President Donald Trump’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin has sparked anger, embarrassment and shame in the United States. But there are two key aspects of the summit that are being overlooked. They are that, first, anybody who was surprised by Trump’s willingness to accommodate President Putin has simply not been paying attention; and second, that it could all have been so much worse. In fact, both the United States and its European allies may have got off lightly.
Trump’s reluctance to recognize Russia as an adversary that means harm to the US was already well demonstrated before the summit, as was his unwillingness to address Russia’s aggressive behaviour against the US and its friends and partners in Europe and beyond. But an unsupervised face-to-face meeting with Putin, with no opportunities for other US officials to influence decisions, held the danger of far more damaging outcomes than the further discrediting of Trump himself.
At a previous summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump had already demonstrated his willingness to make sudden unilateral concessions that compromise the security of his allies. For Kim, Trump suspended military exercises on the Korean peninsula without consulting or even notifying South Korea – a move which has obvious and profound consequences for military readiness there.
There was a significant danger that left to his own devices, he might have been persuaded by President Putin to do the same in the Baltic states and Poland, which would have provoked an immediate crisis between the United States and its NATO allies. And ahead of the Putin summit, Trump had even expressed concern over the cost of maintaining a US military presence in Germany.
Given Trump’s impulsive behaviour, and an argument from Putin that this presence is threatening and destabilizing, a sudden commitment to reduce it or remove it altogether would not have been completely impossible. And yet, unless Trump made agreements or promises to Putin that neither side has so far disclosed, the danger of Trump impetuously pulling the US rug from under European security has – for now – passed.
This was supposed to be a meeting without an agenda. But President Putin’s comments made it clear not only that Russia had a specific agenda, but that he considered certain points on it to have been agreed with Trump.
One such point was a ‘high-level group’ of leading Russian and American businessmen to discuss further cooperation. According to Putin, this idea has been endorsed by Trump, although it is entirely unclear how this can be squared with current US sanctions against Russia.
Overall, President Putin noted the ‘shared desire of President Trump and myself to correct the negative situation in bilateral relations’. This much is true: Donald Trump has made it plain often enough that he wishes to improve relations with Russia and to disregard all of the many points of contention between the two countries, not limited to Russia’s role in his being elected president.
However, Trump was so fixated during the press conference on domestic US politics and his own personal obsession with his election win that there was no mention either of Putin’s points or of any of the more significant security issues that could have been on the table.
Repeating countless times that there had been ‘no collusion’ – even when that was not the question he had been asked – Trump focused on endorsing President Putin’s denial of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. He also suggested a moral equivalence between Russia and the United States, and said that the US was just as much to blame for current poor relations as Russia. That in itself constitutes a major moral victory for President Putin, but it is by far not the worst possible outcome of a personal meeting between the two.
But Trump’s praise of Putin also endorsed other items on the Russian agenda that should not have been left unchallenged. Putin’s opening remarks placed the blame for the conflict in Ukraine on Ukraine itself, and asked the US to exert more leverage on Kyiv.
And in his responses to questions, he offered a quid pro quo between US investigators gaining access to Russian military intelligence officers indicted for interference in the 2016 US election and Russia gaining access to businessman and anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder. This latter suggestion was hailed by Trump as ‘an incredible offer’, showing either a complete disregard for the implications or a complete failure to understand them.
‘We will be meeting again’
There is no doubt that President Putin will have learned from his opportunity to observe Donald Trump at close hand. But this is unlikely to lead to any major change in how he approaches either Trump personally or the relationship with the United States overall. It was plain from the press conference that President Putin has no need to be concerned about Trump as an adversary. Not only did Trump side with Putin against his own government, but he also entirely failed to address any of the other serious issues and disagreements between the two states. This shows that Russia’s approach to handling Trump is on target.
Putin’s only challenge is assisting Trump in making sure his wishes prevail over the rest of his administration and the United States government, which instead of pandering to Putin recognizes the very real challenge that Moscow poses. In the meantime, Trump has promised to meet Putin again, ‘often’ – and each one of these meetings holds a potential crisis for the security of the United States and Europe.