TONY KEVIN. Trump-Putin Summit 16 July: an assessment

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.




John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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5 Responses to TONY KEVIN. Trump-Putin Summit 16 July: an assessment

  1. Ian Buckley says:

    Concerning lack of demonstrable evidence, Tony Kevin, Stephen Cohen, Joseph Camilleri, Seymour Hersh, et al., make a strong case for extreme caution regarding the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, a major factor influencing many Americans and others’ acceptance of today’s US hostility. Given the current international IT interference by all nations, the matter requires close forensic study. On this, readers may get much help from Ray McGovern, former CIA Intelligence Analyst for 27 years who throws considerable light on that and related political cum military-industrial activities and their dangerously precarious outcomes. See,

  2. Tony Kevin says:

    Thanks for these comments and the two on Richard Butler’s good essay . The US is indeed ‘tearing itself to pieces’ over the issue of what Trump meant to say to Putin about alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. I tweeted the hashtag #trumpputin , and was appalled at the sheer volumes and levels of harsh , often hysterical , vituperation against Trump. American judgementalism and punitiveness is richly on display here. I hope most Europeans and Australians may be more compassionate and forgiving of error in an old man who mixes up his words and is loose with expressing different kinds of truth. We know Putin is much better educated, smarter, and clearer-headed. Gorbachev was better educated, smarter and clearer-headed than Reagan too, but together they ended the Cold War.

    So many Americans in the liberal, educated elite seem not to want to end the new Cold War with Russia. They would rather go on spending America’s limited and shrinking resources on futile warmongering , than on addressing Ameruca’s pressing social and infrastructure needs. They have lost sight of what government is there for. This is why Trump , despite all the Democrat-led hate campaigns , will win the next election – because the Democrats offer nothing to the ordinary people, and the ordinary people have stopped listening to them. This is a party of elites now . Ocasio is different but it will take her more than 2 years to build her power base.

    America needs a social revolution. All the whipped-up hysteria about Russia is designed to take people’s minds off that incontestable fact: that this is a failing country, which urgently needs to take a good hard look at its priorities.

    As to US – Russia detente – I predict it will build, because it is necessary and logical, but very slowly after this shaky start in Helsinki . In arms control and on Syria refugee repatriation, I predict – and I hope – that some good things will gradually start to happen. Of course there will be many – the names Browder and McFaul are prominent examples – who will do their best to throw spokes in the wheels.

  3. Anthony Pun says:

    Richard Butler (Trump/Putin: Finnish Rhapsody in JM) describes Trump’s EU/UK visit as the Five Days of Diplomatic Carnage” and compared the outcome of Trump-Putin summit as Trump’s habit of misrepresenting reality.

    US domestic critics seem to be sure that Trump has been comprised and Putin must have one over him. An ex-CIA employee has used the word “treason” in his comment on Trump.

    However, there may be logic in all these madness, and one is provided by Tony Kevin (Trump-Putin Summit in JM) who suggested that the objective in securing a warm US-Russia relations will prevent another Cold War front and extinguish sparks that could ignite a nuclear holocaust. A global peace initiative is a good thing despite its unorthodox approach.

    Furthermore, one can speculated the existence of another strategy that is currently played out ie. The containment of China is the main game for the US as she does not like to be challenged economically or militarily as No. 1 in the world. To do so effectively would require an effort to dislodge DPRK and Russia from China in the North Pacific, and alignment with Quad in the West of Pacific, with Australia and Asean countries in the South Pacific and Guam in the East Pacific.

    All these events, viz. concessions, pragmatism and friendliness shown in the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore and the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit; together with Washington leaning on India, Singapore, Vietnam and Australia are consistent with the current US strategy.

    In defence and countering the containment, China moves closer to Russia and DPRK, softens her anti-wartime grievance with Japan, extend a friendly hand to PM Modi (India) & Pakistan, and extending her BRI to the from the Silk Road to Europe (North & West), and to South East Asia and the Pacific.

    The Global Chess Game continues.

  4. Lawry Herron says:

    Thanks, Tony. This is substantive and substantial and shows up the shallowness of the syndicated press reports.

  5. Andrew Glikson says:

    It would appear many are more worried by peace talks between the US and Russia than by a nuclear WWIII?

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