Vladimir Putin emerged the clear winner at the end of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. Surprisingly, it was Donald Trump who had pushed for the summit and had directed his staff to move ahead on this from the time he assumed the chair. It appeared as if he was rushing to fulfil his election promises, without realising that he would be facing a seasoned leader.
Putin came to the summit at the end of the FIFA World Cup, an event which boosted the standing and image of his country. It was also an event attended by many world leaders. Putin has been in power for 18 years and Trump for 18 months. Putin has complete control over his country and has ensured that no detractor is free. He has dominated the world scene in recent times, pushed the US into a defensive position in Syria and has close relations with all of the US’ enemies.
Trump on the other hand has been facing flak internally and around the world for his multiple policy failures in recent times, whether it be his behaviour in NATO, G7, the United Kingdom or even the possibly unsuccessful summit in North Korea. Clearly, Putin had the advantage.
Trump, who was expected to raise multiple issues which concerned the US, did nothing, only angering his colleagues, detractors and intelligence agencies. His comments at the joint press conference ended with him accusing his own agencies while supporting Putin’s comments on non-interference. A few days before the summit he had criticised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for buying Russian gas, claiming Germany was captive to Russia for supporting a gas pipeline deal with Russia.
Back home from the summit, he continues to face flak. In his opinion, closer relations with Russia are more important than satisfying his detractors. What gave him further boost was Putin’s statement that Russia was desirous of Trump winning the election as all through his campaign he had stated that he sought closer ties with Russia.
In his last days as President, Barack Obama had acted against Russia for meddling in the US elections. Putin initially did not retaliate, as he expected things to change after the arrival of Trump. However, under pressure from Congress, Trump was prevented from changing stance and compelled into signing CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). He was also compelled to stand by the UK in the poisoning case, and expel Russian diplomats as also close their consulate in Seattle.
Russia reacted and expelled similar numbers of US diplomats, while closing their consulate too. No doubt relations between the world’s largest and second largest nuclear powers were at an ebb.
Worsening of relations was blamed by Trump on Obama, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Robert Mueller, who has been tasked with investigating Russian interference in the US presidential election. The fact that 12 Russians were indicted almost on the day of the summit was ignored. Clearly, Trump accepted the word of Putin who claimed that Russia did nothing except hope that Trump would win.
It does appear that there was either no discussion or any consensus on resolving Syria, the annexation of Crimea, interference in Ukraine and the poisoning in the UK. It is also evident that despite suggestions, Trump did not raise any human rights abuses in Russia. This has largely angered the US political and strategic community which felt that this summit was a sell-out by Trump. Thus, Trump only played into Putin’s hands, rather than dominate the discussion from the US perspective as he was expected to do.
Putin added spokes to the US investigation by announcing that Mueller could either send a questionnaire to Russian agencies, who would obtain answers from those indicted or question them in Russia in the presence of Russian agents. This offer was based on an earlier agreement between the two nations. Either option is a loss to the US. Sending a questionnaire would elicit replies which would stall the investigation for eternity. Questioning in Russia would open doors to Russian agents seeking to question their presumed spies in the US.
In one move, Putin has stalled any further move by the US on the investigation. Trump on the other hand, unaware of the implications, jumped at the offer by Putin, claiming it to be ‘spectacular’. However, anger against Russia continues to grow within agencies in the US. The FBI and Mueller stand firm in their belief that there was clear Russian interference.
Even within his own circle of officials, his sell-out was almost a sign of self-destruction. After the press conference, White House officials failed to even garner any answers to multiple questions being raised by local media seeking clarifications on Trump’s comments.
Trump may have promised Russia a smoothening of relations but would not be able to implement it. As Putin stated when he presented a football to Trump, ‘The ball is now in your court’. It is there, but Trump can do little. Congress would continue to stop Trump from opening US doors to Russia. Sanctions on Iran, a close Russian ally would continue, impacting even Russian companies dealing with Iran. Trump would continue supporting Ukraine against Russia. CAATSA would remain as Trump does not have the power to lift it. He would remain critical of Germany for choosing Russian gas against US supplies.
The investigation would now receive even greater internal support, though it can never come to a definitive conclusion, as Putin has effectively blocked it.
India which was seeking a positive outcome as it seeks to reignite its ties with Russia and bypass CAATSA while procuring its S400 Missiles from Russia would be disappointed. The chances of Congress giving a waiver to India now appear dim, considering the US perception of failure of the summit. For once Trump was trumped by the more wily and experienced Putin. His desire for a second face-saving summit would remain a dream for some time.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.