This was a most unusual summit, preceded and followed by a torrent of mostly negative Western MSM comment on the theme that ‘Putin will win this, and Western interests will lose’.
Never has a Russia-US presidential summit taken place in such inauspicious circumstances. It was preceded by another alleged Novichok poisoning near Salisbury, reawakening unresolved questions about who poisoned the Skripals four months ago, with what toxin, and why: by a recent acrimonious NATO meeting and tense encounters with the Queen and Theresa May; and by new indictments for election meddling by a Mueller grand jury against 12 named Russian military intelligence officers . Against this, Western Russophobia and Putinophobia had perhaps been blunted a little by the hugely successful and harmonious World Cup festival in Russia.
Two precursor analyses stand out as comparatively quite balanced: Susan Glasser in the New Yorker on 13 July ( ‘An amateur boxer up against Muhammad Ali’), and Joseph Camilleri in a 16 July essay in The Conversation (‘As Trump meets Putin, expectations may be high but the prospects are poor.’)
Helsinki had to confront many years of accumulated mistrust and resentment on both sides going back to the Bush and Obama presidencies under which US-Russian relations had gone steadily downhill. Trump’s closest senior aides, former hardliners Pompeo and Bolton, were part of this intensifying Russophobe history. Mattis, with his hands-on experience of recent military deconfliction working effectively in Syria, and US Ambassador Huntsman in Moscow with his professional interest in detente, would have tried to balance such voices.
But basically Trump was flying by the seat of his pants: he had no agenda, except a vague but strong belief that the US and Russia have to start talking again because of obvious nuclear war risks, and his personal respect and liking for Putin.
The Russian side had made clear to media its very modest expectations of the meeting: to end it without acrimony and to start a process of US-Russia regular dialogue was what they would define as success. They felt trepidation that even this might not be achievable if Trump were sufficiently spooked by his nay-sayers’ intense pressure on him to be tough.
Putin also had to work against a background of deep Russian public resentment of US interference in Ukraine and Syria, and their mistrust of American untrustworthiness, developed over the past ten years or more and especially in regard to Ukraine.
Before listing the deliverable summit outcomes, here is a quick comment on the final press conference and the resulting Western mainstream media commentary. Putin had clearly dominated the agenda for the private meeting and the short one-hour lunch with officials that followed. Putin gave the first prepared statement in the media conference and Trump followed.
Putin‘s focus was on policy deliverables, Trump’s on complaining how he had been unfairly criticised over the US election by his Western critics . It is recommended to watch the 45-minute CNN live video to see and hear the full flavour at first hand, and then to read the NPR transcript.
Every Western media question, by senior press gallery members from Reuters and AP, concerned election meddling. The mood was tense and self-referential. There was no Western media interest in pursuing any useful summit outcomes. Cues in the two initial leaders’ statements – effectively, a communiqué by another name – were not taken up. Thomas Friedman’s almost hysterical New York Times commentary ‘Trump and Putin vs America’ encapsulates the hostile Washington mainstream reaction to the meeting. Another good, fact-based review of negative Western mainstream reaction to the Helsinki meeting is by Fairfax’s Nick Miller.
No Western MSM to date seem interested in the possibility that, whoever led it, this summit may prove to have had a non-zero sum outcome that will serve the interests of both sides. It was all about limiting expected damage to the West, and cementing a public view that Trump had been Putin’s puppet in Helsinki. Which means Trump will have a harder job convincing voters outside his base that he had done well for America in Helsinki. Which also explains the subdued mood of both men in the press conference, lightened only for a moment by Putin‘s gift of a World Cup football for Trump’s son. For the leaders, the press conference was the hardest part of the day.
Stephen Cohen had a more realistic historian’s perspective in an excellent pre-summit (11 July) article in The Nation. Two quotes:
‘Considering today’s perilous geopolitical situation, it is hard not to conclude that much of the American political establishment, particularly the Democratic Party, would prefer trying to impeach Trump to averting war with Russia, the other nuclear superpower’.
‘Even if nothing more specific is achieved, everyone who cares about American and international security should hope that the Trump-Putin summit results at least in a restoration of the diplomatic process, the longstanding “contacts,” between Washington and Moscow that have been greatly diminished, if not destroyed, by the new Cold War and by Russiagate allegations. Cold War without diplomacy is a recipe for actual war.”
The talks did not break down, because neither leader had ultimatums to present to the other. Both knew their main problems were back home, not with each other. Trump particularly was on a tight leash given the recent Congressional Russian sanctions legislation.
What was agreed: Putin announced plans for potentially valuable US-Russia cooperation in Syria in repatriating large numbers of Syrian refugees in border camps in neighbouring countries. If Trump can rein in the Washington war party’s thwarted regime change ambitions, this could really make a difference to Syria. Both leaders spoke of wanting to ensure Israel’s security on the Syrian border. So this could fly, if Israel cooperates.
There were brief but positive references to intended US-Russia arms control and deconfliction talks, to further shared work on denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula, and about intended regular such summit meetings – ‘often’, said Trump. There was agreement in principle to setting up a joint US-Russia bilateral council of top political and business leaders on both sides, to meet regularly. The Nordstream Two gas pipeline which had caused so much acrimony at the NATO summit was discussed civilly, and set aside as an issue.
What was flagged as non-deliverable of progress at this time: The war in Eastern Ukraine – on which Putin put in a plea for settlement according to the Minsk agreement. Crimea – Putin said firmly it was a done deal and would not be discussed further, and Trump was silent.
What was not mentioned in either leader’s statements, from which we can infer was not discussed at all, or quickly set aside: Sanctions and counter-sanctions. Embassy property seizures. The growing role of China in the world (Trump had wanted to discuss this). The Skripal case and Russia’s alleged use of lethal Novichok nerve agent in UK.
To questions on the Mueller indictments, Putin gave robust responses. He said he would give US investigators access in Russia to the 12 indicted Russian intelligence officials, if the US in turn gave Russian investigators similar access to suspected criminals like Bill Browder (it won’t happen). . He urged joint intelligence agency investigations of IT meddling anywhere in the world. He called for a rebuilding of real US and Russian intelligence agency cooperation. All of this seemed well received by a nodding Trump – but won’t happen, given the hostile climate in the US.
A satisfied Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov described the summit as ‘magnificent’ and ‘better than super’. (Source: Nick Miller, The Age). It’s a modest beginning.
Tony Kevin , a former Australian senior diplomat and Emeritus Fellow at ANU, is an independent non-fiction author. His most recent book is ‘Return to Moscow’, a literary travel memoir published by UWA Publishing in 2017. www.uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/return-to-moscow