat mistrust, we need sovereignty, cooperation and a strong multilateralism.”  However, without the context in which this was issued the assertion falls flat. It was precisely part of a bid by Macron, speaking over the heads of his Russian hosts, to claim for France, as member of the Security Council and as one of the few countries in the EU with an army worthy of the name, the right to take over from Germany the leadership role in EU foreign policy making.

(see http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2018/05/28/st-petersburg-international-economic-forum-24-26-may-2018-1167158.html)

Macron was saying that countries not enjoying sovereignty and an independent foreign policy are incapable of building trust, but you would never know that from the Spiegel article.

In the big picture, Spiegel found it worth mentioning that “the Frenchman spoke to Putin as his ‘dear Vladimir, and said: ‘I deeply believe that Russia has had its history within Europe. We have had our history, our moorings together.’ Russia must also remain in the European Council….”

As for Putin, Spiegel called attention to his complaint that the rules-based order has been upset, with particular reference to the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and more broadly to Putin’s condemnation of unilateral acts leading to a cul-de-sac, that they are always counterproductive.

Spiegel notes that during Macron’s two-day visit to Putin’s native city Russia and France signed a great many state-to-state agreements and companies concluded many contracts. It concludes its report with mention of Macron’s visit to the [Piskarevo] memorial cemetery of the victims of the three-year siege of Leningrad in the Second World War. No comment on who caused those civilian deaths.

Die Welt online opens its report on Macron’s visit to the Forum by asking whether Europe is not drawing closer to Russia under pressure from Donald Trump. It says that Putin has emerged as the ‘man of the hour’ for many, noting the presence at the Forum of the Chinese Vice President, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and French President Emmanuel Macron. It adds this to the visit to Russia a week earlier by German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluding that we are witnessing a Dialogue with Russia campaign. As the geopolitical order becomes more fragile, there are more and more diplomatic missions to Moscow. This, Die Welt comments, is all the more the case ever since Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and attempt to pressure Europe to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project.

Die Welt notes that Macron spoke in the name of the EU about its readiness to seize the opportunity and cooperate with Russia. In this, it says, he went well beyond what Merkel had said a week earlier. But the content of this cooperation remains unclear.  At the same time, Die Welt believes Putin is also ready to strengthen ties of cooperation and to talk about ‘central international questions’ whose solution is important for both France and Russia.

Die Welt tells its readers that Putin was using the Forum in his own interests, that he spoke about the destruction of the international order, about the need to return to shared rules.

In an recidivist exercise in ‘what-aboutism” Die Welt reminds its readers that Russia itself has violated international rules, mentioning in particular the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane over Donbass which caused the death of 300 people.

So what common interests can there be between Russia and Europe? The paper names the Iran nuclear deal. In this matter, it says, the sides can enter into an impressive embrace.  And it believes that in the present situation, “the goal of building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany becomes ever more realistic,” all the more so given Merkel’s milestone agreement with Putin regarding continuation of transit via Ukraine.  Per Welt, an unnamed  representative of Nord Stream called US pressure on Europeans over the pipeline “crazy.”

With the Nord Stream project foremost on its mind, Welt closes out its report ostensibly on the Forum and Macron’s visit with the remark that EU Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic has not only congratulated Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak on his reappointment in the new Russian cabinet but called for a new round of negotiations between the EU Commission, Moscow and Kiev.

For its part, in coverage of the Forum events and visit by Macron, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) puts the accent on the Syrian question. The online article reporting on the meeting of the two presidents on the 24th is headlined: “Macron and Putin want to coordinate their efforts in Syria.” The FAZ quotes Macron announcing “very significant progress” on this dossier. The progress in question is the planned launch of a “coordination mechanism” to align the work of the so-called Small Group of Western and Arab states with the Astana Process backed by Russia.  Few details are disclosed, and nothing is said, of course, about how these two peace process formats differ from one another.

Let us close out our brief overview of Continental coverage with a written report filed by Euronews, which prides itself as presenting “all views.”  Indeed, this is the only report in the selection I have presented which places the emphasis on economic aspect of the Petersburg gathering, as we see in the headline: “French and Russian businessmen strike deals at International Economic Forum.” 

In passing,the authors of this article show that they appreciate more than business figures: they call the Forum “a moment for Vladimir Putin to show that his country is not isolated and for Macron to show he can play a key leadership role for Europe and to ensure French companies maintain their presence in Russia.”

Regrettably, after this point the quality of the journalism falls dramatically.  The authors cite Gerard Mestrallet on why the political dialogue in the Forum is so very important to commercial relationships. However, Mestrallet is not merely “a French businessman who has been working with Russia for decades,” as we are told here. Mestrallet is the Chairman and CEO of Engie (former Gaz de France – Suez) occupying a critically important role in gas and energy distribution in Europe.

Alongside the heavyweight Mestrallet Euronews quotes extensively a delegate from the contingent of small and medium sized Russian enterprises in the Forum, Andrei Viktorovich Samoylov of the company Polymix: “..we Russians are not scared of anything. You know sanctions can have positive impact as well. Our brains start to work, how to get around with [sic] these sanctions…”   One wonders where were the brains of the Euronews editorial collective when they prepared this piece for publication.

Lastly for the EU coverage, there is the United Kingdom. Reporting on the St Petersburg Forum was meager, as one might expect considering the utterly hostile position of British elites to anything having to do with Russia.

Of course, The Financial Times, as champion of globalization and as a media outlet defined by economic issues, did publish some articles on the Forum, consisting chiefly of interviews with selected participants rather than broad-brush discussion of the event. And they do not seem to have taken an interest in the talks between British Petroleum’s Group Chief Executive Bob Dudley and Rosneft Chairman Igor Sechin, which was covered on Russian news. It is telling that in its Weekend print edition, the FT did not have a single article devoted to the Forum. 

The Times of London online posted an article on the Forum filed by its correspondent in Moscow.  One wonders why he was not put on a train to the Northern Capital to see for himself rather than rely on the telly, as those of us in Western Europe had to do. Be that as it may, The Times report is focused on geopolitics, as we understand from its headline “Vladimir Putin backs Europe over efforts to save Iran nuclear deal.”

Without committing itself,  The Times presents Putin in a constructive light: “Although relations with Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War, because of Syria and Ukraine as well as alleged Russian meddling in western elections, some analysts say that European countries have no choice but to engage with Mr. Putin if they want to save the [Iran nuclear] deal.”  The Times also repeats without comment what Macron told French media before his trip: “that he sought a ‘strategic and historic dialogue with Vladimir Putin, to anchor Russia to Europe so it doesn’t turn inward.”   Given that in his every speech the Russian President says precisely that his country is and will remain open to the world and talks with everyone, it seems The Times reporters have been dozing.

For expert opinion on what is afoot in the political side of the Forum, The Times defers to Vladimir Frolov, whom they identify as a “foreign policy expert.” It might help to know that Frolov is determinedly anti-Kremlin, anti-Putin. Perhaps with his help they close out the last quarter of the article with a listing of all the bad things Putin has done since his election, how many were detained at the 5 May nationwide demonstrations against his rule, the jail term meted out to Alexei Navalny, and the Pussy Riot’s call upon Mr. Macron to raise the case of a Ukrainian film-maker who is now serving a 20 year sentence in Russian detention for terrorism.   This report may not be well-rounded but it covers a lot of ground while managing to say almost nothing about the Forum itself.

Like EU journalism, the United States mainstream print media was only slightly less dismissive of the Forum, judging by column inches of coverage. To its credit, The New York Times posted an article datelined St Petersburg co-authored by its Russian news office under the title “Hosted by Putin, Leaders of France and Japan Castigate Trump.”

The article has been structured to get two birds with one stone:  bad Trump and bad Putin. We read at length about Macron’s sharp criticism at the Forum of Trump’s decisions on the Iran nuclear deal, on the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.  We are told about Shinzo Abe’s criticism of the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific trade pact. And the head of the IMF is quoted saying that Trump’s recent threats of trade war with China were “not the right way to go.”  Their conclusion is that this was “a peculiar forum for airing grievances against the United States.” Indeed, already in the third paragraph we find that “Mr. Putin sat, nodding approvingly, on a stage beside these heads of state and other senior officials at a business forum that veered into what sounded at times like a group-therapy session for world leaders slighted by President Trump.”

Having taken a good swipe at Trump by showing what world leaders think of his policies in the international arena, The New York Times then moves on to wrap itself in the flag: “The complaints by the French and Japanese leaders play into Russia’s long-term effort to drive wedges between the United States and its traditional allies.”  

The last half of the article moves off in various directions, telling us about Putin’s critique of the present world order as chaos, as a game that is neither soccer nor judo but a weird combination of the two. We are told that the Western alliance against Russia is fracturing. And we hear assorted gossip about US Ambassador Hartman dropping out of a round table lest he meet with the US-sanctioned Russian business leader Viktor Vekselberg.  One wonders how this hodge-podge article lacking in substance made it past the editors.

US electronic media were significantly more generous in coverage of the Forum than print media. Bloomberg led the way, providing live streaming of the key events as well it might given that editor John Micklethwait was chosen by the Kremlin to moderate the Plenary Session, an honor that in the past had gone to CNBC.  However, feature articles from the Forum on the Bloomberg website focused on interviews with key participants such as Christine Lagarde and were not necessarily about Russia. The only overall commentary on the Forum was provided by the website’s Opinion contributor Leonid Bershidsky, whose remarks, as always, are skewed against the Kremlin, claiming that Putin failed to put together an anti-Trump coalition at the Forum, as if this were necessarily one of his key objectives.

In conclusion, this survey of leading Western media demonstrates why a well-educated and well-intentioned reader-viewer in New York or London or Paris or Berlin following one or two favorite and familiar mainstream news and commentary providers will receive, perhaps, a sliver of what is going on in the great adversary nation that is called Russia. That sliver will have been preselected to support the generalizations about Putin, about Russia, about Trump that the same media outlets are serving up every day without relation to the newsworthy event in or about Russia being covered on the given day.

A very energetic and determined reader-viewer may do as I did and take in news sources from several Western countries and from media aligned with several different positions on the domestic political scene.  However, even in that case he will not get a comprehensive picture of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which is Russia’s answer to Davos.  Least of all will he know that at the many different signing ceremonies of the Forum the global business community concluded contracts valued at 30 billion euros with a country that is under sanctions of the United States and the EU.

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg