By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
The press conference following the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin summit in Helsinki was easily the most unusual one any US president has given since World War II. After a tour of Europe, where Trump met NATO leaders in Brussels, British Prime Minister Theresa May and the Queen in the UK, and then Russian President Putin in Helsinki, we can safely say that the Western world and its alliances will never be the same again.
Trump had lambasted NATO leaders for not paying their promised 2 percent of GDP on defense. He had a point there. He went on to pillory German Chancellor Angela Merkel for importing gas from nearby Russia rather than US liquefied natural gas, which did not make sense as the US does not yet have the export capacity needed to satisfy the huge Western European demand. While in Brussels, he also gave an ill-fated interview to The Sun newspaper, heavily criticizing May’s Brexit plans. He stopped short of endorsing former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as better suited to the office of PM than May. As if all of this was not cringeworthy enough, it was topped off by the press conference he gave together with Putin after a two-hour, one-on-one meeting (with interpreters) and a working lunch meeting together with their delegations.
The run-up to the meeting was somewhat amusing and proved that “boys will be boys.” The one-upmanship was nothing short of cute: Putin arrived late in Helsinki, but Trump would have none of that and waited until Putin had arrived at the Presidential Palace (the meeting venue) before he set off, ensuring that the Russian president had to wait too. Putin also brought his new car along: A Russian-made presidential limousine, which is a smidgeon bigger than “The Beast” (the nickname for the limousine of US commanders-in-chief). This is where the amusing part of this summit ended.
In his defense, Trump did get a few things right. It is always better to engage with adversaries than to refuse to talk. In that sense, it was right for the US president to engage with a nation that has been at the center of much controversy and animosity. Trump is also right when he points out that the US and Russia are the two dominant nuclear powers and that their arsenals dwarf those of any other nuclear power.
Russia is a significant country and too many Western leaders have belittled its importance. Despite only ranking 12th in the world in terms of GDP, Russia is a nation with a centuries-old tradition and sphere of influence, which long precedes the Soviet Union. The country also has a landmass that stretches over 11 time zones and boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves and the eighth-largest reserves of oil.
That is where the sympathy with Putin ends. It would have been important to discuss START (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which is due to expire in 2021. Russia was also accused by the US of violating the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty when Putin announced his “unstoppable missiles” during a big national address earlier this year. There were other issues to discuss, including Syria, Ukraine and Crimea. There were the 12 indictments handed down by the Mueller investigation to Russian operatives for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Given where Russia currently stands in the hierarchy of nations, it was already going to be a huge win for Putin to score a meeting with the US president. Trump could have easily left it at that and pressed a lot harder on the above mentioned issues, especially disarmament, Syria and election meddling.
Instead, Trump gave the shop away, emphasizing he believed Putin’s statements that Russia did not meddle in the US election. In other words, the US president believed the head of a rival nation over and above his own intelligence apparatus. Trump stood there and listened to Putin musing about supporting US investigations by sending his own investigators to jointly establish what happened. It would be interesting to know how Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton felt at that point — they are known for their hawkish positions as far as Russia is concerned.
Putin’s elaborations on Syria were outright heartbreaking. He assured that Russia and the US should work together to end human suffering, ignoring that it was Russia that propped up Bashar Assad’s regime and supported its violations of human rights. Of the four safe zones that were agreed on last year, two have been obliterated, one is currently shelled and starved, and the fourth is probably awaiting a similar fate — all of this with the tacit approval, if not support, of Russia.
On disarmament, Putin was far more specific than Trump when he cited what could be done under the various agreements.
Putin was quite blatant when he asserted there were many methods of potential economic cooperation, saying that more than 500 US business leaders had attended the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum earlier this summer. It was as though the Russian president had never heard about the Western sanctions. The reason for the sanctions — Ukraine and Crimea — were not mentioned at all.
After lambasting his allies and even putting the EU on top of a list of foes, Trump gave in to Putin. The latter is a former KGB agent and a skilled operator. He is also a patriot with a steely determination to score all the points he can in favor of Russia: That is his job. One could also argue that it is Trump’s job to secure all the advantages for the US he can on behalf of his allies. He seemed uninterested in that. He has a personal preference for autocrats over multilateral agreements and old established Western alliances. If the US president is not careful, he risks serving his allies on a silver plate to Russia and, as far as trade is concerned, to China.
A word of warning to all those who believe in democracy, a liberal world order, free trade, multilateral alliances and agreements: Fasten your seat belts, the ride is about to get very bumpy.
*Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources