The latest gossip in Washington, DC, the US capital these days is “Will they or won't they?” I am referring to the possible Trump-Putin summit redo which, originally planned for autumn, was soon postponed for until early next year. There are many conjectures on why the second summit, scheduled to be held in Washington, DC, was shelved. It is well known by now that President Trump likes the trappings of summitry, which also allows him to move fast on resolving international disputes according to his liking. USA has a number of high-priority issues to settle with Russia: Syria, Israel's security, and North Korea. Lower down the list are peace in the Middle East, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Eastern Ukraine. No doubt Trump felt all energised after the first summit with Putin and saw hopes of a breakthrough with Russia on Syria and Crimea. So what happened leading to the postponement of Trump and Putin show, round two?
A number of reasons were mentioned in the press including the November mid-term elections, the Mueller investigations and the uncertainty created by it, and finally, the possibility that Trump heeded the counsel he'd received from his close advisors who wanted some time to prepare him better in light of his poor performance in the first summit with Putin in Helsinki.
There is a general sense, even in the eyes of non-partisan American analysts, that President Trump's first meeting and the subsequent press conference with Putin left much to be desired. He has done nothing since then to mitigate this unease among his critics. As soon as the two leaders came from their two hours of one-on-one meeting, and then protracted lunch, it was clear that Putin and Trump had agreed on only one thing: Russia did not interfere in the US elections. Immediately, we saw that US intelligence and media were livid about Trump's apparent lack of trust in the findings of his own intelligence officials on Russian hacking.
Subsequently, both Democrats and Republicans were taken aback by his denial of Russian involvement in the US Presidential Election of 2016 and the fashion in which he undermined his own intelligence community by openly displaying his trust in Putin's words. A few of his most loyal supporters were further baffled when Trump, rather than trying to calm down the furore, came out charging and instructed his national security advisor John Bolton to extend an invitation to Putin to come to Washington for a second round of talks in the heels of the Helsinki meeting. It now appears that the anti-Trump and anti-Putin forces joined hands in the US capital and prevailed over the White House. Within a week the second round of Trump Putin show was shelved.
When the Helsinki summit was announced, a section of the US establishment known as “deep state” immediately sounded an alarm and worried what might happen should Trump and Putin reach agreement on outstanding issues without consulting them. And, when it emerged that Trump would meet with Putin in Helsinki one on one, privately, without the presence of any aides, a major segment of the bureaucracy as well as the media felt left out. Democrats and even some Republicans beseeched Trump not to meet privately with the Russian leader. CNN cautioned, “Without official note-takers or other witnesses, one-on-one meetings lack any official record, making it difficult afterward to determine whether agreements have been reached.”
In the US, like any other country, the bureaucrats don't like to be left out of key policy decisions. For example, when President Trump, at the end of his meeting with Kim Jung-Un, announced that he had agreed to a key request from North Korea, i.e. to suspend joint US-South Korea military exercises, some newspapers reported that the Pentagon was unaware of this decision. Such policy decisions at the top level undoubtedly create headaches for the military brass which prepares for months on end for these military exercises and considers cancellation of these joint drills disruptive and harmful for troop morale. In the end, however, the Trump-Kim deal turned out to be a win-win for both parties. DPRK reciprocated by dismantling some of their missile launching infrastructure and returning US military MIA dead bodies from the Korean War era.
To silence these detractors who worried about another secret deal, Trump tweeted on July 19: “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more.”
This only added fuel to the fire of the disbelievers, and immediately, the rumour mill started to go on overdrive. What did they agree on? There were rampant gossips regarding whether Russia and US agreed to work together on North Korea and Israeli security. Congress jumped in and Democrats wanted a subpoena issued for the notes of a state department translator who accompanied Trump to his meeting with Putin. But, Republicans control the Congress, and rejected a proposal by Representative Adam Schiff of California to this effect.
There is not an iota of doubt that Putin and Trump have a strong mutual interest in taking their newfound friendship to the next level. But the prospect of further sanctions is also a thorn in the side of improved relations between these two countries. Russia conveyed to the US repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that it is tired of empty US promises of better relations in the future, and signalled that any further sanctions would be considered a “declaration of war”. “We must absolutely respond to this war; by economic means, political means and if necessary by other means,” said Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Fortunately for Trump, as he was constantly being disparaged in the press for his unwillingness to confront Putin on election interference, Putin stood up for him. “One of President Trump's big pluses is that he strives to fulfil the promises he made to voters, to the American people,” Putin told a press conference at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on July 27. “As a rule, after the elections some leaders tend to forget what they promised the people but not Trump.”
It thus appears that regardless of what happens at the official level, Trump and Putin are using their personal charm on each other. Trump's lawyer Giuliani publicly declared that “Collusion is not a crime” alluding to the issue of alleged collusion between Russian agents and Trump's election team, but Trump turned it around and declared that collusion with Russia is good if it serves US strategic interests. Many in the US suspect this may be “an indication that Trump is going to use his newfound cooperation with Russia to further support Israel in its ambition to force Iran out of Syria, and may even be a prelude to a much more aggressive approach to the country (Iran) going into the future.”
So come what may, given their newly discovered “bromance” and penchant for the summitry, there are indications from both Moscow and Washington that Trump and Putin may just meet on the side-lines of the G20 in Argentina on November 30 and December 1. If that does happen, to go from there to another summit is but a small step forward. We saw last May that after the Kim-Trump summit was called off, the decision was reversed in no time. Is Trump going to do so again this time? You bet!! Each leader has something for the other in his own “goodies” bag. Putin wants sanctions lifted while Trump aspires to leverage Russia's expanding influence in the Middle East.
Abdullah Shibli is an economist, and Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA. His new book Economic Crosscurrents will be published later this year.