July 16, 2018
After a confrontational NATO summit in Brussels where the primus inter pares target was Germany and a UK visit which was characterized by some observers as an “assault on diplomatic norms” President Trump met his Russian counterpart in Helsinki. He arrived in the Finnish capital leaving behind a week of controversy while the latter came from a successful World Cup which gave its host Russia added international visibility. At the beginning of the Helsinki meeting President Trump repeated his conviction that good relations between Washington and Moscow are good for both countries and the world.
There has been a lot of criticism directed at this summit meeting since its announcement. For some, this could only be an opportunity for Putin to be seen on equal standing as the US President. A Brooking’s article (*) said the optics of two great powers meeting to decide the fate of the world would in itself be a win from the Russian perspective. Reflecting a similar view, a New York Times article said that when President Putin sat down with President Trump in Helsinki for a meeting he had long wanted, he would already have accomplished virtually everything he could reasonably hope for. In brief, with some exaggeration, President Putin’s expected gains in Helsinki were seen comparable to those of Kim Jong-un’s at the Singapore summit. I find this perception of the US-Russia relationship somewhat difficult to comprehend.
A brief look at the past:
During his first visit to Moscow on 6-8 July 2009 President Obama tried to “reset” relations. Unfortunately for the international community this failed to materialize. Russians probably preferred to wait and see. The Arab Spring led to a new set of confrontations. Snowden affair became an irritant and lead to the cancellation by Washington of an Obama-Putin summit that was to take place during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg on 5-6 September 2013. Yet their brief encounter there led to the 14 September 2013 agreement on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons only to be followed by the crisis in Ukraine. Every time they meet, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov raised hopes of cooperation between Washington and Moscow on international issues, particularly Syria. They referred to their countries’ ability to “make a difference”, “make things happen”. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. The JCPOA perhaps was the exception. No doubt, all P5+1 countries had their own national interest perspective of the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of the sanctions. Nonetheless, what was equally if not more important was the fact that they were united in their endeavor to prevent nuclear proliferation. Then, with the election of President Trump came the Russia probe and related problems, sanctions, Western allies’ expulsion of scores of Russian diplomats over the Salisbury attack and finally, last Thursday, the indictment of twelve Russian intelligence officers in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign.
The Ukraine conflict remains an important point of discord between Russia and the West. During his joint press conference with PM May, Mr. Trump said, “President Obama failed very badly with Crimea. I don’t think he (Mr. Putin) would have done that if I were President. He took over Crimea, and he actually took it over during the Obama administration, I think you will admit.”
With some hindsight one may say that President Obama cooperated closely with the EU on Libya and Ukraine and both turned out to be disappointments. Had Mr. Trump been leading the US at the time, the outcome would have not been any different.
Looking back at the two centuries-long decline of the Ottoman Empire one can imagine what a shock it must have been to the Russian people to see the Soviet Union disappear in less than two decades. Thus, to a certain extent, one can also appreciate Russia’s difficulty to instantly make peace with the new state of affairs with a good number of former Soviet Republics having crossed over to the “other side” in exercising what in the final analysis is their indisputable right under international law. During the years of waning Russian power, the Western countries lectured Moscow on the merits of democracy and free market. In retrospect, they probably could and should have done more to prevent the frustration arising from the loss of the empire. Eventually, a considerable level of mutual economic interdependence was achieved between Russia and the EU countries but political engagement with the West remained stagnant.
In an article published in The New York Times on 13 March 2014, John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago said that few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. And, he explained the background of the Ukraine conflict as follows:
“…The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand. Georgia and Ukraine are not just states in Russia’s neighborhood; they are on its doorstep. Indeed, Russia’s forceful response in its August 2008 war with Georgia was driven in large part by Moscow’s desire to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and integrating into the West…”
At a joint press conference in Sochi on May 12, 2015 with former Secretary of State John Kerry who had just met President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov said, “…Our President firmly emphasized that we are ready for as broad cooperation as possible and as close interaction as possible with the USA based on equal rights and mutual respect of interests and positions of each other…”
It seems, however, that Washington’s accepting Russia as an equal global power will take time. The reality is Russia is already a global power. President Putin no doubt wishes to drive wedges between Western countries and weaken the NATO Alliance. And, in Ukraine and Syria he has shown a capacity to challenge and wrong-foot the West.
Part of today’s problem, however, is also Washington’s lack of internal agreement on a Russia policy. This is largely the result of President Trump’s unpredictability, his confidence in his deal making capacity, his desire to make great deals in no time, the differences between his and the more conventional Russia outlooks of the senior members of his administration and political dysfunction. As a matter of fact, such problems have led to differences with America’s conventional allies as well.
US withdrawal from the JCPOA has unsettled the international community with the exception of Israel and some Gulf states. It has led to questions regarding Washington’s respect for its international commitments. Therefore, not only for progress in US-Russia relations but also on a wide range of international issues the first step has to be Washington’s coming up with a coherent foreign policy. And, someone needs to convince Mr. Trump that world leaders do not blame their predecessors in international fora and doing so only damages their standing. In Helsinki President Putin appeared self-assured and steady whereas Mr. Trump gave the impression of a leader in trouble. This image has to change and the differences between the President and his team have to be dealt with.
With the Iran nuclear deal, the members of the UN Security Council and Germany have proven that they can make a difference when they join forces. Syria, Yemen, Libya conflicts and combating ISIL require similar endeavors with US-Russia cooperation remaining the key. I have tried for long to underline the need for US-Russia cooperation in finding peaceful solutions to problems which top the international agenda, in particular in the Middle East. Ever since the Ukraine conflict became a major obstacle to such cooperation, I have expressed the view that “compartmentalization” of issues could help.
Moscow, as a global power, has already given enough proof of its capacity to challenge others. Now, it is time for Russia to display its capacity as a game changer in achieving political/diplomatic solutions. In spite of its complexities the Syrian conflict still presents Russia with such an opportunity.
This was what President Putin said on Syria at today’s joint press conference: “As far as Syria is concerned, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of the successful joint work Russian and the United States apparently can act correctly and take assumed leadership on this issue and organize interaction to overcome humanitarian crisis and help Syrian refugees to go back to their homes.”
Let’s hope so…
President Putin also said that the two countries as nuclear powers bear special responsibility for maintaining international security; it is crucial that they fine tune global stability and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; work together further, to interact on the disarmament agenda including the extension of strategic offensive arms limitation treaty. He added that the Russian has submitted to the American side a note with a number of specific suggestions on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
At the joint press conference President Trump struck a more positive note. He said that today’s meeting is only the beginning of a longer process, but the two leaders have taken the first steps toward a brighter future and one with a strong dialogue and a lot of thought. He stated that Americans’ expectations are grounded in realism, but their hopes are grounded in their desire for friendship, cooperation, and peace. He added that he thought he could say the same on behalf of Russia as well.
President Trump said the two leaders have also discussed the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism. As the world stayed focused on the NATO summit, the World Cup and the Putin-Trump summit, the death toll in a suicide bombing that targeted an election campaign event in Pakistan rose to 128 last Saturday, the deadliest terror attack in the country this year.