Trump and Putin at the G20 – Part 1: High Stakes and Low Chances in the New Cold War

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July 12, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by Jafe Arnold – 

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The Handshake that Thawed the New Cold War? 

On July 7th and 8th, Hamburg, Germany hosted the annual G20 meeting featuring the leaders of 20 of the world’s most powerful countries. This central event of the summer was the object of discussion long before it actually kicked off. The single most important event of this G20 that overshadowed all the rest, however, was the first meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Trump himself summated the G20 deliberations as “great.” Alas, this is too basic of an evaluation, especially so since Trump is inclined to overestimate his achievements. The businessman Trump clearly dominates over the diplomat Trump. According to many analysts, the main result of the G20 is the resumption of personal contact between the American and Russian presidents for the first time since the Cold War under the Obama Administration. Let us consider this question in more detail. 

Donald Trump’s first six months as president have not brought any improvement to Russian-American relations. In fact, the state of Russia-US ties has continued to deteriorate and Russia has been habitually blamed (even by some in the new administration!) for interfering in the US presidential elections, aggressive actions against its neighbors (the limitrophe Baltic states and, of course, Ukraine), as well as having a military presence in Donbass. Literally just before the G20 summit, while in Warsaw, Donald Trump acted like a bull in a China shop and spoke of Russia’s “guilt” before Poland for the events between 1939 and 1944. Let us put the objectivity (or not) of such allegations and Trump’s competence in historical questions aside and pay attention to the political incorrectness of such remarks. While supposedly trying to rebuild bilateral relations with Russia following their destruction by the previous administration, it would have been hard to find any better way to sow, or rather reinforce Russians’ distrust. After successfully provoking such, the Russian press was filled with articles blasting Trump’s speech and criticizing Polish political claims against Russia, which are founded on a one-sided and selective reading of events from 70 years ago. 

Taking into account the fact that at least three important foreign policy problems face both superpower #1, the US, and Russia – Syria, North Korea, and the former Ukraine – it is hardly reasonable to spend time blaming modern Russia for real or imaginary Soviet crimes. Just before the summit, disbelief and skepticism prevailed among the patriotic-oriented Russian expert community as to the potential results of the G20 meeting. Were these intuitions correct? If we judge things based on the fragmentary information availble on the course of the summit and its semantic extensions (in particular Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Kiev  and the President’s support for anti-Russian sanctions, etc.), then there are without a doubt sufficient grounds for such distrust. 

However, based on the issues discussed at the bilateral meeting which have since become known to the general public, it has been revealed that Trump is ready to lift the anti-Russian sanctions 2.0 (imposed on Europe by the Americans) and is ready to consider returning to the Russian diplomatic mission its property seized in the US. Of course, reciprocal concessions are expected from Russia. Let us recall that the Russian diplomatic mission in the US’ property was seized by the outgoing Obama Administration in December 2016, in response to which Putin took a symmetric step by inviting American diplomats’ children to the Kremlin’s Christmas tree, a move about which Trump subsequently wrote on his Twitter: “I always knew he was very smart!” 

However, upon becoming the White House boss, Trump did not move to rectify this unjust violation of diplomatic practice. After all, Trump is a a businessman, which means that he expects dollar profits from any step he takes. In my opinion, such “mercantilism” in a politician implies a lack of strategic thinking. And such behavior certainly does not inspire trust on the part of Vladimir Putin. As a result, instead of dollars, Trump is acquiring a different lasting asset: Putin’s distrust, albeit one never explicitly expressed. Overall, only China remains in the winning camp, having demonstrated the sincere nature of its strategic alliance with Russia. The anti-American wing of the Russian elite has therefore acquired additional arguments in its favor.

Meanwhile, another confirmation of distrust and lack of partner-like dialogue with the Trump Administration can be seen in the actions of both sides of the negotiations. On July 11th, the White House approved anti-Russian and anti-Iranian sanctions envisioned in a Senate bill. The Trump Administration was displeased only by a mere few points of the document, namely those which stipulated the president’s authority. On the very same day, Moscow announced plans to kick out around 30 American diplomats and seize US property in Russia. Of course, the Trump Administration’s support for anti-Russian sanctions can, if so desired, be called a compelled step (as the prominent international political expert and Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov has posited), but this view still does not answer the question: Why should Russia indefinitely put up with the US’ unilateral anti-Russian steps? The voiced readiness to send American diplomats home and seize the American diplomatic mission’s property is a compelled symmetric step on Russia’s part which makes it clear that dialogue failed in Hamburg. Vladimir Putin, unlike the impulsive Donald Trump, is a very seasoned politician whose restraint has practically become legendary. However, all in all, Russia has almost exhausted the reserves of its “strategic patience.”

Finding any traces of any agreements (if there were any) between Putin and Trump on the Syrian and North Korean issues is even more difficult. Just what concessions Trump might demand from Russia on these counts are more or less obvious, but what Russia might get in return and, most importantly, whether it can count on agreements being observed, is still up for question.

Russians have a long tradition of frustrated expectations – from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to NATO’s promise to Gorbachev that it would not expand eastward. We can also recall how Putin himself extended his hand to the American people on September 11th, 2001 as the first world leader to express support. He then gave the Americans the green light to go into Afghanistan and establish military bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in addition to a transit base in Ulyanovsk, Russia. Meanwhile, Russia liquidated its last military bases in Vietnam and Cuba, but for what in return? A new Cold War round and American support for Georgian military aggression and the first “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. This was President Putin’s greatest political mistake. But I think that the Russian President now sees no reason to trust Trump any more than Bush.

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Nevertheless, dialogue has been started, and this is probably the main achievement of the summit. The chances of melting the ice in bilateral relations are frankly low, but they are there. 

Continued in Part 2…

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