Putin and Trump met at the 25th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam in November 2017 [PPIO]
Russian president Vladimir Putin met his US counterpart Donald Trump with a slight advantage in Helsinki, Finland on Monday.
That would be a World Cup advantage.
Putin was in attendance at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow where in a dramatic finale to what many agree has been the most successful World Cup in years, France defeated Croatia 4 to 2.
In their opening sit-down in front of the press in Helsinki, Trump reiterated his tweet from the previous evening:
An upbeat Trump then told reporters that he and Putin had a lot to talk about, including their mutual friend President Xi Jinping of China.
“We have not been getting along greatly in the past few years,” Trump said.
“Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. The rest of the world wants to see us getting along – we are the two nuclear powers,” he added.
“Great to be with you,” Trump said as he shook Putin’s hand.
But others in Europe may not be as congratulatory, especially following Trump’s heavy-handed tactics with NATO.
Trump has always maintained that NATO allies need to share more of the burden of protecting Europe – this is something many US presidents have addressed in Brussels.
But none with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip machismo.
He wants the allies to stick to the NATO-mandated defense spending ratio at two per cent of national budgets.
Europe’s biggest economy Germany spends less than 1.25 per cent of its budget on defense. Spain spends less than one per cent.
The US spends more than 3.5 per cent of its budget on defense.
Which may explain why Trump has had stern words for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He told her and other European allies that the security situation in Europe could change if they don’t cough up the money.
He strongly criticized Merkel for a gas pipeline deal with Russia saying Germany’s dependence on Russian energy sources was “horrific”, particularly when it would be spending billions on the deal.
“It’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia [where] we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Trump told NATO allies last week.
“We’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France, we’re protecting all of these countries and then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they’re paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia,” he added.
“Germany is controlled by Russia,” he later said, highlighting German dependence on Russian gas.
Europe caved. Budget defense spending will be increased, the allies told Trump. Germany is rushing to boost its defense spending from 1.24 per cent to 1.5 per cent in this quarter alone.
Is this music to Putin’s ears? Probably.
US political pundits are aghast that Trump would throw the Europeans under the bus and appear to threaten nearly 75 years of American-European alliances.
Democrats have lead the demand for Trump to call off his summit with Putin altogether citing the grand jury indictment of 12 Russians believed to be intelligence officers for meddling in the 2016 US elections.
They have no qualms about claiming that Russia handed Trump the election, all of which makes for grand political theater and increased pressure on the American president.
The Russians have been largely quiet while Europe takes a Trump bashing.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov says that Putin understands Trump’s perspective of placing US national interests as the priority.
While Putin expects the same of Trump, the Russians are hedging their bets. The Kremlin announced on Monday that they expected a tough summit.
But there has been extensive saber-rattling in the Western press, with some fear-mongering to the point of comparing the summit to the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 to carve out Europe.
Peskov dismisses such hysteria.
“Russia and the United States have a special responsibility for maintaining strategic stability and security in the world, our two countries specifically,” Peskov told RT.com.
“European countries, should be interested in the normalization of relations between Moscow and Washington.”
A few hours after landing in Helsinki, Trump Tweeted that ties with Russia had never been worse due to years of US “foolishness and stupidity”.
Trump blames the Obama administration for leaving him with the legacy of failed diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crises in Ukraine and Crimea, as well as Syria.
Trump has twice now publicly said he has low expectations of emerging with anything substantial that could be seen as a US diplomatic win at the summit.
Crimea, Syria, Ukraine … what else?
The Americans and Russians have little common ground; they differ on everything to do with resolving the Syrian crisis to Russia’s alleged involvement in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
Russia backs Iran and the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal; Trump has already shredded that deal and called for a new one. He has also rejected appeals from European nations doing business with Iran to be exempt from a slew of new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
“Of course Syria will be discussed by the two presidents,” Peskov told RT.
“We all know what Washington thinks of Iran. But at the same time Iran is a good partner to us in terms of trade, economic cooperation and political dialogue. So this will not be an easy exchange of views,” he admitted.
Russia backs the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also known as the Paris Agreement. Trump walked away from it last year.
With such little agreement, it is a wonder the Helsinki Summit is being held at all.
But negotiations and talks between rivals, or competitors, are never easy. They are meant to find common ground where there is none.
But Putin does not come to the table with the type of domestic pressure facing Trump at the moment.
It’s hard to imagine what will come out of a one-day summit. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely handle the bulk of difficult talks with his counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is as seasoned as they come.
US media, which Trump now calls “the foe”, blamed Trump for already handing Putin a symbolic victory for agreeing to the summit in the first place. (The White House has tried to downplay the term summit and wants the media to refer to the whole affair as a meeting)
Trump’s opponents say that the summit is a validation of Russia’s power status, particularly given Russia’s battered image as hacking US networks, allegedly launching a cyber-war and meddling in the US elections.
In the UK, Russia is accused of being behind the Novichok nerve agent poisoning in the Skripal case and breaching the UK’s sovereignty.
Meet me halfway
Putin and Trump may find some thing to agree on in Syria, where President Bashar Al Assad has emerged victorious with his troops routing the last Islamist radical rebel base of operations in Daraa in the southwest of the country.
It is a symbolic victory for Assad since Daraa is where the Islamist insurrection first began.
The country is in shambles and will require hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild; there are some six million refugees scattered in neighboring countries and in Europe, and the human cost has been a staggering 400,000 dead.
Putin and Trump may agree on opening up humanitarian corridors, providing neighboring countries with help to deal with the refugee crisis, and the grandstanding notion that the Syrian people should determine their one destiny.
But whether Assad could remain in power or not – there’s the rub.
The two presidents may decide to get Russia-US relations back on track, ease the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions to precipitate trust-building and agree on common purpose to fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But with the indictments of Russians in the US gaining media tract, it is difficult to assess how Trump can walk out the summit having gained anything.
Perhaps, Trump can say that this was simply the beginning of a process with Putin and call on his opponents to be patient.
By Firas Al-Atraqchi for The BRICS Post