President Donald Trump of the USA and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki, the capital of Finland on July 16. This was the first summit between the heads of state of the two superpowers since July 2010 when President Obama met Russia's Medvedev in Washington. As soon as the White House announced the Trump-Putin summit on June 27, the American President had been endlessly cautioned by all sorts of political pundits, both on the left as well as the right, to take a cautious approach to President Putin, or even cancel the meeting. And the chorus against the summit got stronger after July 13 when the US Department of Justice announced that 12 Russian intelligence officials were indicted for their role in interfering with the US presidential elections in 2016.
But this only made Trump even more determined to keep his promise to get together with Putin. Whether the outcome of this historic meeting was worth the risk for Donald Trump will be debated in the coming months, but for disinterested onlookers like myself, two major issues were clarified: Donald Trump does not believe that Russian intelligence officers played any role in his election victory, and President Putin does not trust Donald Trump even though he publicly admitted at the press conference after the summit that he had favoured Trump over Clinton. When asked if he wanted Trump to win, Putin said without any hesitation, “Yes, I wanted him to win because he talked about normalising Russian-American relations.” One could speculate whether future historians might be tempted to say, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the “best of times” for US-Russian relationship, or the worst of times!
The anti-Putin camp in the US and EU had some serious misgivings about President Trump meeting with the Russian strongman for many reasons which stretch from Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia's interference in eastern Ukraine and Syria, and all the misdeeds during the US presidential elections that have been attributed to Russian intelligence. Russia is still considered a pariah in the international community and some very strong economic sanctions against it are still in place. But, Trump apparently saw no harm in reaching out to Putin with whom he shares many common traits. Most importantly they had common election slogans of making their respective countries great again.
However, Putin's “Make Russia Great Again” movement has sputtered and stalled in recent years, thanks to some misguided policies in Ukraine and the Middle East, but with the election of Trump in 2016, the tide is turning in Russia's favour. In recent months, the rise in the price of crude oil (Russia's principal export), Trump's open support for Russia at the G7 conference in Charlevoix, Canada in June, and most recently the call by Italy (an EU member) to end the sanctions against Russia, have signalled to Putin that better times are yet to come.
In the aftermath of the Helsinki summit, the Western press has almost unanimously declared Putin as the victor even though more reasoned elements in diplomatic circles have lauded the two leaders for reducing tensions between these superpowers which could only benefit the rest of the world. As expected, some of the harshest criticisms of Trump and his performance at the summit have come from members of his own party including Sen John McCain, who pulled no punches when he said, "The damage inflicted by President Trump's naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake." Others have accused him of committing treason after he publicly disavowed special counsel Mueller's findings regarding the role of Russia in US elections.
I will concede though that President Trump, ironically might be sowing the seeds of his own downfall by his whimsical style, inconsistencies, and disregard for norms of presidential behaviour. During this trip, which started with the NATO summit in Brussels, he criticised the US allies for not sharing the burden of the NATO defence budget. He then criticised Germany for not spending enough on defence and building the Nord Stream II pipeline to Russia. According to him, Germany is "totally controlled by Russia because it gets 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia." These figures have been contested by many, but this rebuke sounded hollow in view of the camaraderie displayed by the two leaders only a few days later in Helsinki.
The press conference after the summit provided some hilarious moments too. Trump was asked by an American journalist who he believed—US intelligence or Putin—regarding the Russian interference in US elections. “I have President Putin, he just said to me, it's not Russia ... I will say this, I don't see any reason why it would be,” he said.
President Putin was then asked the same question, and his response provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of global summitry. When he was asked why he should be trusted, he responded by saying no one should be trusted, suggesting that he didn't trust Trump.
“As to who is to be believed and who is not to be, you can trust no one,” he said. “Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him?”
What is the final takeaway from the historic summit? It is too early to predict but by my estimation, many preconceived notions about the two leaders, who lived up to their reputation, completely threw the rest of us in disarray. Three of the major hypotheses leading up to the summit still remain just speculations. These are:
Hypothesis 1: Putin is very wily and Trump is naïve. Putin will extract some concessions from Trump, possibly withdrawal of sanctions or complete control over Syria, without any quid pro quo.
Hypothesis 2: No records are kept. Some media commentators had expressed their belief that Putin does understand English, and will make a fool of Trump.
Hypothesis 3: Putin has more than a decade of experience in statecraft, and will be able to draw on his experience and knowledge to outmanoeuvre Trump, who has only business experience but no understanding of world politics.
In defence of President Trump, I will add that he is a seasoned businessman who has survived many financial setbacks, three marriages, countless affairs, bankruptcies, and raised a family from three wives. Anyone who has seen his performance on his reality TV show, “The Apprentice”, will have no doubt that Trump is no fool and can handle any Russian leader, regardless of his background.
It is understandable that Trump does not trust his own intelligence chiefs, but Putin, the former KGB leader, trusts “no one”, as he said! Well, luckily, the world will not come to an end as long as these two leaders continue talking to each other.
Dr 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.